Over the course of two days last month, a coincidence of scheduling set up a showdown in portrayals of Italian women: one linked with the legacy of Silvio Berlusconi and another connecting to the new Italy of Mario Monti.
In broadcasts from San Remo, an annual song-and-dance show held on the Italian Riviera and a favourite show of the former prime minister, 13 million Italians tuned in to watch scantily clad twentysomething showgirls cavort with septuagenarian crooners.
Meanwhile, in Rome a rival gathering was taking place. Several hundred women from all over Italy who are members of a growing corporate movement joined Mr Monti’s highly regarded labour minister, Elsa Fornero, for the first national convention to discuss empowering female executives.
Alessandra Perrazzelli, a leading Italian lawyer and president of Valore D, the corporate association behind the convention, says the contrast with San Remo - and the image projected by the former premier with his young lovers and sex scandals - was not lost on any of the participants.
“Berlusconi and 20 years of Berlusconi have done damage to the role-modelling for women and for men in Italy,” she says. “These images of nearly naked beauties with men in their 70s - that’s had an amazing impact on this country and the way women see themselves.”
Valore D’s premise is simple. That Italy in a moment of economic crisis - and after a decade where the country grew little more than 1 per cent - needs its women, and it needs them in its highest ranks.
It is a call that reverberates internationally. Italian decision makers have been told they need to get more women into the workplace by voices from the International Monetary Fund to Mario Draghi, governor of the European Central Bank and former head of the Bank of Italy.
Among the measures outlined by Mr Monti’s technocratic government are reforms aimed at tackling gender discrimination in the workplace from employers who fail to respect maternity rights, to a macho culture that considers women’s primary role to be in the home.
The reason for the concern at the highest levels of government is clear in the numbers. The employment rate of women in Italy is 46 per cent, the lowest in the European Union after Malta. In terms of gender equality, Italy ranks 74th, below Bangladesh, according to the World Economic Forum’s 2011 Global Gender Gap report.
In the upper echelons, the split is even starker. Men make up 92 per cent of the boards of Italian companies, according to the national statistics office.
“The success of Valore D is part of the recognition that there cannot be growth without profound social innovation among youth and women,” Ms Perrazzelli says.
Valore D has doubled in numbers in the past 18 months, a timing that coincides with a political impasse in the Berlusconi government that triggered a groundswell among companies and individuals to take reform into their own hands.
Members now include Barclays and Citi, Luxottica, IntesaSanpaolo, UniCredit, Telecom Italia, Linklaters, Credit Suisse, Enel, Johnson & Johnson, PosteItaliane, Unilever, Standard & Poor’s and Bancad’Italia, as well as a host of mid-sized enterprises.
Valore D provides practical advice and information packs to companies, allowing them to leapfrog to international best practices on issues such as part-time working, building the skills of women managers and - one of the hottest topics in corporate Italy - gender diversity in boardrooms.
In the dying days of Mr. Berlusconi’s government, parliament voted that by 2015, women should make up a third of board members at Italy’s listed companies. However, as businesses struggle with recession and a squeeze on credit, this “pink quota” is considered by many in power to be a nice-to-have, rather than a must-have.
Giuseppe Vegas, head of the securities regulator Consob, recently told the Financial Times: “It was right to increase the participation of women,” but there were too many obstacles to achieving progress in this regard at present as “people” - both company executives and women themselves - “are not yet prepared”.
“There is a risk that people put their wives or daughters on the board, and this is not what we want,” he added. The other risk, he argued, “is that quotas become another threshold for non-quoted companies to get listed”.
Responding to demands from senior women, Claudia Parzani, a partner at in the Milan office of Linklaters, the law firm, has set up a one-day course for Valore D. In association with recruitment company Egon Zehnder, the aim is to prepare top Italian female executives to take up board positions in listed companies. “There are enough women who are fully prepared to join a board,” says Ms Parzani, “what is not the case yet is that there are women sitting on boards.”
However, she believes attitudes are changing even in the most traditional workplaces. Having more high-profile women is becoming a “reputational and branding issue” that will help to open up boardrooms. “When the crowd is moving, that’s when people realise they have to move too,” she says.
Nonetheless, research done by McKinsey shows that subsidiaries of multinational groups based in Italy are generally better at promoting women than Italian companies.
Ms Perrazzelli is an example. She left Italy aged 23 to study and then work as a lawyer in the U.S., and considers this vital to her career advancement when she returned 20 years later.
A major obstacle, according to the McKinsey research, appears to be the appetite for change. While chief executive officers were enthusiastic about promoting women, only 10 per cent of senior managers were considered “fully engaged” in supporting gender diversity. says Roberta Marracino, who is in charge of research and communication at McKinsey.
One company that has had no such qualms is Image Building, a public relations business founded in 1987 by Giuliana Paoletti, one of Milan’s most high-profile businesswomen. The company counts Italy’s biggest companies among her clients and of her 54 staff, 50 are women.
Ms Paoletti is in favour of quotas as a means to change, but believes Italy’s working culture is macho because companies - and the economy - were built by men through the country’s much-admired entrepreneurial culture. Ms Paoletti says Italian women need to break into that world to make a real difference in perceptions: “We need to teach our daughters that they can be entrepreneurs, if not, we are not going to change.”