Opinions & Interviews

2020-10-09 Eleonora Maglia

Best Workplaces for Women, too?

Intangible and relational elements increasingly represent the parameters through which to verify the positive or negative aspects of a workplace. However, the issue of promotion of equal opportunity, slowed down by the recent Covid-19 crisis, must be reaffirmed to guarantee excellent workplaces for women and mothers as well.

What makes a workplace "the best place" to perform a profession? Many elements certainly regard various subjective variables (age, the contingent situation, or future aspirations), that make people more or less sensitive to specific aspects (financial stability, career prospects, or also proximity to one's family). While the historic Maslow pyramid reminds us that it is necessary and a priority to satisfy basic needs, the studies on the issue and the most recent organizational experiments insist on intangible and relational elements. According to Ariely, for example, it is essential for the associates of a company to have a series of elements creating the perception that one's duties fit into a general framework, i.e. that they have a purpose, and in general that there is a sense of progress and also recognition of the results obtained.[1]

With varied and personal responses that can lead to identifying the ideal "best workplace," there is, however, also an attempt to respond objectively to the question posed at the start of this article. This is the Best Workplaces Italia ranking, that has been drawn up for almost 20 years to assess the organizational climate in Italian workplaces and thus to promote excellence in personnel management. The 2020 edition was recently published, with interviews of over 50,000 employees.[2]

Along with the recent publication, in preparing this article we attempted to conduct an analysis from a gender standpoint in order to determine how much attention is paid to the promotion of equal opportunity in companies considered to be Best Workplaces. The issue is of great interest due to the evidence that, for women, the question of a positive or negative workplace seems to boil down to material elements. The national data on the labor market in fact shows that, for the female gender, it is already desirable to enter the world of work, receive fair compensation, and be able to conduct their professional activity without difficulties. This is desirable because, in reality, the average female unemployment rate in Europe, measured by European Union Statistics on Income and Living Conditions (EU-SILC), is greater than the male equivalent by over 10 percentage points.[3] Over the years, average income from work for men has tended to increase, while for women it has decreased, and just in Italy, according to ISTAT statistics, 404,000 women have suffered physical harassment or sexual blackmail during the course of their working career.[4]

To promote greater transparency on the issue, on the occasion of the last Equal Pay Day, the European Commission launched a fact-checking campaign on the subject. Overall, it was found that the resumes received from female candidates led to contacts at lower rates (only 23 percent) and that the average salary of the women hired was 23 percent less than that of their male counterparts, despite the same effort expended.[5] From a career standpoint as well, men occupied managerial positions more frequently, and only one-third of managers are female. However, in light of the findings, an inclusive company environment with diversified teams and unconventional leadership shows a positive correlation with reputation, better efficiency and performance, and higher results if we look at the Dow Jones index (up to +22 percent), greater productivity of individuals (up to +12 percent), and greater ability to construct a solid and lasting relationship with clients (up to +19 percent).[6]


Why consult the Best Workplaces Italia rankings?

Within the panorama outlined above, the Best Workplaces Italia rankings aim to give a voice to the workforce and promote the viewpoint of those who – in a given organization – pass much of their life there and can directly evaluate the efficacy of the organizational logics adopted in regard to personnel. Another merit of this survey is the distinction into subclassifications starting from the size of the candidate company (calculated based on the number of employees). This type of segmentation can in fact limit the risk that access to professional skills and tools useful for better work quality could be more difficult for organizations with limited monetary resources, such as SMEs in certain cases, that are very common in Italy. Overall, Best Workplaces is based on a model according to which excellence in a workplace is present when there are relationships of trust with management, employees are proud of their work and organization, and relationships with colleagues are of high quality. All of this in fact coheres with the studies on the issue and the most recent organizational experiments that recognize the importance of intangible and relational aspects.

