ROME — Considering that today is the United Nations-sponsored International Women’s Day, I set up to write about women covering the Vatican and women working around it, to highlight how complicated it can be, not only for female journalists but in general.
However, speaking with many of these women, some of them friends and others random people I encountered this week, I found that even though there are (many) challenges, not all of them have to do with working in and around a male-dominated environment.
When it comes to journalists, as one of them put it to me, “I’ve never been treated differently because I’m a woman, nor because I’m lay. The problem is what I do for a living.”
In the three years I’ve been in Rome, I’ve found this to be true: despite its four million inhabitants, this city can be a small town, and odds are, if you go to cocktail parties, museum openings or even while doing ordinary things like getting a haircut or going to the gym, you’ll run into someone who’s somehow related to the Vatican.
If not the Vatican, you’ll still run into potential sources, since beyond the Holy See, the Eternal City is home to the headquarters of many religious orders, has over 20 pontifical universities or educational institutes, and so on. In my own case, I know at least three Vatican monsignors who go to my gym.
It doesn’t matter what the setting is: telling them you’re a journalist covering the Church is an extraordinary conversation-killer.
Then there’s also the challenge of cultivating off-the record sources, knowledgeable people who even though they rarely make the papers are the ones who can better explain a situation, either because they’re low-level employees or because they’re professors, theologians, and so on.
To some extent, it’s exclusively a female problem: It’s harder for a woman to invite a bishop or even a priest out to lunch than it is for a man. I’m not saying this atmosphere of “correctness” is good or bad, but it’s a fact.
Similarly, when you go to interview them at the Secretary of State, they feel inclined to leave the door to their offices open, or some of them go to extraordinary lengths to make sure there’s a third person in the room.
Another element is the fact that as women, we’re often expected to include more female sources in our stories, as if we somehow know more women experts in Church law and are better equipped to track them down, when male canonists are a dime-a-dozen in Rome.
During the last Synod of Bishops on the family, a friend was working on a piece on pornography, which had come up in several of the small working groups. She couldn’t find a bishop open to discussing it with her, so she had to ask a male colleague to get her some sound-bites.
Yet it’s unfair to say it’s all negative.
It’s an undeniable fact that women are a minority within the Vatican’s work force, yet several of those working on the inside had nothing but praise. For instance, there’s no male-female pay gap among the laity, with all making the same money according to a scale divided by professional experience. (Most believe salaries should be higher, but that’s a different conversation.)
The Vatican also has a great maternity leave plan, “doing what it preaches” according to a source who was recently reincorporated after having a baby last year. The same cannot be said, however, for paternity leave.
Several sources also pointed out that superiors tend to be very understanding of the need women have of balancing job and family.
There’s also no particular resistance to hiring women, at least for the many positions lay people can fill, most of which until fairly recently were covered by either priests or, in some exceptional cases, nuns. If anything, the challenge is finding qualified people to work, particularly non-Italians, for a salary that is often lower than what they’d receive for a similar position working in the U.S. or in other European countries.
Several Vatican officials have told me that it’s usually easier to hire a priest since, if he ends up being inadequate for the position, he can be sent to teach at a university, while because of Italian employment laws it’s virtually impossible to fire a lay employee.
Even when it comes to professional development, the Vatican has been described to me as “not very proactive,” yet usually open to people furthering their studies and formation. It remains to be seen, however, if the Vatican or the Holy See will start taking on more of the growing number of female professionals graduating from what used to be mostly male pontifical universities.
In virtually every Vatican office women represent a stark minority, yet at least in the five offices where the women I spoke with work, there’s no resistance to their presence from the hierarchy. If anything, some of the men who’ve been working here for decades are still “adjusting” to the idea of women coming and going in an institution that hired its first female employee, Anna Pezzoli, 100 years ago.
But many believe the challenge is not exclusively for women: lay men share many of these problems, including the fact that the Swiss Guards controlling the Vatican’s gate are more prone to let a man wearing a collar in than one who’s not.
However, as today’s meeting of women at the heart of the Vatican or the decision from the Pontifical Council for Culture to create a Women’s Consultation Group show, Pope Francis’s call for women to be heard is, in fact, being heard.
The most updated statistics of women who work for the Church either in the Governorate for Vatican City State, which includes the museums and the post office, or the Holy See, the Church’s actual governing body, are from 2014.
Back then, on the eve of Women’s Day, it was revealed that in a decade the number of women employed went up from 483 to 762. This means that today, one in five people working at the Vatican are women, and most of them are academics.
It’s also true that the women in leadership positions are so few that most close observers know their names: Sister Nicoletta Spezzati, who works at the Congregation for Religious, and laywoman Flaminia Giovanelli, who works at the Dicastery for Integral Human Development.
As Ireland’s ambassador Emma Madigan told me on Tuesday, “There’s plenty of room for growth in this area, but at the same time, I think that there is an understanding that more needs to be done.”
One of the 37 women participating in the women’s consultation at the Council for Culture, she believes this group is a practical response to the, “We want the voices of women, [we want to] bring them into the fold” attitude the Church has had in recent years.