The Conversation

With the two top jobs in politics now held by women, Italy just became a real-time case study in female leadership

Italy elected its first female prime minister, Giorgia Meloni, leader of the far-right Fratelli d’Italia party, in October last year. Now, the leftwing opposition Democratic party has elected its own female leader for the first time, too, in the form of Elly Schlein.

As a result, a country which is highly conservative in terms of gender equality, now has two women party leaders – one leading the government and the other leading the main opposition party. The glass ceiling has been broken: women have reached the top positions in politics.

Women have long been under-represented in Italian politics. According to the World Economic Forum Global Gender Gap Index 2022, Italy ranks 40th out of 146 countries for gender equality in politics. Only around 31% of current parliamentarians are women – which is in fact a decrease in gender balance for the first time in 20 years.

Women represent only 22% of regional councillors and 15% of municipal mayors. Meanwhile on the wider labour market, female participation barely reaches 50% – one of the lowest levels in Europe.

All this makes the rise of both these women surprising. It sends a positive message to future generations of women. They can plainly see that reaching the highest level is feasible across the entire political spectrum.

Far right and far left

Meloni and Schlein sit at the extreme opposite ends of that spectrum, one on the far right and the other the far left. Neither tends to compromise and both dabble in populism.

They take very different positions in their politics and have different approaches to leadership. Meloni says she wants to be referred to by the male “Il Presidente” rather than “La Presidente”, effectively opting out of celebrating the fact that a woman has reached the premiership for the first time.

“La Presidente” would be the technically correct (and more progressive) term to use in her case, yet she prefers to distance herself from any feminist interpretations.

Schlein is also controversial but on the opposite extreme. She expresses radical intersectional feminist views and is bisexual with a female partner. She not only speaks about these identities but led her leadership campaigning by talking about them, famously stating at a rally:

I am a woman, I love another woman and I am not a mother, but I am no less a woman for this. We are not living wombs, but people with their rights.

In terms of their social and economic views, Schlein and Meloni have nothing in common. Schlein prioritises minorities and civil rights. She is in favour of the “citizen’s income”, which provides the poorest with a form of guaranteed income. And she is against the jobs act, a labour market reform law introduced by Matteo Renzi’s former centre-left government which makes it easier to fire workers.

Meloni, meanwhile, promotes nationalism and takes conservative positions on family. She governs in alliance with Lega Nord, which is well known for its opposition to the LGBTQI+ community.

The two women are also examples of how times change. Gone are the days when rich people leaned right politically and the poor voted left. The far-right Meloni grew up in a working-class neighborhood of Rome while the far-left Schlein comes from the rich region of Canton Ticino, the Italian speaking part of Switzerland.

A radical experiment

Decades of studies have shown that female politicians are on average different from their male counterparts. Women tend to care more about women’s issues and support policy agendas which are more inclusive. They are less corrupt and less confrontational.

Although we lack conclusive evidence on how having women in leadership affects public spending (because many other variables are at play), there is abundant evidence on the different style of leadership men and women bring to the table, including communication style and electoral strategy.

The current Italian scenario will provide new evidence that will enrich our knowledge of women in politics. Meloni and Schlein have such polar opposite views that the chances of them uniting around any shared “women’s issues” is effectively nil.

At the same time, people in Italy no longer need to choose between having a leader who shares their politics and having a woman leader because all sides are being catered for in an unprecedented way. Meloni leads a coalition of the right and Schlein, while far left herself, is the head of a centre-left party.

Women leaders often talk of needing to adapt to fit into a world dominated by men so it will be fascinating to see what happens in Italy once that particular pressure is removed.

Identity politics has suddenly become multidimensional and intersectional. We are about to see how gender interacts with the many other dimensions of these politicians (their sexual orientation, social background and religion). Radical and divisive political views should be expected on both sides – but the results are harder to predict.

Paola Profeta does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.