Italian sociology’s relationship with gender studies is rather complex, linked as it is to a series of phenomena and events that have characterized both the Italian academic context and the development of the feminist movement in Italy.
Gender perspectives entered Italy’s sociological debates in the late 1970s, thanks to a few pioneering women sociologists. As in many countries, theoretical reflections on gender first emerged in Italy outside academia, strongly linked to political activism for women’s equal rights, and around issues like abortion and divorce. However, this close connection with political activism impeded the institutionalization of gender studies within an academic system intent on presenting itself as independent from political affiliations, and within sociology, a discipline seeking to combat accusations of political militancy and ideological goals.
But Italian society has long been characterized – and is still pervaded – by a traditional gender order, still clearly reflected in the university system. A wide gender gap can still be seen in scientific careers, especially in a persistent “scissor effect”: female undergraduate and graduate students outnumber males, and more women than men are PhDs and postdocs, but the female presence typically plummets in the transition into academic career. In political and social sciences, women made up only 26% of full professors, 39.3% of associate professors and 46.7% of assistant professors in 2015 (Ministry of University Education and Research, 2016). Few women serve on the boards of scientific journals, especially high-ranking ones.
Moreover, the rigid structure of Italy’s academic curricula, which provide for a limited number of official courses linked to a centralized ministerial syllabus, contributes to the marginalization of gender studies in higher education. It is difficult to introduce new disciplines, especially if they do not enjoy full legitimacy – as in the case of gender studies – or if the proponents hold junior or marginalized academic positions.
At the same time, gender studies’ entry into academia was also hampered by debates within the feminist movement itself. In particular, the theory of difference, which has played an important role in Italy, favored claims for self-consciousness and separatism, and spawned distrust toward universities, perceived as bastions of academic and patriarchal power. Moreover, as Saraceno notes, Italy’s feminist scholars who wanted to have an influence in academic curricula, have long debated the institutional strategies to be adopted: should they introduce specific women and gender studies curricula, or should they try to mainstream a gender perspective? Given the institutional rigidity of the Italian university system, most opted for mainstreaming, introducing a focus on women, and then on gender, in regular teaching subjects, offering students seminars, initiatives, and events in addition to established curricula, and eventually creating gender research centers.
It was only in the late 1980s that gender studies began fighting for a more fully-recognized institutional status, a struggle that continued into the 21st century. In sociology, an important step in the institutionalization process came in 2012, with the creation of a specific section within the Italian Sociological Association.
Over the decades, Italy’s gender studies have gradually expanded – but that growth has been somewhat fragmentary and unsystematic. Today, the presence of gender studies in the Italian academic community is still limited to specific settings; the accreditation of teaching and research on gender differences is often linked to individual female scholars, based on the recognition they have earned within their respective institutions and scientific communities. Moreover, opportunities for undergraduate and postgraduate training in gender studies are still very limited. One survey showed that out of all bachelor’s and master’s courses in 2011-12, only 57 courses focused on gender – a tiny proportion of all the courses offered in potential majors. A quarter of gender-focused courses were in the sociological area; there was no degree course specifically in gender studies. Postgraduate courses in gender studies were also limited: twelve specialized, six masters, and four doctoral courses. Recent years have seen a further setback in the launching or expansion of gender courses, both because of recent austerity policies and consequent funding cuts, and because the gender perspective still struggles to gain recognition within academia – a situation exacerbated by persistent accusations of political bias, and a widely-reported recent campaign by orthodox Catholic associations and movements seeking to deny gender studies’ scientific foundations. All this tends also to limit the recognition and dissemination of gender studies research, exacerbating researchers’ marginalization.
Despite the substantial output and the significant contribution made to the various disciplines of the social science and beyond, gender studies are today characterized in Italy by what Di Cori has called a “profile of identitarian indeterminacy.” Even in sociology, gender studies lacks a systematic and fully legitimized presence within institutional curricula, a pattern linked to persistent and significant gender imbalances in Italian university career paths.