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Women's History Month'Numbers are tools of democracy'

The new G20 women’s group leader is an Italian Jew who revolutionized statistics

Gender studies pioneer Linda Laura Sabbadini re-envisioned her field through a human lens; now she’s advocating on behalf of women to the world’s most influential heads of state

Linda Laura Sabbadini. (Photo courtesy of Italian President's Office)
Linda Laura Sabbadini. (Photo courtesy of Italian President's Office)

MANTUA, Italy — Linda Laura Sabbadini entered the field of statstics with an eye for change, and before long was known as a European pioneer of using the discipline to broaden gender studies research.

It was likely with this contribution in mind that Sabbadini, now central director at ISTAT (the Italian Institute of Statistics), was appointed late last year to head up the W20 (Women 20), a G20 engagement group dedicated, as its name suggests, to women’s issues.

The G20 summit, a meeting of heads of state and top government officials representing the world’s largest economies, will be held in Rome — Sabbadini’s hometown — this October.

Sabbadini comes highly credentialed. A researcher credited with over 100 scientific articles, she was included in Italy’s prestigious annual publication of top 100 most influential people in 2015. She has been working at ISTAT since 1983, and as central director she now specializes in dealing with women’s issues, individual well-being, poverty, discrimination, migrant issues, the environment, and eco-sustainability.

“We studied very complicated phenomena such as discrimination based on sexual orientation and violence against women… It emerged that for 30 percent of the women who suffered from violence, we were the first people they had ever opened up to about it,” Sabbadini said.

It wasn’t possible to meet Sabbadini in person due to government restrictions in place to stem the spread of the coronavirus, which in Italy currently shows no signs of letting up. In her telephone interview with The Times of Israel, the researcher focused on her personal story, marked by big dreams and a love for her Judaism, which she said she got from her family. The following interview has been edited.

Linda Laura Sabbadini. (Courtesy)

The Times of Israel: Could you tell us about your work as chair of the W20?

Linda Laura Sabbadini: The first goal of the W20, the group dedicated to women and gender issues, is the growth of female employment. Unfortunately, there is still a gender gap between men and women.

Another important part of our work will concern violence against women — an unpunished crime all countries have in common. The fact that in the overwhelming majority of countries this phenomenon is not reported calls into question the judicial systems of many democratic states.

The fact that in the overwhelming majority of countries this phenomenon is not reported calls into question the judicial systems of many democratic states

What are the next steps necessary to accomplish these goals?

I believe we need a great plan for a cultural change aimed at breaking down gender stereotypes that block the possibility for women, and also for men, to develop their freedom in all senses. The W20, an expression of civil society, is a support group for issues concerning female empowerment.

The experts who are part of this group started a consultation process with women’s associations around the world. What are the results of these meetings?

We met more than 150 associations to identify some key points. The kickoff meeting of W20 was held at the end of February. We presented the platform we have developed to the 20 delegations of the countries that take part in the G20. We proposed an important position on issues relating to work, finance, business, digital development, green policies and violence against women.

The final summit of the W20 is scheduled for July in Rome. What expectations do you have for it?

We will draw up a list of our recommendations for the heads of state in the G20. Those world leaders will meet in October to launch a road map for women’s empowerment. It’s a great challenge — we will try to make an impact, so we’re setting targets that are both ambitious and at the same time concrete. Unfortunately, the global coronarivus pandemic worsened the situation for women, and not just in Italy.

Linda Laura Sabbadini speaking with Italian President Sergio Mattarella. (Courtesy of the Italian President’s Office)

As a statistician, how did you start to deal with studies on inequality, discrimination, gender issues, women and other social phenomena?

I fought to strengthen the measurement of social phenomena because traditionally statistical institutes are based on the economy. Social studies have always been overshadowed.

When they became the subject of statistical research, people were analyzed and measured in relation to their needs, which concern, for example, assistance, time and culture. We studied very complicated phenomena such as discrimination based on sexual orientation and violence against women. It’s very difficult to encourage women to open up with workers at a statistical institute and talk about their dramatic experiences. It emerged that for 30 percent of the women who suffered from violence, we were the first people they had ever opened up to about it. Previously they had not talked to anyone — not even relatives and friends. This made clear the terrible situation in which women around the world find themselves.

