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Page last updated at 14:13 GMT, Saturday, 10 May 2008 15:13 UK

Diverging paths on gender equality

Italy's new Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi joked that his Spanish counterpart's cabinet line-up looked "too pink" for his liking. The Italian cabinet includes four women but they will have a tough task on their hands, says David Willey in Rome.

It could not be more different in Spain. Danny Wood reports that Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero is at the very forefront of the struggle to achieve gender equality in politics.

ITALY: AN UPHILL BATTLE

There has been a lot of talk about gender equality in the run-up to Italy's recent general election, but as is all to clear from the line-up of TV magnate Silvio Berlusconi's new cabinet, men still rule here.

Out of 21 ministers in the new right-wing administration there are only four women, all given lightweight roles.

Most of them have so far won distinction more for their looks rather than for their political prowess.

SIlvio Berlusconi
Berlusconi cultivates a playboy image and makes off-colour jokes, sometimes earning him public reprimands from his estranged second wife

The glamorous new Minister for Equal Opportunities, 32-year-old Mara Carfagna, is a former showgirl from one of Mr Berlusconi's television networks.

She also came sixth in the 1997 Miss Italy contest.

"You are simply gorgeous," an admirer posted on the new minister's website on her first day in office.

An MP since 2006, she lists her main hobby as "collecting pens" according to one of her profiles.

Environment Minister Stefania Prestigiacomo, 41, is a lawyer and a former co-ordinator of Mr Berlusconi's Forza Italia party in Lombardy.

Fresh faces

Her good looks won for her the title of "Miss Parliament" when she was first elected as MP for Syracuse, in Sicily, 14 years ago.

A popular comedian once described her as: "the best thing in Italian politics".

Mr Berlusconi, now 71, who has described Spain's new government as "too pink" prides himself on being a ladies' man.

He cultivates a playboy image and makes off-colour jokes about his fondness for glamorous women, sometimes earning him public reprimands from his estranged second wife.

He once said that, if he were single, he would marry Ms Carfagna.

Another woman chosen for a cabinet post by Mr Berlusconi is Giorgia Meloni, the new youth minister. At 31, she is one of the youngest people ever to reach ministerial rank in Italy.

The 'grey quota'

She comes from a traditionally leftist Roman suburb where she worked successfully as a youth organiser for the post-fascist National Alliance party.

Maria Stella Gelmini, 34, also a lawyer, from Lombardy, is the new minister of education.

"I don't believe in the 'pink quota', rather the 'grey quota'," she is quoted as saying.

"Now we shall have the opportunity to find out how much 'grey matter' she has," was the somewhat tart comment of the left-wing daily La Repubblica.

Mara Carfagna, Italy's equal opportunities minister
One of the new Italian cabinet ministers used to be a TV showgirl

Alessandra Mussolini, the granddaughter of the former fascist dictator Benito Mussolini, who went into right-wing politics in the early 1990s after an earlier career as a model and minor actress, setting up a small right splinter party of her own, has been left out in the cold by Mr Berlusconi.

"I don't really think there is a future for me with the new government," she petulantly remarked.

Italian women tend to be discriminated against in the workplace despite some timid recent gender equality legislation.

Employment of women in the cultural labour market is gradually improving, according to the latest Italian government statistics, but Italian women still tend to get lesser-paid jobs - as librarians, archaeologists or historians, for example.

With female employment in Italy almost at the bottom of the EU ladder - at 46% - Ms Carfagna is going to have her work cut out to try to change prevailing Italian macho mentalities.

SPAIN: AT THE VANGUARD

Spain - the land that coined the word "macho" - is now at the vanguard of the fight for gender equality.

After winning a second term in March, Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero has more female ministers in his new cabinet than male, including a 31-year-old woman, the youngest minister in Spanish history.

Spanish Defence Minister
Mr Zapatero has more female than male ministers in his cabinet

More headline-grabbing, the new Minister for Defence Carme Chacon, is seven months pregnant.