Analyzing the best practices that have motivated the presence and positioning in the rankings of the recognized companies (32 percent are Italian), we see a strong prevalence of issues linked to innovation in hiring methods, placement, and participation or career (for example, the use of gamification by American Express Italia, the top ranked company in the 500+ employee section), as well as a certain level of attention for corporate social responsibility (for example, with business volunteer initiatives such as the Gucci Changemakers program, 12th in the rankings) and also health and wellbeing (such as the BWell project for the promotion of healthy lifestyles and the prevention of chronic diseases launched by Phillips, ranked 13th).


How much is dedicated to projects aimed at equal opportunity?

Among 153 companies – evaluated from an almost equal sample of employees (53 percent men and 47 percent women), 74 percent not employed in management positions, with a prevalence of workers in the 26-34 age group (32 percent) and recent hires (less than 2 years, 32 percent) – five were found with programs conceived for mothers, families, and children, leading to prizes in the 150-499 employees category.

Here are the details, in the order they appear in the rankings. 1) Amgen Italia (biotechnology and pharmaceutics, ranked 4th) recognized for its virtuous gender equity policies in terms of salary, welfare services and work-life balance, that are implemented thanks also to Employee Resource Groups, internal communities in which company personnel have an incentive to participate in order to contribute to creating an inclusive culture. 2) Vetrya (IT sector, ranked 5th) recognized for the creation of a special after-school area for employees' children, with free educational and teaching activities lasting until evening (From 3 p.m. until 8 p.m.) and for the whole day during school closings. Here as well participation is favored and the service is a sort of work in progress that gathers suggestions or new needs expressed over time by the employees. 3) Servier Group in Italy (biotechnology and pharmaceutics, ranked 16th) organizes global opportunities for travel and vacations for employees' children with colleagues who voluntarily offer hospitality. Here, thanks to the Global platform, each company employee posts their willingness and a virtual map indicates the opportunities available. 4) Assimoco Group (financial and insurance services, ranked 17th) recognized for the organization of a contemporary event dedicated to families, with informational activities on robotic programming logics and languages for minors and pedagogic advice for parents, who are given information regarding the safe and conscious use of technology. 5) Mellin and Nutricia Italia of the Danone group (food manufacturing and production, ranked 20th) were recognized for the creation of breastfeeding rooms for new mothers, locations where it is also possible to obtain information and advice on proper child nutrition.


Prevalence of family-friendly projects

Overall, from the standpoint of the promotion of equal opportunity, in the Best Workplaces rankings greater space and importance is given to family-friendly projects, something which can be seen favorably, as an area deserving attention. In fact, interventions in this area are already very necessary, if we think that in 2019, out of 49,451 resignations and consensual terminations registered by the National Labor Inspectorate, the actions regard working mothers in 73 percent of cases, and among these, 59 percent have only one child or are expecting their first child. In addition, while last year the most common reason declared by women who left their jobs was already incompatibility between work and childcare needs (20,212 out of 56,636, compared to 15,825 the previous year),[7] this phenomenon could increase in the current situation given the restrictions enacted to face the Covid-19 emergency (such as the closure of schools and recreation centers or alternating periods of distance learning). If possible, this could further aggravate the situation already indicated by the data measured before the pandemic. While the presence of best practices for work-life balance in the Best Workplaces Italia is certainly a good indicator of a start of organizational change towards the pursuit of a business culture that promotes the possibility of employment and professional fulfillment for mothers as well, the process innovation in that direction should be accelerated and the current moment (despite being devastating from an economic and social standpoint) could be propitious, given that there is a sort of renegotiation also of the way work activities are carried out, despite creating new collaborations and networks that can lead to new solutions (for example, consider the recent agreement between Adecco Group, ManPowerGroup, and Randstad).


Greater economic competitiveness with better gender balance

The Covid-19 health emergency has made many of the vulnerabilities of the current economic and social system evident, aggravating pre-existing inequalities. While all categories have been affected, there was a moment in which women were considered privileged, because the rates of contagion initially registered and published by the Superior Institute of Health showed greater percentages among men. At an initial stage of knowledge on the issue, the conclusion was reached that females were protected by biological or behavioral factors.

