Bunga-Bunga Nation: Berlusconi's Italy Hurts Women

Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi with world champion Italian swimmer Federica Pellegrini. Andreas Solaro / AFP-Getty Images

It's 8:30 p.m., and all eyes turn to Italy's most popular satirical news program, Striscia la Notizia (Strip the News). Two middle-aged men stand under a strobe light, one of them holding a belt from which dangles a vaguely phallic string of garlic. A woman slides across the floor on her stomach, wearing a sequined costume with a thong bottom and a deep-V neckline that plunges below her navel. As she stands up, one of the men dangles the garlic in front of her open mouth. She takes it in her hands and rubs it across the side of her face. "Go, turn around, let's give you a little look," the other man says, and touches the model's derrière. "Thank you, doll."

That's how prime time is in Italy. The parade of prurience is inescapable, an expression of the rot that's now manifest at the very top of the Italian government, a reflection of the society's deeper problem with the evolving role of women. While headlines tell an endless tale of teenage models, paid escorts, and Moroccan belly dancers cavorting with 74-year-old Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, the media make it clear that men are men, and women are window dressing. Boycotts, protests, and even complaints are rare, and when they're voiced, few listen. So while Berlusconi may well be acting like a dirty old man these days, it has to be said that a goodly number of Italian women have been willing to play his demeaning games for a long time.

He might have planned things this way. Long before Berlusconi won his first stint as prime minister in the 1990s, the scandal-ridden media mogul owned 45 percent of Italy's television market. He gained control of state television—another 50 percent—as head of government. With 95 percent of the TV market now under Berlusconi's umbrella, his cumulative influence on the way Italian women are seen and see themselves is hard to overstate. So are the negative results for Italy: while other European lands actively promote gender equality as a builder of national prosperity, Berlusconi has led the charge in the opposite direction, effectively stifling women by creating a world in which they are seen first and foremost as sex objects instead of professional equals.

An appalling portrait of Berlusconi's Italy emerges from the World Economic Forum's October 2010 Global Gender Gap Report. The WEF looks at such issues as wage parity, labor-force participation, and career-advancement opportunities for women, arguing that closing the gender gap Europe-wide could boost the euro zone's GDP as much as 13 percent. But as things stand now, Italy would be left leering on the sidelines. In every category but education, Italy lags badly: in labor participation, 87th place worldwide; wage parity, 121st; opportunity for women to take leadership positions, 97th. In the report's overall ranking, Italy now places 74th in the world for its treatment of women—behind Colombia, Peru, and Vietnam, and seven places lower than it did when Berlusconi returned to office in 2008. "Italy continues to be one of the lowest-ranking countries in the EU and deteriorate[d] further over the last year," the report says.

An entire generation has grown up in a society where demeaning soft-core porn is an acceptable addition to the daily news. It's been 23 years since Berlusconi's Canale 5 introduced Striscia la Notizia, with its voluptuous women known as veline—literally "scraps of paper"—parading through the segments. Today, showgirls don't only appear on every channel; some are even in government, appointed by Berlusconi. Polls show that more young Italian women want to be well-paid TV veline than doctors, lawyers, or business owners.

Others are convinced there's nothing they can do about gender discrimination. Berlusconi's harem culture sends a signal that seduction counts more than an impressive CV. "Our only form of protest is changing the channel," says Concetta di Somma, a 30-year-old aerobics instructor. "But when even the weather girl is showing her cleavage, if you protest with the clicker, you miss the news." Underrepresented in government and corporate life, women have little hope of changing the system from within. "It's a male-dominated society from the church on down," says Marina, a 57-year-old jewelry-store owner who asked not to use her last name for fear of hurting her business. "Women look like whores in advertising and on TV because that's what men want to see. Men make the advertising, make more money, and thus drive how the products are displayed."

Documentary filmmaker Lorella Zanardo recalls meeting with a top bank manager in Milan recently. On his desk in clear view was a calendar with each month represented by a bikini-clad babe. A magazine with a seminude woman sprawled on the cover was displayed on his coffee table. "This is a man who has to decide how many women will be in decision-making positions in his company," she says. "How does he separate these subliminal messages from reality when he makes these decisions?"

Any recent steps toward gender equality have come only as a result of international pressure. Moves to fill the country's public-administration offices and boardrooms with women were either drawn up during the previous, short-lived, center-left administration or forced into place by European Union corporate-governance codes. Measures to stop discrimination, especially against women of reproductive age, are largely ignored because there's simply no one to enforce them. Berlusconi "has weakened institutions aimed at addressing women's issues by narrowing mandates and decreasing budgets, and also by appointing women who are often inexperienced and have few ties to existing women's-rights organizations," says Celeste Montoya, an associate professor of women and gender studies at the University of Colorado who has written extensively about Italy.

