Milan, Italy
Milan, Italy

Every evening when health experts updated anxious Italians in televised briefings about their nation's devastating coronavirus outbreak, the lineup of authoritative figures included only one woman: the sign-language interpreter.

And not a single woman was among the 20-member commission appointed to advise the government on how and when Italy could safely re-open its factories, stores, schools and parks - a disparity all the more glaring because more than half the country's doctors and three-quarters of its nurses are women, many on the heroic front lines of the pandemic.

Not to mention that the three researchers who isolated the coronavirus in the first days of Italy's outbreak were women.

Indignation over the gender inequality has now exploded into the open, with some 70 female researchers and scientists signing a petition demanding the government include women in virus decision-making bodies as a matter of "democracy and civilization." Backing them is a grass-roots movement on social media dubbed "give us voice" - a riff on the token presence of the silent female sign-language interpreter at the news conferences.

A motion has also been lodged in the Senate by 16 female lawmakers calling on the government to remedy the imbalance. Dozens of women in Parliament's lower Chamber of Deputies backed a similar motion, behind slogans like, "Let's make ourselves heard." This week Premier Giuseppe Conte acknowledged the appeals, calling on the head of the commission of scientific and technical experts advising the government on reopening to enlist women into their ranks. He urged his Cabinet ministers to "keep gender equilibrium in mind" in setting up task forces.

"We're happy to have contributed to repairing a glaring error,'' said Sen. Emma Bonino, who has battled for decades in Italy for women's rights.

But Italian women's concerns are looking beyond pandemic panels. Women are worried that the closure of schools until at least September, coupled with cultural attitudes stacked in favor of men, will set them even farther behind in the workforce.

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