There is also a new ministry for gender equality.

No other modern, democratic, administration outside Scandinavia has taken more steps to place gender issues at the centre of government.

Back in the 1960s, when gender equality was first becoming a leading social issue, how many feminists would have imagined that in 2008 their movement would be given a major boost by a Spanish man?

And Mr Zapatero has declared himself not only anti-macho but feminist.

Social reality

Silvia Montero, an analyst for the website 5Spaniards.com, says the prime minister is as progressive as he claims.

"The different social policy measures taken during the last four years have brought some substantial changes to Spain's social reality, and the condition of women in particular," she says.

On the political front, women are not just at the top of the pyramid, 40% of the political candidates in elections must be women.

"One of Zapatero's main achievements in this regard is the fact that he has re-opened the debate on gender equality: women are now even more aware of the need to become equal to men."

Most Spanish males are comfortable about their new ministers.

"I think it's immaterial whether the ministers are male or female," says Joaquin, an office administrator from Madrid.

"The incompetence of some of our ministers is already well-known and has nothing to do with their gender."

There are still plenty who are sneering, like one commentator with the conservative newspaper ABC who called Mr Zapatero's new cabinet his "battalion of seamstresses".

Rivalry

Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi's comment about the Spanish cabinet being "too pink" was barely noticed in Italy, but caused a strong reaction in Spain.

"Berlusconi's statements were not appropriate at all precisely because they can be misinterpreted as Italian/Spanish rivalry," says Silvia Montero.

"I wouldn't say that such rivalry exists, but on the other hand, it is true that Spain and Italy have always looked at each other as a reference in different areas, including politics."

The comments by Mr Berlusconi are perhaps a sign of how two countries, traditionally regarded by northern Europeans as relatively even in the macho stakes, are now on very different paths.

Spanish women still earn about 30% less than men and make up less than 5% of the places on the boards of major companies.

To help reverse that, women in Spain have 16 weeks of maternity leave to make it easier to balance a career with babies.

On the political front, women are not just at the top of the pyramid, 40% of the political candidates in elections must be women.

Soon this 40% threshold will be applied to the boards of companies that bid for government contracts.

Domestic violence is also being taken very seriously.

Dramatic steps

Surveys show that, proportionally, more women die as a result of domestic violence in the UK and Germany than in Spain.

More than 70 women were killed by their husbands, boyfriends or ex-partners in 2007.

The difference in Spain is that the government is taking more dramatic steps to deal with the problem.

A new law attempts to protect women with specialist judges, legal services and restraining orders on violent men within hours.

Sylvana, an events manager, laments that attitudes in society are much slower to change than legislation or clothes labels.

Spaniards from all walks of life defy the macho stereotype and believe in gender equality and a pro-active approach to achieve it

"Many companies still consider it an unnecessary expense or a nuisance for people to take maternity leave," says Sylvana.

"In work interviews women are still asked if they intend to have children."

And, of course, she points out, domestic violence is still a problem.

"That horrible maxim: 'I killed her because she was mine' is still something you hear."

Some Spaniards are concerned that the gender legislation is just window-dressing.

"The education system is the most important thing and we're deficient in that and that's how you change society," says Joaquin.

"Like nearly all the Zapatero political programmes, it's all populist and there's not a single project behind the facade."

There might be disagreement about how to get there, but Spaniards from all walks of life defy the macho stereotype and believe in gender equality and a pro-active approach to achieve it.

One of the prime minister's most implacable foes, the conservative head of Madrid's regional government, Esperanza Aguirre, never misses an opportunity to criticise the government.

But even Ms Aguirre says that one of the best things Mr Zapatero has done is appoint so many female ministers.


SEE ALSO
Berlusconi is sworn into office
08 May 08 |  Europe
Women dominate Spanish cabinet
12 Apr 08 |  Europe
Country profile: Italy
09 May 08 |  Country profiles
Country profile: Spain
23 Apr 08 |  Country profiles

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