Gender Roles in Economics

It is now widely accepted throughout Italy that women have a role to play in the labor market (Bimbi, 1993). However, the opportunities for paid employment are unevenly distributed and in many regions there is an acute shortage of jobs, so that women's aspirations remain unfulfilled. In Naples, a combination of limited work opportunities and the constraints of parenting and domestic duties encouraged many women to become outworkers (Goddard, 1996). In Baunei, a village in north Sardinia, women did aspire to working outside the home but the lack of opportunities meant that only a few managed to live up to this ideal. At the same time, the content of housework has changed. The growth of a consumer culture has radically altered the technology of domestic work and shaped the aspirations of men and women. These various changes mean that now women who are at home feel frustrated because "to be a housewife with few cash resources of one's own in a consumer society is very different from the role played by the self-respected female heads of household in a subsistence economy" (Assmuth, 1997, p. 17).

As in other parts of Europe, the Italian labor market is markedly gendered. Women tend to fill certain niches and to be concentrated in certain trades such as textiles, garments, and services. But women have played a crucial role in another important dimension of the Italian economy: during the 1980s Italy became known as the exponent of a new version of capitalism, frequently described as "flexible accumulation" (Piore & Sabel, 1984). The principal characteristic of this form of production was its reliance on the family as a basis for entrepreneurial activities. In the north and center of the country the family provided the resources for a successful strategy of accumulation. Although families were also important in the south, for pooling labor and resources, the different conditions in the region tended to act as a brake on the consolidation of successful family enterprises.

The leather trade of Naples was a particularly important source of work for women, whether as workers in the factories or as outworkers working in their own homes. Although the ideal of a male breadwinner was shared by the majority of Neapolitans, the reality of unemployment and insecure employment meant that it was extremely hard to rely on a single income and wives were frequently involved in some kind of income-generating activity (Goddard, 1996). Because the family, and in particular parenting, remained the most valued activity, home-based work was seen as a solution to the conflicting needs of the household, for money on the one hand and attention, and services on the other. Another solution was provided by the assistance of older children (daughters), mothers, mothers-in-law, sisters, and other relatives, who could free up the time of female relatives to enable them to engage in wage work.

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