It’s August 2010 and Italy is in the midst of what has become known as the “summer of homophobia”. The phrase was coined by the Italian press after a series of incidents in which gay people were either verbally or physically attacked, and in one case fined, for kissing in public.
Anna Paola Concia, a politician with the centre-left Democratic Party and advisor to the Department of Equal Opportunities, was among the activists who responded by staging a mass kissing protest at the Tuscan lakeside town of Torre del Lago.
But despite the furore against the attacks, Italy is still a tough place to be gay, and nowhere is this more prevalent than in the workplace.
Even though a law making discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation in employment illegal has been in place since 2003, few companies have taken action towards developing a culture of acceptance, Concia said.
The extent of homophobia within the workplace was shamelessly exposed in late September by the president of one of Italy’s biggest global exporters, Guido Barilla, who heads the eponymous pasta firm. He said during an interview that the firm would never feature a gay family in its ads. READ MORE HERE.
The comments sparked a global uproar, with calls for the brand to be boycotted. Perhaps suddenly realising the huge financial and human cost the gaffe could have on the company, it was swift with its apology and hastily put together a team comprising gay paralympics gold medallist Alex Zanardi to teach it how to improve its corporate culture.
But what happened with Barilla “is what happens in general with Italian companies”, Concia told The Local on the sidelines of a conference organized by EDGE, a network of LGBT professionals, entrepreneurs and managers, in Rome on Thursday.
Despite their negative impact, the remarks have opened up a debate and Concia hopes Italian companies can learn from the Barilla case.
“Italian companies need to show sensitivity towards diversity,” she said.
“Those who work in business know that marketing is very important...the mistake that Barilla made is huge but this negativity can spark a chain reaction. We can use this to set in motion some positive cycles.”
One company whose lead others might want to follow is Italy’s biggest telecommunications firm, Telecom Italia. It is one of the few companies to have adopted a fully-fledged diversity programme, part of which includes gay staff being granted a 14-day paid honeymoon entitlement, a privilege usually reserved for heterosexual couples.
Fabio Galluccio, who has headed up the programme for the past four years, told The Local that a lesbian member of staff was recently allowed to take a paid honeymoon after marrying her partner in Germany. There is also a gay couple within the organisation that has a child.
“We believe diversity helps us be more innovative and dynamic,” he said.
Galluccio believes the programme, which involves training courses and summer camps for children, has also helped to change homophobic attitudes within the firm.
He pointed to the example of a recent email he received from a member of staff, which said, “thanks to this programme, I’ve come to terms with my own shortcomings.”
But such programmes have been slow to be picked up by other companies.
Along with Telecom Italia, only two other Italian firms - Il Saggiatore, a publisher, and IT firm Consoft - are members of PARKS Liberi e Uguali, a non-profit organization that advises companies on fully understanding the business benefits of having a comprehensive diversity strategy in place. Its other 12 members are international companies with a presence in Italy, including IBM and Johnson & Johnson.
Deputy director Igor Suran told The Local that “with or without Barilla”, negative attitudes towards gay people is a problem he sees whenever he visits companies.
“But the action that Barilla has undertaken since shows there’s a willingness and desire to work towards this,” he added
“We have members who have implemented the full programme...but it’s not as easy in Italy as it is in other countries.”