The Berlusconi government has focused its women's-rights efforts primarily on the country's rising reports of domestic violence. But even there Berlusconi seems to miss the point: last year he apologized for not being able to combat growing rape numbers by explaining, "We don't have enough soldiers to stop rape because our women are so beautiful."

The cumulative impact of all this has made the workplace an unwelcoming if not downright hostile environment for women with even moderately serious ambitions. Only 45 percent of all Italian women work outside the home, the lowest rate in the European Union, and that rate has been stagnant for the past five years. By comparison, 80 percent of Norwegian women and 72 percent of British women work outside the home. When Italian women do have jobs, they earn on average 20 percent less than men, and they hold only 7 percent of Italy's corporate-management positions, versus an average of 33 percent in Scandinavian countries.

Italian women with jobs outside the home still spend more time on housework (21 hours a week) than any of their European counterparts except the Poles and Slovenes. (American women spend just four hours a week on housework.) And Italian men aren't much help. "To understand an Italian woman, you have to understand Italian men," says Maria Silvia Viti, 59, a retired teacher who raised her daughter as a single parent. "We do not have the same partnerships and division of domestic labor as women in other countries seem to achieve."

An Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development survey calculated that Italian men have 80 minutes more leisure time per day than their female counterparts, more than males from any other OECD country. (In Norway, men have just three minutes more leisure time a day than women.) A recent report by the Italian Association of Househusbands (a rather small group) found that 70 percent of Italian men have never used a stove, and 95 percent have never run a washing machine.

Italian women do have a generous state-mandated maternity leave—six months, with the guarantee of a job for up to a year after the birth—much like their European counterparts, but that hasn't exactly empowered them. Even though the law forbids it, employers don't hesitate to ask job candidates if they have any intention of starting a family, and many small to midsize companies shun women of childbearing age, rather than risk having to keep a job open so long. For the minority who do work and also have children, finding adequate day care is such a challenge that more than half of all working women rely on grandmothers as the primary caregivers.

In Italy more than most other countries in Europe, there's still a stigma attached to being a working mother. In rural areas especially, a working mom sending the kids off to a day-care center—if there is one—is frowned upon and seen as negligent. "Many traditional Italians feel that mothers are the best caregivers for young children," explains University of Turin economist Daniela Del Boca, and that may translate into a situation where they are the only caregivers. Even when the father is unemployed, the working mother often ends up bearing the entire burden of child rearing.

Ironically, despite this idealization of the Italian mother, Italy's birthrate is the lowest in Europe, at 1.3 children. Women who must work feel they have to choose between the job and children. "If we want a career, we cannot easily manage it with more than one child," says Viti, the retired schoolteacher. The low birthrate is a huge problem for an aging country where 15 percent of the GDP already goes to paying the pensions enjoyed by a staggering 22 percent of the population. Making it easier for mothers to work could make the difference between a viable economy and an inexorable decline in the quality of life for all Italians. The WEF report suggests that if even several hundred thousand of the country's 6 million women were to enter the workforce, it could boost the nation's GDP by 1 percent.

But for Berlusconi the idea of an educated female workforce seems to be more of a joke than the key to economic progress. He appointed an ex-showgirl, Mara Carfagna, to be Italy's minister of equal opportunity. Her topless-photo calendars still hang in the back halls of the Italian Parliament. Although she makes speeches promoting "equal rights and equal dignity" for women, Berlusconi himself is unapologetic on the topic. At a recent rally he said there was one way for women to ensure their future happiness and financial security: "Look for a wealthy boyfriend," he told a shocked crowd. "This suggestion is not unrealistic."

A year ago, more than 100,000 women signed a petition titled "Berlusconi Offends Us." He laughed it off, asking, "How can anyone say I don't love women?" While some in the Catholic press have at last condemned Berlusconi's escapades, calling him "ill," such criticism is not tolerated in the vast swaths of media interests that the prime minister controls. When the soon-to-be ex–Mrs. Berlusconi, Veronica Lario, publicly protested her husband's behavior, the response was swift. Several right-wing newspaper headlines called her an "ungrateful showgirl," and splashed topless pictures of her from her former career on their front pages. (Yes, the nation's first lady was also a topless actress.)

It's clear that Berlusconi's ouster—were it to happen—would weaken the toxic link between politics, the media, and gender discrimination. "His departure would send a relevant message," says Del Boca. But it will take Italians of both genders to reprogram their way of thinking if any real progress is going to be made. And just changing the channel won't be enough.