Dealing With Gender Discrimination While Teaching English in Italy

Alex Pendleton
Alex Pendleton is a foreign correspondent from Pink Pangea. Follow her on Google+ .
Alex in Italy

Why did I want to live in Italy? It’s a country with a history of wonderful food, art and culture. A place where you can eat gelato in a cobbled piazza at midnight, take wine tours and admire ancient ruins -- and where a British girl can get giddy on insane, never-seen-before amounts of sunshine. It’s a place that gets under your skin and lingers in your mind. However, Italy is also unfortunately a country also known for sexism and old-fashioned gender values (a reputation not exactly helped by recent political figures) -- something I experienced in full force as an English teacher in Italy.

Now, I know feminism and gender issues are often complicated to dissect. And in fact, Italy is known to be improving in many ways. The feminist movement is becoming vocal again (it surprised me to find out that Italy had a feminist movement as far back as the 13th places from 80 up to 71 in the Gender Global Gap Survey 2013. BUT, having said all that, 71 is still a pretty long way to the top. Whilst I can’t give you a year-by-year analysis of centuries of Italian female life, I can share with you some of my experiences while working there and some of the challenges female English teachers may experience while working abroad in Italy and how to deal with them.

Lack of Respect

Tourist in Italy

I worked as a teacher in Parma, a small, beautiful city in the north of Italy. Prior to my time in Parma, I worked in Germany for the same company. My lessons went really well, and the feedback received extremely positive. I was feeling confident in my teaching abilities, and looking forward to a new challenge (whilst secretly glad I knew the basic lesson plans already).

I was not prepared for such a different reaction to the same lessons.

I had grown men refuse to be taught by me –- because I am a woman. I had men ignore what I had to say and tell me I could teach them nothing –- because I am a woman. I had comments about my clothes, my hair, the way I looked in general. My breasts had so much more better things to say than I did, it seemed; if only they could teach, too! The worst experience was teaching a class of two bankers from the South of Italy. They were instantly intimidating, and asked me if I was a) a prostitute or b) a lesbian because I was single, basically coming to the lessons because they were paid for by the bank, to drink the alcohol in their bag and make sexual comments at me.

They ignored me when I told them not to bring in alcohol; when I complained to my (female) manager, she told me I was overreacting. It took six complaints and then a flat-out refusal to teach these men, when they started to feel physically intimidating, for my manager to relent and allow me to stop teaching them. The male teacher who replaced me thought I was overreacting, because – shockingly enough – they were fine with him. While my manager was remarkably understanding once the situation had finally sunk in, the female office staff thought there was no problem except my complaints: to quote, they were “men just being men”. I vehemently disagreed.

You are... entitled to learn as much as you can about your potential new workplace. This kind of information from past employees should give you an idea of... how much support you will get from them with difficult classes.

While a lot of TEFL teaching contracts in Italy are on a freelance basis, which (theoretically) makes it a lot easier to switch classes, avoid these situations and control your schedule, I have found that a lot of these freelance contracts work on a “you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours” theory; effectively, if you cooperate with the school, you get more regular hours. Don’t let this deter you from getting out of difficult classes, like – I must admit – it did me. Be prepared by researching the school as much as possible (read reviews on our Teach Abroad in Italy page if you can!) and asking for contact details of previous teachers. You are moving countries to teach, and are entitled to learn as much as you can about your potential new workplace prior to accepting an offer. This kind of information from past employees should give you a better idea of how the school works, and how much support you will get from them with difficult classes, if you need it.

What to Do: Remain calm and professional. If someone is treating you with disrespect in a classroom, politely call them out on it. You are the person in control of the classroom –- remember that! And if you don’t feel comfortable in teaching someone, then you shouldn’t. Inform your manager of the situation, and insist that you change class! I should have stood my ground and refused a lot earlier than I did.

Suggested Teach Abroad Programs in Italy

Skewed Gender Roles

One of the lessons in my class book was about adjectives in job roles, and one of the activities was to match six character profiles to six jobs. If students understood the vocabulary properly, the activity was set up so that they identified a woman as a CEO, a man as a secretary, and a woman as an engineer. How politically correct.

In Germany, this task went without problems. But when I tried this task in Italy, every single time, every class tried to put the CEO profile into the secretary and vice versa, and a male character into an engineer. When questioned, they looked at me confused, often announcing that “men can’t be secretaries!” I started to do the task more and more with different classes, purely out of curiosity, and felt more and more frustrated as the same outcome came about. I think this summarizes it up right here; all too often in Italy, the stereotype remains that men can’t be secretaries, women can’t be CEOs, and it’s just as simple as that.

