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  • Eleonora Voltolina

Gender equality, sometimes Constitutions get in the way: The Why Wait Agenda meets Carla Bassu

Updated: Jul 21, 2023

In this episode we talk about the Constitution. What have Constitutions got to do with people’s decision to have babies or not, you might wonder? Well, for example, the Italian Constitution has an article – n. 37 – precisely aimed at eradicating discrimination in the workplace. It starts with the sentence, «Women workers shall be entitled to equal rights and equal pay as men». That's good. (Unequal household division of labour and attitudes about egalitarian roles can influence the timing of first births, according to the paper “Why do people postpone parenthood? Reasons and social policy incentives” by professor Melinda Mills – also a guest of our podcast, twice! – amongst others).

But then, in the second paragraph of article 37, comes the shift: «Working conditions shall allow women to fulfil their essential role in the family». The verb “fulfil” means carrying out an obligation, and the adjective “essential” implies the impossibility of freeing oneself from that primary role, namely that of taking care of the “family”. A role solely attributed to women, of course. It wasn’t all that shocking seventy years ago, when the Italian Constitution was written, just after the end of WW2. But it's quite different now.

The guest of this episode is Carla Bassu, one of the youngest full professors of Comparative Public Law in Italy, and an ambassador for egalitarian roles. For years she fought – and recently won – a major battle: the one to enable both parents to give their surname to their children in Italy..

The Why Wait Agenda has invited Bassu to understand if what happened with the right to the surname transition could also be applied to article 37 of the Italian Constitution, which still places working women in a subordinate position to working men, who are free to work without being forced to fulfil any «essential role».

«This sentence makes me shudder» professor Bassu says; but «we need to consider the contest it has been formulated in. It reflects the historical and cultural background: in 1948, when our Constitution came into effect, most people found it hard to recognise a position for women away from domestic work». So, as an historical document – as all Constitutions are – the Italian Constitution simply reflects the spirit of the time.

A lot can be done now, Bassu explains, «by interpretation» of the said Constitution, and «through education» of the younger generations towards gender equality and equal parenting, though. Because, even if it's probably a bit of a stretch to blame the Italian Constitution for the fertility gap – the imbalance between how many children people would like to have and how many children they actually end up having – it's fair to say that it certainly hasn't helped.


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