What happens when women try to break into a male domain? A real story from Venice allows Diversity practitioners to verify key dynamics they should be aware of. Meet the first female and the first transgender Gondolieras…
It might have been one of last exclusively male bastions: The profession of Gondolier on Venice’s canals. For almost 1,000 years (!), strict regulations and traditions governed how to obtain one of the 420-ish licenses to row tourists along the 177 waterways. Today, there is an official education with hundreds of hours of learning and training as well as a formal exam. Until a few years ago, the jury was exclusively male although this was illegal under Italian law. And up until 2010, no woman had ever managed to pass all tests. Miraculously, over centuries the sons of former Gondoliers appear to have always been qualified and obtained their licenses.
First women to operate as a Gondolier just came out as transgender
The closed all-male Gondolier system was first provoked by Alexandra Hai who came to Venice as a German woman with Algerian roots doing historical research in the mid-1990s. After learning and practicing on ‘ferry gondolas’, she decided to attempt the official Gondolier test and failed. Not only that she failed once, but several times over several years, and with worsening scores. “Outsiders are inspected carefully and fight an uphill battle”, Diversity expert, Michael Stuber, explains the dynamic behind the phenomenon. In Venice, the case led to law suits and fierce public debates, including statements that ‘women should stay at home and take care of the family’. Hai found a niche to work as a private Gondolier in 2005 which was forbidden by a new law (introduced the following year) that only affected her. “Criteria for group membership are raised, when outsiders find a way to participate”, Stuber adds. As this law had to be repealed, Hai is still the first woman to operate as a Gondolier in Venice. In July 2017, Alex Hai, as he is now called, announced that he is transgender and will continue his life as a man. It is impossible not to see some irony in this part of the story.
First official female Gondolier complies with some traditional norms
The title as the first officially recognised and – based on her passed exam – licensed Gondoliera went to Giorgia Boscolo. She followed the footsteps of her father who had worked in this profession for some 40 years. While she was probably privileged through her family roots, and by Alex Hai who had prepared some of the ground, Ms Boscolo also faced some barriers when she enrolled in 2010. She told the Press that the men had joked with her and that ‘a woman would not be able to control a heavy and long gondola’, “but I told them that I had given birth to two children and that was far more difficult”. Ms Boscolo was congratulated by several officials when she had passed the exam. They were “delighted with [her] achievement” and were sure that other women will be “following her example”, and that “male colleagues will share her delight”.
The token exception to the rule does not imply a break-through
That things are not quite so easy can be seen from the fact that two other women in her course did not succeed in passing the test. The president of Venice’s gondoliers’ association was quoted to point out how ‘difficult’ the exam was, regardless of gender. “It’s a very technical job and involves lots of different skills, like watching for weather patterns” and added that the training was not easy for women, “especially if they have small children to look after”. The biased perspective on both the tasks and on women might seem all too familiar to Diversity practitioners. “The statements echo assumptions from various male domains in business”, Stuber reports, referring to his work in production environments and – more significantly – management and executive levels. “Senior managers create and stabilise a leadership culture that perpetuates inflated assumptions about their jobs while they still hold stereotypical beliefs about women in general”. Allowing exceptions is their trick to accept reality and to salve their conscience. Exactly what happened with Giorgia Boscolo, who is still the only licensed Gondoliera.