ECWO: Fairness drives Severina Scarnecchia’s gender equality advocacy
If there’s a single word that encapsulates why Severina Scarnecchia is a powerful advocate for gender equality, it’s fairness. Even as a young child growing up in socially conservative southern Italy, she recognised how differently she was treated because she was a girl - and she began actively questioning the unfairness of it. This formative experience put Scarnecchia on a journey that has been defined by an unwavering commitment to standing up for what’s right, over a professional career that has included procurator at an Italian law firm in the early 2000s, six years as EU Governmental Affairs Senior Counsellor and, since 2015, Government Affairs Director, EMEA, at Eastman Chemical Company. At one time this meant risking – and losing - her job to remain true to her beliefs, but it has also seen Scarnecchia be a fierce force for gender equality at Eastman, helping drive company-wide initiatives and research that are impacting this global organisation.
You’re a strong advocate for gender equality. Looking back on your childhood, was there anything that you recall that laid the foundation for this?
When I was growing up, my older sister was at boarding school and I was at home with my two brothers. It was in that environment that the seed was planted because, being continuously with two boys, I was expecting to be treated just as they were. I remember thinking all too often, “if they can do it, why can’t I?”. I just had that innate sense of fairness inside me; it’s a sense that I can see in my daughter now. There are a few things that I remember vividly. One was my father asking me to do what he considered female tasks, and never asking my brothers. From the age of about five or six I would challenge him on this. I also remember observing my mother’s visible unhappiness at having to take on the role of the housewife, but yet being unaware of why she was so frustrated. I recall my aunt saying to me that I should learn how to clean and cook if I ever wanted to marry and my outrage at the suggestion. If that is what marriage entails, I told her, I won’t ever get married. All of this was in the very conservative environment of the south of Italy but it was definitely the early stage of my passion for gender equality - and from there it has only kept escalating.
Were there similar moments of real awakening after you earned your Masters of Law?
When I was working at the European parliament I had a boss who once said to me, “You don’t have to think. You just have to do what I say.” Being respected for what I think is, of course, really important to me and I replied that if that’s the kind of person you are looking for, then I’m not the right person to be working for you. Later, I stood up for a male colleague and, afterwards, my boss took me aside and said he’d never been spoken to by anyone like that. He said that the real problem was that I’d never been hit by my father or my boyfriend. I told him it felt like I was talking to a man who was coming from a cave and that there was no more common ground for us. I left that job with no other one to go to and no money - but I left with my head held high, feeling very fierce. When I think back to what happened, I always think of that Eleanor Roosevelt quote: “No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.” From that moment on, I resolved that, whenever I didn’t feel respected, I would take action. I could also see the impact of my decision to leave based on strong principles of fairness on the other women I worked with. Many came up to me and told me that I’d done the right thing and said they admired my courage. I felt like a really positive role-model.
Speaking of role-models, have there been any in your own professional and personal journey who really made an impact?
My uncle, Don Marco Scarnecchia. He was a Catholic priest and was incredible – speaking seven languages, a walking Wikipedia, and a man of culture. He was a really strong role-model when it came to gender issues. On one occasion, he invited my aunt and I for lunch and, when we arrived, my aunt said we would take care of everything. No, he said. You sit down. I’ve invited you for lunch and I will be cooking and serving you food. He was 79 when he died and it was really hard for me. He’d got Alzheimer’s and it was heart-breaking.
When women work together they can achieve so much.
From your early work experience, it is clear that you had a strong interest in politics and public policy. What role has this played in your career?
Yes, I joined the European Parliament in 2001 as an assistant and, in 2004, I moved to EU Government Affairs before becoming Governmental Affairs Senior Counsellor. This has given me a great network of contacts within the political environment in Brussels and I am passionate about using this to expand the work that ECWO is doing. It would be a great joy to me to be able to take the ECWO vision into a political environment where we could start having an influence on broader EU policy. When ECWO ran our first Women in Leadership programme at Eastman, I felt such energy and drive and I immediately looked for ways for Eastman to support ECWO’s work. I had a conversation with Dianne (Bevelander) right after the training and that led to Eastman sponsoring ECWO’s 2018 conference and David Golden, our former Chief Legal Officer, being part of the speaker line-up. When women work together we can achieve so much. I take such inspiration from the connections that I see Dianne making all the time.
Was there anything in your experience working within EU structures that played a role in understanding the importance of gender equality and balance?
Politics is another environment where gender equality and diversity is missing. There are so few women across all areas of the parliament. In that way, being in Brussels was a slight disappointment to me. The gender equality committee is doing a good job I’m sure and I am positive that its members are engaged and believe in what they are doing. But there are so many other areas with strong appeal that I do feel that gender equality doesn’t get the attention it absolutely must have. There are areas of real potential impact. But, even in this gender imbalanced environment, I often reflect on how it was women who backed me up and helped me progress in my career at the EU. That was important.
What can women do to provide that support for other women?
When I arrived in the Netherlands, the first thing I did was look for an organisation that was focused on women in business. I joined The Women's Business Initiative International and was a board member for a while. It’s important to have organisations like these but I have found ECWO’s emphasis on providing research-based knowledge that shows how, and why, gender imbalance exists, is really, really powerful – and helps women understand each other and their own possible gender biases. I remember listening to the CFO of a well-known company give a speech about her career and she said she had not seen any problems for women in the business she was in. I wanted to say to her “just because you can’t see a problem, doesn’t mean it isn’t there.” She also said her achievement was thanks to her husband. That might be true but the message that came out was not one of empathy for women who might be struggling; who might think that not progressing in their career is their fault.
Ongoing and dynamic initiative towards gender balance and equality across all levels of the company
Since joining Eastman, you’ve really advocated for gender equality. Can you give us some insight into the impact of this?
I am part of the leadership team at Eastman and, with previous Human Resources Director, Eric Streets, he started discussing the need to take active steps towards gender equality within the company. Of course, I was already an advocate for this so I needed no convincing. He began looking for the perfect partner to run a programme and, after Eric contacted Erasmus University and discovered ECWO, he knew we had found our partner. We did our first training with ECWO in February 2018 and, as a result of that, we created an internal team called The Catalyst in every region. That was the start of an ongoing and dynamic initiative towards gender balance and equality across all levels of the company. I should also mention that Murray Deal, as head of the regions, supported Eric in progressing gender parity in the company and there have been great efforts within HR, both with Erin O’Brien in the US and Marit Op de Beek in Europe. Eastman Senior management has been always supportive of creating the right environment.
Where do you draw your inspiration from?
I get so much inspiration from other women – and Dianne really is one of those. My daughter is also an inspiration because I see how she naturally knows what is right and what is wrong.
Just like there is no female perfume or colour, there are no barriers to women making own choices
What words of advice would you give to a young woman coming into a company like Eastman, in terms of playing a role in journeying towards gender balance and gender equality?
The most important thing is to make your own choices. There are no barriers, just like there is no female perfume or colour. Bring awareness to what you do – especially as it pertains to gendered expectations that you might not even be aware of. Pursue education and have an open mind. Eastman is a nice company to work for as Senior Management supports gender diversity and our colleagues have high ethical standards.
Why does gender equality matter to you?
It’s really about fairness. I believe that there must be equal choice and equal possibility. It’s a basic right.
The Erasmus Centre for Women and Organisations (ECWO) is committed to women’s continued advancement into leadership positions across multiple sectors – from multinationals and start-ups to not-for-profit organisations. ECWO supports gender-balanced leadership through its management education, research and events about gender equality, and by coaching female business leaders. Its strong network leads to women empowerment and gender equality to the benefit of business and society.