I don’t believe it’s my place to ram my politics down a classroom’s throat, but I do think it’s okay to talk about my culture if it’s relevant to a lesson subject, and how it can differ from my students’.

When talking to colleagues about this, the results were mixed. Some teachers very much like to incorporate their own cultural ideas and politics into a lesson, whereas others focus strictly on the language, no matter how much their opinion conflicts with a student. Me? I’m somewhere in-between. I don’t believe it’s my place to ram my politics down a classroom’s throat, but I do think it’s okay to talk about my culture if it’s relevant to a lesson subject, and how it can differ from my students’. As an ESL teacher, you are there to teach a language, yes – but your understanding of a language improves with your understanding of a culture.It’s likely that if you are in a position to have these debates, you are in a higher-level class – so first and foremost, make sure that students understand the vocabulary before diving into deep discussions. For example, it could simply be that a student innocently picks a female secretary instead of a CEO because they don’t understand the lingo – double-check before you assume!

Tread carefully and use your intuition; some students actively want to have debates, and others may be more unwilling. And keep neutral, calm and informative at all times; don’t become angry and preachy. See what you can learn from your students’ opinions, as well as what they can learn from yours.

What to Do: Rather than getting increasingly more frustrated (aka me), accept that this is something that will be much more difficult to fight. You can change your own attitude to teaching, as above, but permanently changing students’ ideas about gender roles? Much bigger fish to fry. Read up on cultural differences before you arrive and try to adjust your lessons to be reflective of your students' culture -- while at the same time not compromising your own values to the best of your ability.

Cultural Acceptance of Gender Oppression

Boat in Italy

I confided my difficulties with a group of female Italian friends one day, eager to hear their thoughts and feel that I wasn’t alone in these bizarre events. And every single one of them had the same story, if not worse. Promotions denied because they were women. Sexual comments were the norm. Making the tea was the norm. Being turned away from work when you are at the assumed age for marriage and babies Is normal. “Because you are a woman”: the simple answer to any problem or restriction in the workplace. These were all women of different ages, in different job roles. And the outcome was depressingly the same.

I think the most frustrating situation here was this: I am British, so we don’t like to big ourselves up too much, but I know I am a good teacher. I am passionate about the profession, and work above and beyond for my students. And yet, to see the students’ reactions to me, against when I observed other teachers – teachers who barely prepared, were always hungover or drunk, and who were all men – was pretty difficult to take. Even if students complained passively to admin staff, in the lessons my male counterparts were always treated with far greater reverence to me, even when they were stinking of beer from the night before. It was strange to see.

What to Do: Ask questions, learn, and get involved with other women and organizations in Italy who are working to make a difference in women's rights. If you see any behavior by other teachers that is harmful to your students (especially if you're teaching children), report it to your school. Per our suggestion, you've already made sure you're working for someone responsible, so they should be able to take care of this situation.

In The End, Italy is Still a Great Teach Abroad Destination

Before I start to discourage you come here, I must stress: not all my students were like this. I met some wonderful male students, some female students in high-powered jobs or who ran their own businesses. I taught an amazing teenage girl who wanted to change the world. I met a friend whose mother-in-law runs a feminist magazine on the side of her career. There are undeniably opportunities and success stories for women, and things do seem to be slowly improving.

I loved my time in the country, and had many more amazing experiences than I did negative ones. It’s a place I miss almost every day.

The experiences I describe above were not every day, and were not the norm. If they had been, I would not have stayed there for so long! I do think my age may have also had a factor, although it’s impossible to prove. I started teaching Italy at 24, which is considered very young. But these experiences, rare or otherwise, were still present, and they did make me feel bad. There was a lot more prejudice in the classroom than I could have ever anticipated.

I write this here not to depress you, or to make you avoid Italy. I loved my time in the country, and had many more amazing experiences than I did negative ones. It’s a place I miss almost every day. But I do want to make you aware that teaching English in Italy can also have its challenges. I had no idea about these potential problems before I left, and perhaps you didn’t, either. Maybe this was just me, who knows? But speaking to my students, friends and other female teaching colleagues have led me to think that I am not alone.

If you decide to teach English in Italy, fellow females, be prepared! Do some research, speak to other colleagues, and maintain your professional persona. Enjoy the wonderful students you will have, and take the difficult ones with a pinch of salt. If a student persists in being difficult just because you’re a woman, it is unfortunately their problem, not yours. And if you really don’t feel comfortable teaching someone, politely but firmly stand your ground and request to change classes. You came to Italy to have fun, not to feel bad! And just as you have the choice to teach anywhere, you have the right to teach in an environment where you feel happy and secure. Don’t let the potential of a few bad guys ruin what could ultimately be a great experience in a fascinating country.

Photo Credits: Author's own