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Stepping Forward: The Gender Divide in Italy

If you’ve been following my blog or read my newsletter, you know that I’ve recently had the wonderful opportunity to spend several weeks in my home country of Italy.  Everyday seems to offer an experience that vividly demonstrates the innumerable differences between Italian and American cultures.

While I was in Rome, I took a step class, which was once all the rage in my Northern California community; in Rome, it appeared to be freshly popular.  People, and their steps, were jam-packed in the airless basement of a gym in the bustling center of the city.  The relentless chatter and laughter, on top of the blaring music, was overwhelming to the point that I had to strain to hear the teacher’s instructions.  Within minutes I was greatly amused by the sharp contrast between the way exercise classes are conducted in Northern California compared to in Italy.  Courses in the San Francisco Bay Area are incredibly focused: The primary goal is to reap the benefits of exercise, and it’s tacitly understood that free banter isn’t tolerated.  The rooms are spacious, the air-conditioning is generous, and the light is luminous.  The mood is serious; we’re there to learn, to tighten, to improve.  In Italy, the results seem to be the last thing on the attendants’ minds.  People are there to sweat and laugh and have a good time.  Bodies slick with perspiration bounced around me.  I let go of my inhibitions.  I let myself get caught up in the wild, messy fun.  It didn’t matter if I couldn’t hear the instructor’s lessons.  What mattered is that I had a smile on my face.  What mattered is that I was alive.

And then I stopped short when I began to notice that the instructor consistently insisted on having the only three men present in the class assist her in demonstrating the steps.  These men, equipped with enormous smiles and dressed in bright, tight shorts, strutted to the front of the class to show us the step routine.  I glanced around at the fifteen or so other women in the room.  All of us were superior to the men in our stamina and in our knowledge of the intricate steps, but not once did the instructor call on a female to demonstrate.

One could argue that the instructor called on the men to lead as a way to encourage them and make them feel welcome.  But I know better; after all, I know my Italy well.  In a country long ruled by patriarchy, it continues to exalt men.  The gender biases that we are slowly but certainly watching dissolve in America are prevalent in Italy—and this persists far outside the confines of the gym.  In Italy, men feel entitled to ogle at women.  In Italy, men are asked to speak before women.  In Italy, women face gender discrimination in the workforce, where females are paid roughly 17% less than their male peers.  Approximately less than 8% of board members at public companies are women.  Less than 4% of CEOs are women.  When compared to other European countries, we are woefully behind in gender equality—there are fewer female ministers, diplomats, councilors, and judges.  One report claims that Italy ranks second to bottom in terms of female employment in all European Union countries.

It’s astonishing to consider that a country as marvelous and sweeping in its accomplishments as Italy could be so stunted in terms of gender equality.  The reasons are deeply rooted, from the male-dominated conquests that shaped the country to the older generations of women who have allowed this injustice to persist.  We have a desperately long road ahead of us in terms of finding fairness but I’ll leave you with this:

A petite young woman behind me in class sashayed to the front of the room on her own accord during the last song.  She demonstrated the steps with style, her head held high.  She had attitude and grace; she was demanding to be seen.

And this, to me, suggests that we are on our way.

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