ROME -- Forty years ago, Micol Fontana and her two sisters, Giovanna and Zoe, started their now world-famous fashion design firm.
"It was very hard because there were so few women designers," said Fontana, whose exclusive shop is in the pricey Spanish Steps area of the city. It serves an international clientele of the rich and famous, among them Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis and Matilda Cuomo, wife of the New York governor.
Twelve years ago, all important posts at the Guardino Zoologico di Roma, on the grounds of the sprawling Villa Borghese, were held by men. That was the year Gloria Svampa Girabaldi, a zoologist, came to work at the zoo.
Now, she is assistant director of the city-owned facility and reports that "women now hold many important posts" there. And, Girabaldi notes, director Ornella Piacente is the first woman to be named to the highest administrative position at the zoo.
Though Italy generally is regarded as a conservative country with women's roles traditionally defined, the women's movement that swept through the U.S. in the 1970s is gaining momentum here, and it shows in employment opportunities.
Visitors note immediately that women work in Rome as polizia, members of the local police force, working in teams with men and toting pistols in white holsters. Women drive ambulances and taxis, positions previously restricted to men.
And, though unemployment in the country is higher than in any other major European nation except Spain, more Italian women are joining the paid labor market.
"Women make up only 35 percent of the Italian work force, but their numbers are increasing rapidly," said Carole Beebe Tarantelli, a member of the Italian Chamber of Deputies, a 638-member legislative body comparable to the U.S. House of Representatives. Tarantelli, 49, a deputy since 1987, is a women's rights activist.
The deputy points out that in the past 10 years, 1 million women entered her country's labor force, but only 100,000 men found jobs in the period. All of the jobs being created, she says, are in the service sector.
"Work that was previously all-male is now opening to women," said Tarantelli, who also is a psychotherapist and has a private practice. "Women make up 50 percent of the financial sector, where they work in sales, as market analysts, statisticians and investment brokers. But the computer industry is firmly shut to women."
In several areas, she points out, employed Italian women do better than their U.S. counterparts:
* This year, Italy passed an equal rights amendment, guaranteeing women equal employment. "The ERA came at the right time, when the labor market is opening up to women," Tarantelli said. "If we had passed it 20 years ago, it would have only been a statement of interest. Now, it has a purpose."
* The wage differential between Italian women and men is 20 percent, compared with 30 percent in the U.S. "The reason for the lower figure is that Italy has a large public sector of employees, and while opportunities for promotions are not equal, salaries are," the deputy said.
* Italian women get a five-month paid maternity leave with a guaranteed job, seniority and benefits on their return. Women returning from maternity leave may work part time for the next 12 months. U.S. women do not have these protections.
Tarantelli is tireless in her efforts to improve conditions for women. In addition to workplace issues, Tarantelli is deeply committed to making rape a crime that must be prosecuted and is sponsor of a national survey on sexual harassment. As president of Differenza Donna, a feminist organization, Tarantelli is leader of the drive to raise $180,000 to open what will be Rome's first shelter for battered women.