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2023-09-05 Simona Cuomo

Education for Gender Equity: What Implications for Businesses?

To bridge the gender gap, an educational degree plays a pivotal role, as it ensures the economic (and emotional) independence of women. Recent studies highlight that not only do those with a university degree earn more, but education also acts as an empowering factor for motherhood and a valuable tool against violence. However, access to education remains a privilege for a minority of women. To truly be inclusive, businesses should broaden their perspective and implement programs aimed not only at advancing the careers of women who are likely the few already holding degrees.


In a country like Italy, where the gender gap[1] has persistently endured for many years, education proves to be a crucial factor for both the economic and emotional independence of women. While an educational degree plays a significant role for all citizens in promoting participation in the labor market, this is especially true for women.

Starting from this premise, it is necessary to remember that even though women in Italy are, on average, more educated than men and have a lower dropout rate in their educational journey,[2] this advantage does not eliminate occupational disparities between the two genders. Although as of April 2023 the female employment rate has reached 52.3%, showing a 1.4-point increase compared to 2022, this percentage is still insufficient to bridge the gap with the male employment rate, which stands at 61.2%.[3] Nevertheless, more educated women are better protected from various standpoints.  


According to the Istat 2023 report,[4] the employment rate of female graduates aged 25-64 is more than double that of women with only a middle school diploma – 80.2% compared to 36.3% – (a trend also applicable to men, albeit to a lesser extent). Moreover, the investment in education, which by itself reduces occupational disparities between northern and southern Italy, is even more crucial for women's employment in the South. Among 25 to 64-year-olds, the employment rate reaches 70.3% for female university graduates, while it stands at 20.7% for women with low educational qualifications. In this case as well, the wide north-south gap (-28.7%) decreases for female graduates (-14.7%).

Education is also an enabling factor for motherhood.[5] It is well-known that low female employment is associated with a low birth rate, with only 1.24 children per woman in 2022. While it is true that Italian women work less than men and also have few children, female university graduates have an employment rate of over 70%, regardless of their family role. Therefore, educated women are more likely to work and have children simultaneously. However, there is a highly diverse picture, with employment rates for women ranging from a minimum of 21.4% for mothers in the South with low educational qualifications to a maximum of 92.7% for single female graduates in the North.

Equally important, women with medium to high levels of education have a lower likelihood of experiencing physical violence from their partners.[6]


If the data remind us that education is a necessary prerequisite for women's independence, it is equally true that in Italy, the number of university graduates is low. In 2022, only 27.4% of the population had a degree, compared to over 42% in European Union countries overall. In other words, only a minority of women pursue a university degree.

These considerations could serve as a stimulus for reflection not only for policymakers but also for companies that define themselves as "women-friendly."

In fact, companies that implement policies and practices for gender equality often focus on women's careers. Therefore, it would be important to, on one hand, examine the educational qualifications of women in the career pipeline and consider whether it is possible – and to what extent – to broaden the pool of candidates to include individuals with different educational backgrounds, at the same time providing incentives for women who are already part of their organization but do not have a degree to pursue further studies and attain a university degree.

Moreover, it is well-known that most female graduates are the daughters of parents who themselves hold degrees.[7] Within the spectrum of practices supporting D&I and corporate social responsibility, companies could decide to take steps to encourage further education among women who have not yet entered the job market and are at the beginning of their educational journey, or who are deciding when and how to undertake a degree course or seek a post-graduate degree. This could involve initiatives such as curricular or extracurricular scholarships, training programs, and mentoring.

In essence, examining gender in a more comprehensive manner, for instance, by intersecting it with educational qualifications, would increasingly lead to the creation of virtuous paths not only for the careers of women who already have degrees, but for all employed women. Listening to the voices of all women, not just the minority of graduates oriented towards a professional career, is the foundation for avoiding social isolation when addressing inclusion within companies.



[1] In the 2023 Global Gender Gap Report by the World Economic Forum, Italy is ranked 79th out of 146 countries, dropping thirteen positions compared to 2022.

[2] According to the 2022 Istat report, 65.7% of women compared to 60.3% of men aged 25-64 have a secondary level education; 23.5% of women graduate from university, compared to 17.1% of men. Regarding school dropout rates among individuals aged 18 to 24, it is 13.6% for boys and 9.1% for girls. 

[5] Ibid.

[7] For children of parents with a university degree, the likelihood of obtaining a degree themselves is 75%. This percentage drops to 48% among those who come from families where the highest educational qualification is a high school diploma, and decreases to 12% if the parents have only completed middle school.                 


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