Author(s): Faye Flam
A curious paradox exists in the Italian scientific community. On their way to work many Italian women experience street harassment: various forms of unwanted attention from men. But once these women are within the lab, they are treated as equals, and "problems like sexual harassment are almost unheard of."
Alessandra Ciocio has worked in both the United States and Italy. She finds that Americans pay more lip service to women's equality, yet American women physicists must fight harder for recognition of their efforts and accomplishments. Ciocio says:It's true that men [in Italy] will never let you pay for a meal and they will always open the door for you. But this kind of behavior doesn't affect your life [as a scientist] there. . . .In the United States I have to shout to get anyone to listen to me, and then I get accused of sounding hysterical. I'm much less offended by men opening the door for me than I am by having to struggle to get noticed.
A reason often cited for women's equality in Italian labs is that Italian women have a tradition of being in science with men. Women attended the first universities created during the Renaissance. A few became role models for centuries. One of these prodigies was Laura Bassi, who became a chair of physics at the University of Bologna, a member of the prestigious Academy of Science at Bologna, and the mother of twelve children. As a result, the presence of women in science has "always [been] a more natural and accepted thing," says particle physicist Rosanna Cester.
Women are also prevented from foreclosing their own options by the required yearly math and science courses in high school. They simply do not have the option of dropping out of math and science before fully considering a career in it. Once women reach the university, those training to be high school teachers take the same classes with those training for research and academia. The inevitable result is that some who had originally intended to teach high school decide to pursue research or professorships.
Women also benefit from the following:
- There is a formal, unified, highly competitive process for distributing available assistant professorships.
- All aspirants present their work in the same format before the same panel of established professors, leveling the playing field and leaving less room for "old boy networking".
- Italy provides free day care to working women.
- People climb the academic ladder at their own pace.
- This allows a young physicist to remain in lower ranks for several years while starting a family and move up later without any stiff penalties affecting career prospects.
- The Italian tradition of strong extended families allows working mothers to have relatives help with child care during travel or long hours.
However, most of these benefits are primarily available to well-educated women of the upper and middle classes. Delaying career advancement means years of accepting lower pay; only women with affluent families willing to provide extra financial support are able to take advantage of this opportunity. And in spite of the encouraging traditions already in place, there is evidence that Italian women are still hitting a glass ceiling. Within the ENEA (the Agency for New Technologies, Energy, and the Environment), 160 of the 5,000 employees throughout Italy are elite lab chiefs. Among the elite, only two are women.
On the other hand, "Physics matriarch" Milla Baldo-Cholin believes that self-esteem boosting will increase the number of female physicists in Italy and other countries. "If you think things are more difficult for you because you are a woman, you will be less confident. The difficulty is more in ourselves than outside."
--abstract by Juliet Midgley