ROME Silvio Berlusconi wins applause from a crowd of flag-waving Italian women at an election rally when he urges them to cook for his party's candidates.
"Cook for our party's representatives -- and make the sustenance as sweet as possible," the 71-year old businessman tells them in the run-up to an election on Sunday and Monday in which he is seeking a third term as prime minister.
Other women have been outraged by such comments in a campaign that has underlined how men still dominate Italian politics and old stereotypes linger, despite the gains women have eked out over the years.
"Every now and then, I sometimes feel we in Italy live in pre-historic times," Marianna Madia, a 27-year old economist running for the rival Democratic Party in the parliamentary election, told Reuters.
Despite boasting a higher rate of education, Italian women have long lagged their male counterparts in politics. Just over 17 percent of seats in the lower house of parliament and 14 percent in the upper house are held by women.
This puts Italy 67th in a ranking of nations by the number of women in parliament according to the Inter-Parliamentary Union, an international organization of parliaments.
"The major parties on both sides have always been made up of men, and they take us for just mannequins in their windows," said Daniela Santanche, a far-right candidate.
The likes of a woman such as Hillary Clinton in the United States or France's Segolene Royal challenging for the premiership in Italy is not even on the horizon.
Even in Spain, which also has a reputation for male domination of society, more than 36 percent of lawmakers are women.
The main forces in Italy's election -- Berlusconi's centre-right People of Freedom alliance and Walter Veltroni's centre-left Democratic Party -- are competing to present themselves as more women-friendly.
Veltroni says 46 percent of his parliamentary candidates' lists are composed of women. They were dismissed by a right-wing senator as "shampoo women at beauty parlors".
Berlusconi says that if he is re-elected, four of the 12 ministers in his cabinet will be women, but rivals say he sees women only in a role of servitude and prominent women politicians such as Santanche do not expect much change.
"Women, as they always have been, will be confined to portfolios such as equal opportunity, or if they are smart, schools, and if they are extremely smart, health," she said.
Some say the poor showing of women in Italian politics is hardly surprising given how they fare in other spheres of life.
Employment among Italian women stands at just 45 percent, among the lowest within the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, the group says.
In the world of business, about 83 percent of management ranks are filled with men, according to a report this year. Excluding banks and insurers, 63 percent of companies listed on the stock exchange did not have any women on their boards.
On Italian television, bikini-clad women sell everything from mobile phones to ice cream and skimpily-clad and well-endowed showgirls appear on talk shows, sometimes with raunchy dance numbers.
"Every young boy that watches television must ask himself if women have a brain," Emma Bonino, a minister in the outgoing government, once remarked.
Berlusconi, who said this week the women fielded by his party were prettier than those of the left, has also found a place for show business beauties in his party.
Running for re-election from Berlusconi's party is Mara Carfagna -- a one-time "showgirl" -- while model Ramona Badescu is campaigning for city councilor in Rome.
But some say it is time for a change.
"It's not only a question of the number of women, but also a question of the quality of women put up and whether the women in politics just fit into a male model of politics," said Madia, the centre-left candidate.
(Editing by Timothy Heritage)