The role of female experts in the fight against Covid19: an interview with Paola Bello, Project Manager at Fondazione Regionale per la Ricerca Biomedica



Paola Bello

Translation from the original article:

It is still too early to assess the effects of this pandemics on gender equality in Italy and in Europe; however, it is already possible to proceed with some observations. [1]

As a starting point, we can analyse some data related to health organizations in Italy, at the forefront of the emergency.

According to the Data Processing Center of FNOMCeO, the National Federation of Surgeons and Dentists (Federazione Nazionale degli Ordini dei Medici Chirurghi e Odontoiatri), gender representation among doctors and dentists presents different scenarios if we look at different age groups.

In total, men are always the majority (66%). However, the situation considerably changes if we analyse the under-65 age group, where women are 53% of the total.

Furthermore, if we consider the under 40s, women make up almost 60% of doctors.

The situation is still different for the category of nurses, 78% of which are women.

It can be noted how the “competent” response to the crisis is given more by women, who prevail among healthcare personnel but represent a minority in the top positions.

This is what we observe when we analyse the data related to management roles.

Looking at the figures of Italian National Health System, we notice that women in managing roles are the 32% in smaller hospital units or departments, and only 16% in bigger and more complex healthcare organisations.

Even the hospitals are very different from one another: if the average women presence in top roles  is 16%, in the Italian IRCCS (Scientific Institutes for Health Research, Hospitalization and Health Care) the percentage falls to 11%, to reach 18% in Local Health Units (ASL, in Italy). [2]

Could we summarize these figures by saying that in Italy men decide and women do the work?

At the beginning of Covid19  emergency, the government appointed a men-only technical-scientific committee: this could be read as a reflection of the current gender-equality situation in Italy, and can in fact explain why the consequences of the safety measures adopted have not been fully considered. 

In April 2020, the head of Italian Civil Protection responded to comments on the absence of women in the above-mentioned committee by saying that “Members of the Committee are identified by their roles, such as the Head of Civil Protection or the President of the National Institute of Health. If women were in charge of such positions, we would have had an adequately representation of women in the technical-scientific committee “.

This being said, it seems that the so called “glass ceiling”, which allows women to advance in professional careers only up to a certain level, leaving leading positions to men, is not only very resistant, but also transparent.

The technical-scientific committee and the taskforce were “integrated” with women experts  only at the beginning of May 2020, and only after numerous protests from the political, civil and scientific world.

Women, in the clinical and research fields, have been the most affected by the impact of Covid 19, and this is due to a series of factors pre-existing to the health emergency, and very rooted.

Most of the population of workers with precarious contracts, including fellows and research assistants, are women. [3]

The interruption of laboratory activities meant that these workers, and in particular female workers, had to leave their jobs, with repercussions on work-productivity and a greater commitment to home and child-care.

According to several articles [4], many academic publishers noticed that the number of scientific articles written by female researchers plummeted in March 2020, compared to the number of publications in the same period of the previous year.

It was also noted that, due to the measures that led to the closure of schools, families with younger children are facing the greatest difficulties, but this is tricky to report as there are no tools for assessing the work commitment in the face of an increasing number of challenges.

In conclusion, the absence of women in top leading roles and in decision-making bodies is obvious and problematic, and it is necessary to reverse this trend.

First of all, is not acceptable that decisions with such a universal importance are taken ignoring half of the population, especially when this half is the one which is more active in managing the impact of the health crisis.

Secondly, female experts exist, and not consulting them means giving up on some necessary and fundamental skills.

Not only do female  experts exist, but their number will increase, and not only in the field of medicine: according to Censis data, in 2018 female graduates accounted for 57% of all graduates. There were also improvements in the number of graduates in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) sciences: according to the 2019 Gender Report of the Politecnico of Milan, in the academic year 2017-2018 female students’ enrolments at the Politecnico were the 34.4% of all enrolments, a number which is constantly increasing from 2000 up to present days.

The issue of gender equality is fundamental and goes far beyond emergencies: it is a question of justice, meritocracy and democracy, as well as economic efficiency: investing in gender equality policies and adopting women friendly policies represents and overall gain for the entire society [5]

The state of the art is a fact, it is not predetermined, and we need to create the conditions for it to change.


[1] Fondazione Regionale per la Ricerca Biomedica (FRRB), is one of the main research funding agency in Lombardy Region. Since 2007 FRRB has been involved in the Target (Taking a reflexive approach to gender equality for institutional transformation) project.

The commitment to the project, and the exceptional situation/occurrence of the lockdown led FRRB to reflect on this emergency also from the point of view of gender.

On May 6th 2020, FRRB organized an online round table with representatives of Hospitals and Universities of Lombardy, to try to answer  some questions on the topic: Can we speak of gender equality during an emergency?

The above-mentioned round table was attended by Eloisa Arbustini, Susanna Chiocca, Cinthia Farina, Camilla Gaiaschi, Barbara Garavaglia, Alessandra Solari, Valeria Tozzi, Paola Bello, Giusi Caldieri, Carmen De Francesco, Marina Gerini, Barbara De Micheli.

[2] Raffaella Saporito, Marco Sartirana e Valeria D. Tozzi, La femminilizzazione dei ruoli apicali in sanità: dimensioni del fenomeno, cause e prospettive, Rapporto OASI 2019 Osservatorio sulle Aziende e sul Sistema sanitario Italiano, a cura di CERGAS – Bocconi

[3] Bozzon, R., Murgia, A., & Villa, P. (2017). Precariousness and gender asymmetries among early career researchers: a focus on stem fields in the Italian academia, Polis, 31(1), 127-158; Gaiaschi, C., Musumeci, R. (currently being published) È solo questione di tempo? Donne e uomini nell’Università che cambia. Un’analisi del reclutamento in Italia

[4] Among which: Caroline Kitchener, Women academics seem to be submitting fewer papers during coronavirus, The Lily, April 24th 2020; Colleen Flaherty, No Room of One’s Own.  Early journal submission data suggest COVID-19 is tanking women’s research productivity, Inside Higher Ed, April 21st 2020; Anna Fazackerley, Women’s research plummets during lockdown, but articles from men increase, The Guardian, May 12th 2020

[5]  Maurizio Ferrera, Il fattore D. Perché il lavoro delle donne farà crescere l’Italia, Ed. Mondadori, Collana Strade blu. Non Fiction, 2008, p.132 p., Brossura, EAN: 9788804568179