Italy Misses a #MeToo Moment in Prime Minister Meloni’s Breakup

Since Giorgia Meloni, Italy’s first female prime minister, announced over social media last month that she was dumping her longtime boyfriend, Italians have hardly stopped talking about it.

They have obsessed over the leaks of audio and video tapes revealing Andrea Giambruno, a television news anchor who is also the father of the prime minister’s young daughter, making lewd threesome and foursome jokes and apparent propositions to female colleagues.

Were the leaks politically motivated, as Ms. Meloni has insinuated? Had Ms. Meloni’s Dear Giambruno letter humanized her as an Italian Everywoman, or reinforced her tough, no-nonsense reputation? Was the breakup bad or good for her political career?

Far less attention has been paid to Mr. Giambruno’s behavior, which the public discourse has taken for granted as part of a culture of sexism and harassment that is commonplace for women at work in Italy.

Mr. Giambruno’s employer, Mediaset, owned by the family of the late Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, who made “bunga bunga” a boudoir name, gave him a week of paid “self-suspension” before bringing him back on the show — for now, off camera.

In the land that #MeToo forgot, feminists and critics of Ms. Meloni had hoped that the prime minister might use the occasion as a long overdue teachable moment, a rare opportunity to reckon with the country’s patriarchy and its legacy of Catholicism’s traditionalism, Berlusconi’s hedonism and the failure of successive governments to create social services that could support more women to enter, stay in and excel in the work force.

Instead, on those points, Ms. Meloni has been silent.

That has been a disappointment for some in a country where women say they are still greeted with chauvinism by employers who see themselves as — and are often treated as — all powerful benefactors and patrons, regarding them as objects of amusement or flirtation.

Women in various professions in Italy say workplace harassment is the norm. A recent edition of L’Espresso magazine documented widespread harassment in the advertising industry. A recent survey found that 85 percent of female journalists reported being subjected to some form of harassment during their careers.

Tatiana Biagioni, president of the Italian Association of Labour Lawyers, who has worked for decades on workplace discrimination and harassment cases, called the leaked recordings of Mr. Giambruno’s behavior a “sad chance to talk about what normally happens in the workplace, because this is not an isolated case, it is a full-blown reality.”

“This is an underwater river that makes the world of work toxic in this country,” she said.

As it stands, the employment rate for women in Italy — little more than 50 percent — is the lowest in the European Union or among the Group of 7 major economies. Women’s lack of participation is a drag on the economy and contributes to a plunging birthrate. A Bank of Italy study found that if just 10 percent more women worked in Italy, the country’s G.D.P. could grow about another 10 percent.

“The question of women is the central, No. 1 knot that must be faced,” said Linda Laura Sabbadini, a director at Italy’s National Institute of Statistics. “Today the emergency of Italy is not the birthrate, the birthrate is the consequence of the low employment of women and the low development of the policies of social services.”

Women are hardly visible at the top of big businesses or major news organizations. Less than 25 percent of Italian professors are women. Less than 5 percent of Italy’s streets or squares are named after a woman, and half of those are saints or martyrs or the Virgin Mary. More common are antiquated images of women, including a sexy tutorial on the public broadcaster for women on how to shop for food.

Ms. Meloni’s place as the first woman to gain Italy’s highest position of power — and her very public breakup from a man making crass come-ons in the workplace — makes her responsibility toward women inescapable, some feminists argue.

“She’s becoming the first feminist of Italy without really wanting it,” said Riccarda Zezza, an author and businesswoman who specializes in issues of women in the workplace.

Elly Schlein, the first woman to lead the Democratic opposition, said in a recent interview that it was incumbent upon Ms. Meloni to address such questions. “That there is now the first woman as prime minister of the country doesn’t help all other women if she decides not to help them,” she said.

Ms. Meloni has herself acknowledged that responsibility.

