Third Wave Feminism

Legal barriers are down, but often the intangibles are as intractable as ever. Or maybe the real barriers are tangible after all

It is sometimes hard to know where we are as women today. The evidence is so contradictory.  Legal barriers are down, but often, the intangibles seem as intractable as ever. Or maybe it’s that the real barriers are not intangible after all.

For a start, statistically, things don’t look good.  In Austria women’s earnings in relation to men have worsened yet again, dropping just in the last year from 29th place to 42nd in international comparisons, according to the Global Gender Gap Report of the World Economic Forum.

This places us behind even the crippled U.S, number 31, and far behind Germany, which in 12th place, out ranked in Europe only by the Scandinavians and Ireland. And even in these countries, women’s earnings lag by at least 20 percent.

The numbers are also discouraging in terms of labor participation, where Austria is ranked 103rd. Even in educational achievement — an area that in many western countries, where girls consistently do better in school and women make up half or more of professional schools and graduate programs in many fields – Austria is falling behind.

Here the percentage of girls completing secondary school is actually declining; the international ranking of 78th  translates into young women who end up in traditional female jobs, that are poorly paid and with few opportunities for advancement.

In other areas, things look better. There are certainly more women in senior positions in both government and business, as is described in elsewhere in this issue, and while the importance of this cannot be overstated – these leaders help us to envision what is possible —  it has been in most cases at the cost of family life. Most women executives have no children, or when they do, only one.  Green Party chief Eva Glawischnig, with her two children, is the exception, and she was heavily criticized for returning to work so soon after the birth of her second son, points out Regina Pöll in the Austrian daily, Die Presse.

Another positive step are the free Kindergärten, which in Austria accept 3 and 4 year olds, and the all day schooling that Education Minister Claudia Schmied has now promised to offer in “every second school” in Austria.

These are both radical changes, ones that could help raise educational standards as well as make family life more manageable.

The unavoidable question, though is why is the taking so long? Why, 40 years after those glory days of the Women’s Movement, when Sisterhood Was Powerful, when women met in “consciousness raising” support groups to help each other unlearn old habits and imagine new lives for themselves their loved ones, when affirmative action became law and probably did more than anything else to make new roles for women seem normal – why is it that 40 years later the pay gap is still enormous, and women are still struggling to make lives work in a system designed for the life cycle of a man?

Why is a man’s military experience – however banal or pointless — considered a valuable credential on the way to a professional life, while a woman’s experience bearing and raising children – undoubtedly humanly richer and more demanding, and requiring endurance, flexibility and focus potentially far more valuable to developing leadership – is considered a diversion and held against her?

It’s all in how you frame the discussion. Dr. Helen Caldicott, long time director of the Physicians for Social Responsibility organizing and speaking out against nuclear weapons, tells a story about her time on the Faculty Admissions Panel of the Univ. of California Medical School. She describes sitting through candidate after candidate, watching the young men treated with seriousness and respect and the young women treated dismissively, because of the presumption of impending motherhood.

“Why should we give you a valuable place in this entering class of future physicians, so needed by our society,” one senior consulting physician would boom out at the grim-faced young women, “when you will drop out for 10 years to raise your children?” leaving the candidates  sputtering, trapped in a no-win answer.

Finally, after several rounds, Caldicott had had enough. When the next male candidate came before the panel, she signaled that she had a question. The chairman nodded.

“Why should we give you a valuable place in this entering class of future physicians, so needed by our society,” she began, suddenly feeling all eyes on her, “when you, like all the men we are interviewing today, are likely to die 10- years before any of the women?”

The women were never asked about their family plans ever again.

None of this is easy, and questions of fairness between men and women are as much accepting difference as they are about establishing equality. And this is where we may see the greatest hope. The young women and men I know today seem more comfortable with their sexuality and are far less likely to see danger in the admission of difference.

They talk about going to a “chic flic” without any insult intended or felt; something can be a “guy thing” and the girls don’t seem worried about not being included.

In the 1970s, different almost always meant worse. It doesn’t anymore.

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