ROME (Reuters) - Maria Grazia Fera was looking forward to getting back to work after her first child was born. But three months into her maternity leave, her temporary contract as a teacher for the disabled expired and suddenly, her job was gone.
More than two years later, the 31-year-old is still out of work and often passed over by potential employers now she has a small daughter.
Italian women have long complained of discrimination in the workplace, from employers who fail to respect their maternity rights to a patriarchal society that still thinks their primary role is in the home.
Labor reforms touted by the new government of Prime Minister Mario Monti and public disgust at the sex scandals and macho behavior of his predecessor Silvio Berlusconi may finally change all that.
"Our country is still very backward, culturally and on the services side, when it comes to balancing care roles in the family," Labour Minister Elsa Fornero said in a recent interview in the Corriere della Sera newspaper.
"We want to achieve this balance and we are pushing for it with great force," she said.
The female employment rate in Italy, at 46 percent, is the lowest in the European Union after Malta, lagging 68 percent for Italian men and a 58 percent average for women in Europe, official data shows.
Italy ranks 74th, below Ghana and Bangladesh, on gender equality, dragged down by its low score for women's economic participation and opportunity, according to the World Economic Forum's 2011 Global Gender Gap Report.
As part of measures to boost Italy's sluggish growth, Monti has said he wants to shake up a rigid labor system which offers strong protection for some privileged workers while leaving others, commonly women and young people, in precarious, short-term jobs with little labor protection or benefits.
He has introduced a tax incentive scheme to encourage firms to hire women and young people, and though he has not yet presented any other policies specifically targeted at women, his government is discussing a series of plans that could help.
A proposal to create one standard contract to replace more than 40 varieties of temporary contract would reduce job insecurity and encourage female employment, said Daniela Del Boca, economist and family expert at Turin University.
Rallies against Berlusconi brought a million people onto streets across Italy this time last year and feminists' groups want to harness the popular sentiment that led up to his resignation in November to hold new protests and lobby for change.
"The women's' protests last year brought the word 'dignity' back to public debate as a word that could no longer be cancelled out or scorned," said Susanna Camusso, head of Italy's biggest trade union CGIL.
Camusso is one of a few high-profile women with major stakes in Italy's labor reforms, along with the head of the main employers' lobby Emma Marcegaglia and labor minister Fornero.
To get more women scaling the career ladder, the government is looking at ways to fight illegal, yet widespread, discriminatory practices by Italian businesses.
Among the most insidious of these are "white resignations," whereby employers force new female workers to sign undated resignation letters which they use to fire them immediately if they get pregnant or face long-term illness.
Bar worker Mercedes Ortega said her former boss made her sign a letter when she was hired and then used it to force her out of her job days after she was injured in a traffic accident.
"Only the girls were made to sign the resignations," said 27-year-old Ortega. "My boss said she did it to cover herself, because she'd had to fork out thousands of euros for a former employee's maternity leave."
Such discrimination has implications not just for the workplace, but the family and society as a whole.
Italy has one of the lowest fertility rates in Europe, at 1.4 live births per woman, and an average first-time mother's age of about 30 compared to an average of 27.8 among countries in the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD).
Many young Italians are delaying having children due to the uncertainty created by the lack of a stable job.
"You can't create a future without steady work," said literature graduate Virginia Del Pelo, 29, who has been looking in vain for a long-term job in media for years.
"I'm putting kids on hold until I get a proper contract and have some economic stability, though I'm worried I will never find one," she said.
Roughly one in three mothers in Italy leave work to look after their families, according to a study by statistics office ISTAT. The maternal employment rate falls as children get older, while in other European countries mothers' working rates recover as children grow up, OECD data shows.
Del Boca said limited childcare services, scarce flexible-time work opportunities and traditional views about the division of domestic duties all contribute to the trend.
"It's not so much the gender, but the role of caring for others that is being discriminated against," she said.
Public spending on family benefits in cash, services and tax measures comes to less than 1.5 percent of gross domestic product (GDP) in Italy compared to more than 3 percent in France, Sweden and Denmark, according to the OECD.
Some Italian women who are already mothers want more of the opportunities for part-time work that have helped female employment rates in countries such as the Netherlands. There, 70 percent of women are employed, and three-quarters work part time, compared to a third of working Italian women.
"In some industries you can find part-time work, especially if you know people, but others are completely closed to the idea," said former technical consultant Paola Recchioni, 44, now a housewife and mother of three.
The average Italian woman in a couple still handles almost three quarters of domestic work, the latest official statistics show, putting additional strain on women who attempt to juggle a job and family.
"The whole system crushes you," said Samantha Tufariello, 34, who tries to balance a job as an office assistant with caring for her two children and doing housework.
"Partly due to the Catholic influence in Italy, a woman's place is seen at home, caring for children. When women started to enter the labor market, they didn't delegate any of that traditional work to others," she said.
Women's groups say obligatory paternity leave would help change attitudes, and are pushing for the expansion of childcare services at the state level and within companies.
Labour minister Fornero says she is in favor of a system that would share parental leave between mothers and fathers, while limiting the costs for businesses.
Union chief Camusso said Monti had a chance to finally focus on the real problems faced by Italian women, pushed to the shadows in recent years as Berlusconi's affairs with starlets and jokes about female politicians' looks hogged the headlines.
"We have a difficult task, with big problems. Female employment could be an extraordinary resource for our country," she said.
"Then there is equal representation, recognition of the political contribution of women, not only of their procurement," she said, referring to charges Berlusconi paid for sex with an underage prostitute, which he denies.
Increasing the number of women who work to the European Union's goal of 60 percent could boost Italy's GDP by up to 7 percent, Bank of Italy research shows.
It's a point echoed by Fera, the teacher for the disabled.
"I don't like being at home all day. I feel like I'm not contributing to my family's economic well-being when I could be," she said.
Campaigners say it will take more than just a change in government to overcome the gender disparities, however.
"These are general problems in Italy that Berlusconi worsened and accentuated. They're not finished with him, they're ingrained in our culture," said Francesca Caferri from the "If not now, when?" group that organized last year's protests.
Graduate Del Pelo saw the appointment of three experienced women to lead the labor, interior and justice ministries as a step forward from Berlusconi, who was often accused of handing political jobs to women based entirely on their appearance.
"I think with more women in important government posts we will see some change," she said.
"Under Berlusconi, women were degraded a lot and made fun of. Now I hope we will be taken seriously."
Editing by Sonya Hepinstall