Austria’s Old ‘Scandal’

Women’s equality: is the practice catching up with the law?

A. Föderl-Schmid, Editor in Chief of Der Standard | Photo: Der Standard

I started my day with a cup of coffee and the morning paper, when a quote by Pat Robertson jumped off the page:

“Feminism is a socialist, anti-family, political movement that encourages women to leave their husbands, kill their children, practice witchcraft, destroy capitalism and become lesbians.” All that said in support of work segregation and elimination of women from competing for what are thought of as men’s jobs. This might be “old news” for some, but it’s a scandal nonetheless, at least to the eyes of women in Austria.

A look at the statistics makes the problem clear; the gender difference stands out prominently. In employment rates, salaries for similar positions or access to managerial posts, men have an advantage. Whether encouraged by entrenched attitudes that women simply don’t belong in high positions, or by the habits of a patriarchal political culture preferring that women remain within the family, the phenomenon is impossible to overlook.

Austria has long been a pioneer of equal rights for women. In 1927, Olga Rudel-Zeynek became head of the Bundesrat, and thus the first woman in Europe to preside over a national assembly. In 2009, Austria, which had an HDI (Human Development Index) rank of 14, positioned 20 on the Gender Empowerment Measure (GEM); with 27% of seats in the parliament held by women, senior officials and managers, 48% female professional and technical workers and 38% women in ministerial positions.

Even in the political arena, where women have better access to top posts, numbers are sliding; in 2002, women held 62 out of the 183 seats in the Austrian Parliament. By 2008, this figure had dropped to 50.

Only a handful of women have made it to executive positions, including Elizabeth Bleileber from Erste Bank, and chief of Siemens Austria Brigitte Ederer. Perhaps the most visible is Alexandra Föderl-Schmid, Editor in Chief of the Austrian daily Der Standard.

“I see a slow but continuous progress,” said Föderl-Schmid in a recent interview in her office on the Herrengasse. The reason for this disparity among genders may be entrenched in social mentality. However, there is a process of change going on in society, and in people’s minds. “Twenty five years ago, men did not accompany their wives when they were giving birth,” Föderl-Schmid pointed out. “Today, such an act would be severely criticized, even by other men.”

The main challenges women face on their paths up the career ladder are societal judgments and political conditions, in addition to the raw work of acquiring the needed training and credentials. A higher education is certainly beneficial – enabling women to find good jobs during their 20s and develop towards a promising career.

But by the time they reach their 30s, women have to face the inevitable ‘work or family’ dilemma – dammed if you do, dammed if you don’t. Women who start a family can expect a slowdown in their careers; most have their children in their 30s, a time of high energy when men will be laying the foundations for future success. On the other hand, those who opt for professional advancement have to face judgments on all sides: To choose a career over motherhood is, at best unwomanly, and at worst a betrayal of family and community. For Föderl-Schmid, certain advancements in the laws governing parental leave now provide important incentives, but need to be complemented by a change in the mindset of both men and women. It is encouraging to give half a year additional income in case the father choses to stay at home, but women still have the difficult task of convincing their husbands to do so.

A major difficulty according to Föderl-Schmid is the lack of adequate childcare, especially for infants aged less than three. The increase in employment rates for women can be attributed both to feminist activism which led to important changes in the labor law.

“The industrial sector and trade unions are both encouraging women to work and giving them access to more part-time jobs,” Föderl-Schmid continued. “The situation is different (primarily) when children are involved.” Most Kindergartens and other childcare facilities close between 12:00 and 14:00, which means that women without help at home can only work until midday.

It is up to the politicians to invest in more kindergarten projects, Föderl-Schmid says. France has higher rates of employment for women in part because they have better childcare.

“It is in the interest of Austria to give women better chances for both work and family,” Föderl-Schmid stated. “Political factions have to implement plans such as those in France.”

Alexandra Föderl-Schmid sets an example for women who were able to crack the glass ceiling. For many others, the situation is often quite different. Generally, women meet with less encouragement and more judgment. Once they make it, they need to further prove their competences in order for critiques to cease.

“I remember selecting a woman aged more than 50 for an important position in the newspaper,” Föderl-Schmid asserted. “My choice was heavily judged.” Critiques regarding the woman’s gender and age stopped once she met them with demonstrated proficiency.

However, Föderl-Schmid herself has led a charmed professional life, experiencing nothing but fairness along the way. “There was no necessity for me to fight for this job,” she said. “I was chosen because of my personal qualities and my journalist skills, not because I am a woman.” She had been working at Der Standard for more than 18 years when she was promoted to Editor in Chief. Publisher Oscar Bronner has said that the fact that Editor in Chief happened to be a woman had had no influence on his choice.

Der Standard’s managing editors, two women and three men, were all selected according to their competences. The paper also opens 30 positions for students enabling them to work in the paper for one month – the selection of applicants is not segregation based. Within this group, the women tend to be more self-critical and work harder – always asking and reflecting about their choices.  The men don’t even question their ability to do the job.

“Society is moving in the right direction, slowly but steadily,” Föderl-Schmid said optimistically. Still, no one has yet threatened to file a lawsuit when they suspect they have been turned down for a position because they are women.  Perhaps International women’s day on Mar. 8 will be a reminder that the only natural place for a woman is wherever her abilities lead her, be it within the family or in the office.

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