hen I first came to Italy I worked for a large new chain school that had its headquarters in Spain. The school was hip and modern and offered a computerized interactive approach that sometimes felt like a fast food business plan applied to learning English. But in today’s business world teachers are not pedagogical professionals teaching people a new language. They are service providers delivering a product to clients. As most students soon discovered after signing on with the school, computers are not a magical answer to learning English. Many students openly expressed their preference for a real live breathing teacher, complete with idiosyncrasies and faults, over a glowing box with video clips and exercises.
One morning, after about a year of working at this Mc’ school, we received notice that from that point on all male teachers would be required to wear a shirt and tie in order to better reflect the professional approach and attitude of the program. I found this curious, since men represented less than 10 percent of the teaching staff. I was also a little irritated since I had already invested in a pile of black turtle neck sweaters for work. A dress shirt and tie is not the most practical thing to wear when you are packed into a small glass box classroom with seven students and you, the teacher, are responsible for keeping the energy level energy high, even it means climbing on the desk or lying on the floor just to act out a phrase.
Oh well. I bought some cheap cotton dress shirts and asked every man I knew for their old ties. In Milan, city of fashion, I arrived at work dressed in discount store shirts and groovy vintage ties.
I had just completed three classes in a row. With my sweaty wrinkled shirt and bright orange tie askew, I was a disheveled mess. I popped down to the staff room for a meeting. Everyone was already there, 10 women teachers and one man. They were heatedly discussing the new dress code policy and how it represented a clear example of sexism against male teachers.
“Not really,” I jumped in, “It’s a pain in the ass for the men, but its sexism against the women.”
“How can you say that?” protested one female American teacher wearing a tight low-cut T-shirt and shiny green three-toed neoprene Japanese sandals.
“We can wear whatever we want,” added our head of studies, a short British woman packed into a spandex tank top with exposed jelly-belly middle.
“Simple,” I said, “management has just said that male teachers are valuable because they support the company image. Female teachers can do pretty much as they please as long as they show some cleavage.”
The women were silent for a moment after which came a general out pouring of indignation. Ironically, it was the executive coordinator of studies, a British woman, and the only woman among the executive staff, who had thought up and applied the new dress code for men.
In the social battle for gender equality, what appears to be a juicy dangling carrot to make working life easier for a disadvantaged group may in fact be a slap on the behind with a stick to keep trudging onward without question.
Recently, talking to one of my students, pensions came up (this was before the massive austerity plan). Given the terrible state of the Italian pension program, I asked him, wasn’t it a little strange that women could retire at 60 and officials were discussing raising the retirement age for men?
“What do you mean?” he replied
“Why is there a difference in the retirement age in Italy between men and women?”
“Oh well,” he explained, “my wife works really hard and then she has to go home and make the dinner and do all the laundry and stuff. She’s tired so she needs to retire early so she can look after me and the home.”
“Are you talking about your wife or your maid?” I joked.
“Besides,” he continued, “I’m older than she is so its important that she retires early so she is home when I eventually retire.”
One way of looking at this might be to see working women as at a career disadvantage with respect to opportunity, advancement and the precariousness of their work, and that early retirement just reflects social reality. Early retirement is one small advantage that working Italian women get to help them shoulder all the rest of the burden. Many Italian women and men want early retirement for women. However, for many working women, especially those without family responsibilities, a husband and/or children and/or elderly parents, early retirement just undervalues, compromises and cuts short their careers. Once gone from the work force, these women just seem to disappear from society.
According to another student of mine, a sociology professor who specializes in gender and workplace issues, the unquestioned Italian cultural assumption is that a woman’s primary role and responsibility is the domestic sphere. The Italian state, rather than providing adequate social services for the elderly, simply allows women to retire early to look after aging parents and in-laws or provide day care services for their grandchildren.
It would appear that the Italian state has been supporting a hegemonic structure that considers a woman’s place in the home and a man’s place is at work. But now, with a pension program in crisis, Italy can no longer afford an institutionalized gender relationship that ensures clean underwear and home cooked meals for men who contribute little or nothing to there own domestic welfare. The government recently announced it would raise the retirement age beginning next year (66 for men, 62 for women), but it’s unclear just how these reforms will take place, or when they will actually take effect. As long as the state continues to supports this structural inequality it is difficult to imagine a situation where working women in Italy are seen as on par with working men, and not just first and foremost domestic servants.