In her first major speech to Parliament, she spoke about how breaking “the glass ceiling” caused her to ponder “the responsibility I have toward all women who face difficulties in asserting their talent or, more trivially, the right to see their daily sacrifices appreciated.” She has called women “an untapped resource” to be less reliant on immigrant labor and has talked about dealing with misogynistic comments in Parliament. She said in a recent interview that she once ran for mayor of Rome while pregnant “because they told me I couldn’t.”

But she has also long made clear she is not a politician seeking to become a feminist icon.

The leader of the Brothers of Italy party, Ms. Meloni is steeped in a hard-right political culture that has exalted women as traditional mothers and has opposed quotas to increase female representation in business and politics. She has rejected the feminine article “la” before her title as president, insisting on the traditional masculine “il.”

Ms. Meloni has for decades attributed her success in politics to her personal hard work rather than the progress won by organized women’s movements. “I have never believed, for example, in women’s politics,” she said in a speech in March in the Chamber of Deputies Women’s Hall.

So, it was less than surprising that, when faced with an issue that women’s politics has decried for decades, she called it a personal matter and went mum.

“There’s nothing in her statement that says ‘I stand in solidarity with the women who are harassed at work, and I don’t condone that kind of behavior,’” said Giulia Biasi, an Italian writer focused on feminist issues.

Silvia Grilli, the editor in chief of the women’s fashion magazine Grazia, which dedicated a recent issue to, and produced a short film about, the harassment of an Italian actress, said the case of Mr. Giambruno served as a reminder of how widespread such behavior is, and that it had as much to do with power as sex.

“I don’t think there was even an intention to have an erotic relationship” with the woman Mr. Giambruno was speaking to on the tape, she said. “It was only and exclusively to put her in her place.”

Exactly why Italy has lagged in women’s advancement has been a field of study for historians, scholars and economists. Being the seat of the Catholic Church for 2,000 years has played not a small role, some say.

“Catholic culture and philosophy is certainly one of the elements that inhibits independence of women in this country on the individual and collective level,” said Renato Fontana, a sociology professor at Rome’s Sapienza University.

In the 1970s, Italian feminists made some progress as they harnessed the advancement of women’s rights across the West. Divorce and abortion became legal. Pay became somewhat more equal. In 1971 a law required the construction of public nursery schools, which studies showed were critical for long-term academic success.

Still, by 1977, Italy had only a 33 percent rate of female employment, and the country dipped under the replacement rate of births. In the 1980s, when the country’s debt ballooned, politicians chose to cut back on a social services that would benefit women and employ them.

Instead, Italy relied on those women to care for the young and the old in their own homes, a policy that fit well with hard-right parties, like the ones Ms. Meloni grew up in, which held deeply traditional views of the Italian family.

“We started with this idea that women belong to the family,” said Ms. Zezza. “We really never got out of it.”

In the 1980s, the cultural force of Mr. Berlusconi swept across Italy. He boasted openly about his sexual exploits. His media empire flooded the airwaves with scantily clad versions of his feminine ideal. Women encouraged by the advancements of the 1970s felt they suffered through lost decades.

“It was as if Berlusconi turned all of that into some sort of a joke,” said Francesca Cavallo, a writer on feminist issues.

Laura Ferrato, a spokeswoman for Mediaset, said it had thoroughly investigated the matter and talked to “all the people involved in the off-air remarks” and “anyone who has had contact with him in the office, in the TV studios and on the Mediaset premises. At the end of the examination, and after he apologized, Mr. Giambruno resumed his work.”

Mr. Giambruno, who has made no public remarks, did not return a request for comment.

The show that revealed Mr. Giambruno’s bad behavior — a show famous for two young women dancing on a newscaster’s desk — was also on the Berlusconi family’s network, she pointed out.

It was just anther paradox that revealed “the grotesque aspects that make our country hard to understand.”

Gaia Pianigiani and Elisabetta Povoledo contributed reporting.

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