bosss "hands on"
resulted in a hefty
A boss can pat a woman on the posterior at least, thats the
message delivered recently by the Italian Supreme Court. Dont worry
though: an industrial poll revealed that ladies truly welcome such jolly
gestures of affection. Eighty per cent enjoy being courted by colleagues
and believe an office-born relationship helps them work better. So bottom
pinching helps the bottom line. Honest.
I know, I know. This fulfils every over-sexed, Italian-stallion, Latin
lover stereotype ever conceived. And it is foolish, pigheaded, wrong and
unjust. But the situation could be worse. Sexual harassment is on the
radar, if falteringly, and that alone is a huge stride forward.
Italy had no Rosie the Riveter, no graceful wartime transition bringing
women into the workplace: uniquely, female employment fell when the nation
industrialised, due to political and religious pressures. The feminist
movement detonated in this chauvinist culture, rewriting the rules on
abortion, divorce and male domestic authority. By the 1980s, Italy possessed
some of the most enlightened legislature (and women) in the world. Then,
predictably, came the backlash. And one of victims was the working woman:
she had the right to be an employee, but little protection as such.
Januarys controversial ruling - which effectively sanctioned butt
groping - is a prime example of Italys confusion, both legal and
social. A supervisor patted a female co-worker, then threatened to block
her career if the incident were reported. She rebelled, sued and won.
The bosss "hands on" approach initially resulted in a
hefty 18-month prison sentence.
Yet the Supreme Court, La Cassazione, ruled in his favour, as the incident
occurred "only once and impulsively". Furthermore, judges concluded,
there was no proof the gesture was sexual. This surprised Italians, who
do not, as a rule, relish being swatted on the rump at work regardless
of gender. But most smiled and shrugged, long accustomed to contradictory
and (seemingly) whimsical court decisions.
Italian law, unlike our own, is not based on precedents. Each case is
evaluated in isolation, resulting in wild inconsistencies. Most memorably,
La Cassazione announced that a woman could not be raped in jeans, as tight
denim is impossible to remove without the wearers consent. Likewise,
five minutes of resistance is merely symbolic and can not be taken seriously.
No doesnt mean no until youve struggled for a substantial
amount of time. Ladies, synchronise your watches
Ten days after absolving the bottom-swatter, the court jailed a man for
squeezing a co-workers breasts: this swift ambush of the mammaries
was deemed "unpreventable". To an outsider (and to many Italians)
such decisions are inscrutable, indefensible and entirely arbitrary. Yet
La Cassazione is only doing its job - weighing the intricacies and legality
of specific incidents - not setting a standard of behaviour.
Here lies the rub: Italy has no yardstick, no consistent measure of molestie
sessuali (sexual harassment). The law forbids gender discrimination,
but the courts and the peoples interpretation
shifts with the prevailing wind. Now the Union is wading into the fray,
offering a Europe-wide definition of harassment, and forcing employers
to police bad behaviour -- or face courts.
If approved, all 15 countries must enact the rules by New Years
Day 2002. For many, this is a welcome amendment the equal opportunities
directive had not been altered for 25 years. Studies report that about
65% of women have been sexually harassed at work. But will a generic framework
do the trick? France and Belgium already have a full complement of laws,
while Greece and Portugal frankly dont have a clue.
Italians, according to EU experts, turn a blind eye: "Sexual harassment
takes place against a background of indifference and acceptance, as if
it were a normal type of human conduct". Ironically,
for a country with a strong Communist party, there is no solidarity among
the workers. Women are usually silent observers of abuse. Or worse, they
think victims "were asking for it", the report reveals.
Obviously legislation alone will not solve the problem. Laws especially
inconsistently applied ones dont help the average woman,
who most-likely has stoically suffered harassment. Unemployment is high,
the economy unstable, and no one wants to rock the boat. Fair enough:
but change then must happen on a grassroots level, a graceful, gradual
erosion of chauvinist culture.
The first shaky step in this social revolution is talking. Luckily this
is an art at which Italians excel. They holler, gesture extravagantly
and pound home their points. Two prominent female politicians even resorted
to fisticuffs while debating sexual harassment on national television.
Much of the dialogue will be ridiculous (females invite harassment, powerful
women have lousy sex lives, etc.) but it is no less vital.
And perhaps men will think twice if they get a dose of their own butt-slapping
sexist medicine. On March 8th, the nation honoured womanhood with music
and yellow puffball mimosa flowers. Yet the enduring image of 2001s
celebration was a rowdy crowd jeering at male strippers in Centocelle
Nightmare, the Roman Full Monty.
Turnaround is always fair play. And thats the bottom line.
Please note, this is my unedited copy. This article was published in one
of the last editions of Underwire. Microsoft absorbed its content into
the Women's Channel, but sadly has not yet archived the material.