How has the pandemic affected women specifically?

It’s had a profound impact on inequality and the condition of women, who have been a pillar in the battle against the coronavirus and represent two-thirds of the healthcare workforce in Italy. I believe the situation is also the same in Israel.

Statistics show that health personnel there are largely female. Yet women were the most affected by the crisis, not in terms of health and mortality — the most affected by this were men — but in terms of social and economic consequences. For the first time, female employment decreased more than male employment [due to the prevalence of women in the industries hardest-hit by the pandemic].

The success of women such as United States Vice President Kamala Harris, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, European Central Bank President Christine Lagarde, and German Chancellor Angela Merkel may suggest that the gap between men and women in positions of power is narrowing. What do you think about this?

These are prestigious posts that demonstrate the great strength of women and the important role they can play in politics. In Israel, former prime minister Golda Meir was a forerunner from this point of view. I remember one of her beautiful lines about violence against women. When she was prime minister, she was asked to impose a curfew on women to stop a series of rapes. And her reply was, “It’s the men who are attacking the women. If there is a curfew, let the men stay at home.”

Linda Laura Sabbadini speaks in 2018. (Photo courtesy of Italian President’s Office)

Women assert themselves in the most difficult moments. At the beginning of her political career, Angela Merkel imposed herself in the moment of the maximum crisis of her party [the Christian Democratic Union]. She had a lot of courage and got involved. In these circumstances, men tend to expose themselves less, and so worthy women have the opportunity to emerge.

In these circumstances, men tend to expose themselves less, and so worthy women have the opportunity to emerge

Your passion for mathematics and statistics was born in school. Why are numbers important to you?

I had an exceptional teacher, Emma Castelnuovo, who created an extraordinary method that helped students experience mathematics as intuition, play, creativity and logic. I think that numbers are tools of democracy that allow us to understand reality and act to improve the situation.

It’s necessary to have a proper relationship with numbers and understand what they express without forcing them towards ideological positions. Faced with the same number, people of different political orientations can support opposite interpretations. The key aspect is the rigor with which the data are analyzed. There are statistical models to read numbers for what they are.

Numbers are tools of democracy that allow us to understand reality and act to improve the situation

Can you tell us about your family and your childhood, and what role, if any, Judaism played in your home?

My Jewish roots had a great influence on my upbringing. In the 1960s my mother, Gemma Pia Coen, was the first female counselor of the Jewish Community of Rome. Currently, the Union of the Italian Jewish Communities and the Roman Jewish Community are chaired by two women. My mother was ahead of her time.

The women of my family were an example to me because they were working women. My mother and grandmother were teachers. My great-grandmother took over the printing shop her husband ran after his death. As a child, it was normal for me to think about my future as a working woman.

The women of my family were an example to me because they were working women… As a child it was normal for me to think about my future as a working woman

Are there other important figures in your family?

My maternal grandfather, Guido Coen, was a member of the Action Party, a political group born in 1942 to fight fascism. He participated in the Resistance against the Nazi-Fascist regime. My grandfather, together with Guido Castelnuovo — father of Emma Castelnuovo, my mathematics teacher — helped establish the Jewish school in Rome when, starting from 1938, the government of Benito Mussolini approved the racial laws that discriminated against Jews. All the teachers, expelled from other schools, taught there — and they were very competent teachers.

How did your family identify religiously?

My family passed on the principles of Jewish culture to me, starting with religious rites and observance of holidays. I remember the weekly ritual on Friday evening. We gathered, we all ate together with our other relatives, and we lit candles.

I received a very strong cultural impression from my grandfather, who told me about the experiences he had lived through and always repeated how important it was for a Jew to fight for justice and freedom. He taught me to be proud of being Jewish because it’s a beautiful thing. He also told me that Jews are often persecuted and therefore I had to study — because no one could take culture away from me.

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