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[ European Commission, DG V ]

© Jan 2001

European Database: Women in Decision-Making

Laura Balbo

Senior Minister for Equal Opportunities 1998-2000

What made you decide to go into politics, and have you been engaged in political grassroots activities before your involvement in party politics?
I started my political activity long before being involved in any groups or parties ... Besides, I never officially joined any party. In 1968, I was at the university in Milan and there were student movements. At the Faculty of Political Sciences, we were much involved in what was a phase of intense political involvement also in terms of demonstrations and standpoints. Before that I was in the US in critical times ... I was there when Kennedy was killed and when Martin Luther King was killed, and in relevant phases of the construction of a large democratic society.
... After the 1968 period, we realised, right in Milan, the first 150hrs-courses for women, in direct collaboration with the trade unions ... a very innovative initiative both for the university and for the very first elaborations of gender analyses.

But you never joined or register in any party.
Absolutely not. My pathway was marked by the relationship with important political figures, such as Capanna, and important trade union leaders. Politics were very integrated into the universities in those years, from the way to organize courses, to the innovation in education and rules of university life. Apart from that period, in which the interest in politics was more intense and widespread, was there also an incentive within your family?
My family was interested in politics. My father had a very authoritative mentality. The only thing I remember is that my family, and my father in the first place, helped many Jews to hide during the war. This is something I perceived and later gave value to. I have actually always been very attentive to issues concerning racism and the Holocaust. It is then for me a matter of personal experience, not directly political, but very intense.

Could you make a summary of your professional career?
I got a degree in Political Sciences in Padua, at the first Faculty of Sociology that existed after the war. This made it possible for me to get a scholarship and go to the US. When I came back it was very easy for me to find a job in Italy since I was the only person with experience. So I have mostly worked in research activity for many years, then I collaborated with the universities, Milan first, then Ferrara.

Then your landing to the "noble" politics...
This was rather by chance...
Was there a mentor, an advisor..?
The PCI (Italian Communist Party) had at the time some sensitivity as it counted some women among its members and had organized this new thing, the Independent Left, which was a group of 20 Parliamentary members, not registered to the party and chosen according to different criteria. On that occasion, I didn't even know the decision making process…. I was asked. I think the idea to indicate me to the party's executives came from a young and politically active woman within the party that I had met in Emilia Romagna. Then, in 1982, I was proposed for Lombardia, which made more sense because Milan was my town. I was called by Milan's Party Secretary and made this proposal. After some hesitation, I said "yes" and became Parliament member for Milan, independent within the PCI. I had some electoral campaign, didn't know how to hold a meeting, but I would meet with many of my students who voted for me. I was given an unexpected number of votes, a sign of coherence with my previous pathway. After that I was elected for two legislation periods from 1983 to 1992. The group of the Independent Left had this extremely interesting characteristic. It consisted of intellectuals who also elaborated ideas outside Party logic, but with close relations with women, those of PCI in particular, on a series of issues we would work together.

You still haven't joined a party, but if you were to define your political orientations...
I said red-green or green-red, the only alternative is which of the adjectives comes first ... they don't correspond that much to parties but rather to ideal settings.
Maybe I feel closer to some European figures than Italian, and this doesn't seem wrong to me. After all it makes sense that within a few years European, more than Italian, political platforms are built, and this is also good for Italian politics. I don't feel at ease with the present Italian politics because of their focusing on the building of coalitions to win the elections, something that impoverishes politics.

In you capacity as a Minister you will certainly have political objectives and before asking you what these are I wanted to know what you think of the equal opportunity policy in Italy?
I could say that when I started my activity as a Minister I didn't pay much attention to the equal opportunity policy in Italy. It was probably for me the phase of greater detachment from politics.
You didn't expect it then?
No, no, no, absolutely not. I should say this was something completely unexpected, outside of Party strategies, something that enhanced a pathway... What I found here at the Ministry is something I appreciated with time. It is the creation of - out of nothing - a place, of functions and of, especially after the first adjustment phase, of decisions that very closely reflected orientations put forward by the Beijing Conference. It took us some time to identify - apart from the general objectives and after once a symbolic cultural space was acquired - the strategies as something which deals with doing very concrete things. Being after the different Ministers, talking everyday with the right persons, getting involved in all the important issues.
... I try not to go to conferences, and yet I attend many, because I should rather interact with the "places of power".
We started making laws, but it takes a long time. Only now some bills drafted by the previous Minister, Ms Anna Finocchiaro, are entering the final process. The complexity and procedures are absurd, like, for example, everything that concerns women's entrepreneurship, an extremely important theme … it is crazy how long it takes!
Were you ever discriminated against?
All the time.

In politics?
On the one hand, like I said, I've had many advantages because of this quota policy. It was an acknowledgement of women's voice in those years. In particular, I mean in the 80s in the Communist party.

What do you think of the quota system?
It is fundamental. We won't go anywhere without it. This is a difficult phase since we are overtly speaking of changing the participation of men and women, and men are strongly defending themselves. Even the indirect quota system is important because the fight is getting tougher.
Yesterday we had a typical example: We have been monitoring for one year the nominations passing through the Prime Minister's Office. There are, I think, 212 men and 11 women. Before changing this thing, we have to make sure some hundred of those men don't take a nomination for granted!
It is something that is consolidated in the expectations of the masculine elite. Women don't even know such a possibility exists, they are not used to teamwork, and they have no support. This is something we can't change … all we can do is adopt a policy to interfere. I send letters and raise my hand to nominate a woman, but what is needed is a mechanism to "get rid" of men that have such expectations, only because it's always been like this!

What about your interpersonal relationships? When you had to face relations with male politicians, what was their attitude?
Mine is a particular case. I am older than most of them and am a university professor. They address me considering me an absolutely minor minister, but outside politics, they just can't treat me badly.

In your opinion what are the main obstacles women have to face if going into politics and trying to get to decision-making levels?
The diffidence concerning the going into politics is a given fact. But I think that nowadays, especially at the local level, those that are in politics are much stronger than before. They are more determined and motivated, have more experience and maybe will go a long way. There are not many, there should be more! Apart from this, though, we do observe in women more than in men, distrust and disaffection for politics in general, but this is also due to the fact that Italian political events are such that it is hard to warm up to them. Had a woman been President of the Republic in Italy, the relation between women and politics would have changed. However, the women ministers are so capable in their jobs, work so hard and do offer an image of high-level performance.
Presently it is very interesting to observe that this is also true for other countries, such as France and Great Britain with very strong women ministers, and the comparison with other European realities can only make us improve. The media are involved in this; maybe one day some young girl decides she wants to be the President of the Republic instead of town councillor…

We could then say you have a very optimistic outlook…
Yes, of course! I am always halfway between women affairs and not, but I have three brothers, three sons, my best friends were men: I cannot separate this world into males and females; it is out of the question! I do observe imbalances, problems, characteristics, but I don't absolutely think men don't partake of this, of change in general, and this is what counts.

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