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Implementing anti sexism courses in Italy, my proposal to the Minister for Equal Opportunities

I started dealing with gender gaps, discrimination and sexism one day in mid-January 2020 when I decided that I didn’t want to put up with it anymore, that I didn’t want to “be superior”, “not to react” in order not to “lower myself to the level of the aggressors”. How many times as women have we heard these phrases, we have been considered hysterical and exaggerated when we dared to raise our heads and say that being treated like dolls was no longer up to us. I told my experience as a victim of abuse and gender bullying in this article, just two years ago, when I chose not to be silent anymore. 

However, mine was not just an outburst, which still served to shine a spotlight on these issues through my social media community and my work a journalist. I wanted to do more. I wanted to turn that anger and sense of frustration into something concrete to change the sexist culture. 

So I started to research, to observe, to compare the experiences and initiatives of different countries, including my second homeland, the United States, which in those years were coming out of the clamor of the #METOO movement, which in the meantime had also broken out in the world of wine, among my American colleagues (read more here). 

Turning anger into something concrete

Among the various tools for the prevention of gender discrimination, I identified one that seemed effective, a good starting point, easy to implement: mandatory anti-sexism courses for public and private companies. I myself, as an employee in the first years of my life as an immigrant in the States, before opening my own communication agency, had attended these courses and obtained the necessary and mandatory certification to be hired. Reading up on the effectiveness of these courses, I discovered that since 2018, when they became a legal requirement in ten or so states of the American federation, the number of reports of abuse and harassment in the workplace has increased significantly. 

It may seem like a negative statistic, but it’s actually proof that the courses work: they create awareness, help victims feel confident to report and get justice, make those who witness violence and abuse a guardian of the culture of kindness, giving them the tools to recognize abusive behavior. So I decided that I would try with all my might to bring this practice to Italy, to my home country, and I thought I would turn to the associations of women in my sector, the wine sector, to start this cultural revolution. 

Last January 2022, the Donne del Vino association, the Italian Women in Wine, accepted my proposal and helped me to bring it to the attention of the highest offices of the State. 

At Palazzo Madama with the Minister for Equal Opportunities 

It was with great emotion that last March 7 I was able to illustrate the effectiveness of the American anti-sexism courses at Palazzo Madama, seat of the Italian Senate, in front of the Minister for Equal Opportunities and the Family Elena Bonetti, Senator Dario Stefàno who helped us to obtain the official meeting, and the President of the Women of Wine Donatella Cinelli Colombini, who advocated for my cause. Here is the integral video of the press conference, my intervention is at minute 13.37. It is in Italian.

In the Senate I had 7 minutes to pitch, but here I can better explain how these courses are run and why they work. 

We are still in the stages of seeking funding to move this project forward. I trust that the attention of the Ministry and the institutions will not be extinguished, but on the contrary will bring the necessary resources to make these courses a reality, and maybe even law in Italy. 

Anti-sexism courses based on an American model 

The model I was inspired by is the one I know best, the Californian one. The California Department of Fair Employment and Housing offers free online training on preventing sexual harassment and abusive behavior in the workplace for all public and private companies. 

California law mandates that all employers with 5 or more employees must provide at least one hour of sexual harassment and abusive behavior prevention training to non-supervisory employees and 2 hours of sexual harassment and abusive behavior prevention training to supervisors once every two years. The law requires that the training include practical examples of harassment based on gender identity, gender expression, and sexual orientation.

The basic course, takes place online, consists of slides with text and audio readings, and concludes with a questionnaire that if passed entitles you to certification of participation. 

There are many versions of the course, sold by certified private entities, that are structured around a longer and more detailed program than the legal minimum. Each company can choose which version to require for their employees. 

First to the right the Minister Elena Bonetti, then Donatella Cinelli Colombini president of Women in Wine Italy. Rome, March 7th 2022

Here are some of the topics touched on:

  • Identifying the different types of sexual harassment 
  • What is meant by sexual harassment 
  • How to identify inappropriate physical behavior 
  • Identifying inappropriate messages or communications
  • Knowing the possible consequences of reporting sexual harassment 
  • Doing your part to prevent sexual harassment in the workplace 
  • Avoid offensive visual elements and/or representations 
  • Identify the effects of sexual harassment 
  • Understand the laws (clichés) about sexual harassment 
  • Processes for reporting instances of sexual harassment 
  • Reacting to sexual harassment 
  • Know your rights in this area 
  • Steps to take after an incident of sexual harassment 

Here are some examples of behavior that is inappropriate in the workplace and considered harassment:

  • Derisive comments, insults, epithets or jokes of a sexual nature
  • Unwanted touching, such as back rubs, butt pats, “accidental” pinching or brushing on the chest or other body parts
  • Unwelcome sexual advances
  • Discussion of sexual acts, including stories related to others 
  • An offer of work or other benefits in exchange for sexual favors
  • A threat to reduce your hours, benefits, pay, or harm your working conditions if you do not comply with a sexual request
  • Loss of job, benefits, or other negative impacts after reporting harassment or a hostile work environment 
  • Someone displaying or “giving” you sexually suggestive objects, pictures, cartoons or posters
  • Graphic comments, sexually degrading words, sexually suggestive or obscene messages or invitations
  • Someone who physically impedes or blocks your movements 

Why sexual harassment training can be effective

Research suggests that anti-sexual harassment training can be a useful complement to other anti-sexual harassment measures, particularly in providing education and awareness to employees.

1. Increase knowledge about the types of sexual harassment: often, employees may be uncertain about what can be considered sexual harassment. Training can be helpful in that it provides people with the language and tools to deal with it and increases the propensity to identify sexually harassing behavior, particularly for men.

2. Increases complaints and reduces victim blaming: evidence suggests that the number of sexual harassment complaints in companies increases after training, suggesting that complainants are more willing to come forward. This should not be seen as a sign that the training is not working, but rather that it is creating a more comfortable space for complainants to speak up without the fear that they may be judged negatively.

3. Mobilizes those who witness violence or discrimination: it works effectively through the effects on those who witness it, increasing the likelihood that they will intervene in defense of the victim.

4. Creates a sense of safety for employees: in addition to the benefits of the content of the training itself, offering sexual harassment training can also have the symbolic effect of signaling to employees that they work in an environment where it is safe to come forward, and that the organization does not tolerate harassment.

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