The hypothesis of lesser female sensitivity to contagion, that was investigated at the international level,[8] was not however confirmed by subsequent investigations in Italy,[9] although the country continues to have a lower mortality rate among women, as in the rest of the world.[10] This data also corroborates the evidence that, for the female gender, the pandemic has had considerable effects. If we reflect on the professional, family, and relational sphere, it indeed appears clear that during the phases of isolation, lockdown, and the initial reopening, there was a worsening of a series of phenomena including domestic violence, unfair distribution of care work, and lack of job security.

Due to the pandemic, the process of female emancipation thus risks slowing down or stopping in the worst cases, eliminating freedom of choice and self-determination. For a substantial and conscious participation of women in the economic system, economic independence is essential, and in this regard, a complex, interjectional, and mulitsectoral approach is needed, as also highlighted by in the "Italy 2020-2022" report on initiatives for relaunching the country's economy (the "Colao Plan").[11] Here, among the three pillars to be strengthened for the transformation of the country that inspired the future vision for Italy, and the Committee's goals and recommendations, we find gender parity and inclusion, among other things to ensure that women have a place in economic and social development and to definitively eradicate economic, territorial, and generational inequality, that hold back the country's economic and social development. The conclusions of the World Economic Forum Report on the Gender Gap note that economic competitiveness can be increased by achieving greater balance between genders in positions of responsibility, and that only the economies that succeed in employing all of their talent will be able to prosper.

Now the occasion for a forced change can make it easier to produce innovations in the tools aimed at creating excellent workplaces for women and for mothers, for example extending the best practices identified as virtuous in the Best Workplaces Italia 2020 rankings; where as we have seen, it has been possible even for companies that are not exceedingly large to create after-school services that truly meet women's needs, thanks to processes of participation of female workers in defining company policies.

A great deal of work will certainly still be necessary on this subject, because while full female inclusion is desirable to the point of being present in the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development (Goal 5, achieving gender equality), the measurement of progress in reaching the SDGs shows that, on average, OECD countries are still far from meeting the goals linked to inequality (participation and female leadership) and safety (violence against women) and that to date Italy has only reached 12 of the 105 targets set by the United Nations 2030 Agenda according to OECD findings.[12]

We can thus conclude that a work organization that makes it possible to combine motherhood and profession is one of the challenges for the future, and hope that, a year from now, in the next Best Workplaces Italia rankings, we already begin to see some new positive models.

Eleonora Maglia, PhD in Economics and Master in IT; Researcher for the Luigi Einaudi Center for Research and Documentation; Journalist for Il Sole 24 Ore (contributor to Econopoly-Numeri, idee e progetti per il futuro); Member of the Spin-off for social innovation of CSV Insubria; she directs the Observatory for the analysis of the gender gap in professions.


[1] D. Ariely, Payoff. The Hidden Logic That Shapes Our Motivation, New York, Simon Schuster, 2016.

[2] "Classifica Best Workplaces Italia 2020", Great Place to Work, 2020.

[3] Eu-silc, Indagine sul reddito e le condizioni di vita, 2018.

[4] Istat, Indagine sulla sicurezza dei cittadini, 2016.

[5] European Commission, The Gender Pay Gap Situation in the EU, 2019.

[6] V. Casali, Valorizzare le diversità nell’impresa. Verso cantieri di innovazione sociale, Sviluppo & Organizzazione, 272, 2016, pp. 17-30

[7] National Labor Inspectorate, Relazione annuale sulle convalide delle dimissioni e risoluzioni consensuali delle lavoratrici madri e dei lavoratori padri, 2019.

[8] BMJ Global Health, Sex, gender and Covid-19: Disaggregated data and health disparities, 2020.

[9] Superior Institute of Health, Differenze di genere in Covid-19, 2020.

[10] Global Health 50/50, Resources on gender and secondary impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic, 2020.

[11] Committee of experts on economic and social matters, Iniziative per il rilancio "Italia 2020-2022", 2020.

[12] Asvis, L’Italia e gli obiettivi di sviluppo sostenibile. Rapporto 2019, 2019; OECD, Measuring Distance to the SDG Target, 2019.


Equità di genere