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And After College? The Female Vanishing Act

Last week the Ministry for Women presented its latest report on the situation of women in Austria. The good news is education: Women constitute slightly more than half of all people with college degrees. Gender equality at last! Let's get out the champagne, sisters!

Should we? Here are some other facts:
  • Only 7.8 percent of women with college degrees hold leading positions in the workforce, but every fourth man with a college degree works in a leading position.
  • Women are less likely to make it into the echelons of publicly traded companies. In the year of 2008 (the last year for which data are available) there was not a single woman leading a large company in Austria. Representation among board members was six percent.
  • Women are less likely to hold high positions in universities. Only 15.8 percent of professors are female.
I find these numbers sobering enough, but what really gets me is that for the same work, women in Austria earn less money than men. In addition, the gender pay gap in Austria is wider than in almost all other states of the EU. The average gross hourly earnings of women in Austria lie 25.5 percent lower than those of men (only Estonian and Slovenian women fare worse than Austrian women.)

This mess got me thinking about politics. Different from the United States Austria has a Ministry for Women (currently held by Gabriele Heinisch-Hosek, Social Democrats, left). It has had such a ministry since the 1970s, albeit on a smaller scale originally. The ministry was successful in some areas, e.g. women hold 27 percent of the seats in parliament (definitely not bad compared to around 18 percent women in US Congress).

To shake things up a little Heinisch-Hosek is now advocating two measures: she wants affirmative action (quotas) for women in all large companies that are partially owned by the government; she wants to challenge companies to make earnings transparent. Both are top down approaches, and to some extent I find both worthy of support.

But fostering change from the bottom up is just as needed. This would start with reforms to the education system, a system which now favors memorizing and repetition of often meaningless data presented by a teacher over creative problem solving (also described in this post). Ironically, girls do better in this old fashioned system than boys - but it does not prepare them for the demands of their later work life (presentational skills, team work, independent thinking, assertiveness).

The bottom up approach would encourage women to think of themselves as leaders; to open up businesses; to find creative and cooperative, not necessarily government dependent solutions to the problems of balancing kids and career; to stay lifelong learners; to form she-networks that will (eventually) balance the influence of the old boys' clubs. Most importantly, it would support women in their diversity and try to stay away from the one-size-fits-all solutions the ministry often seems to prescribe now.
Picture: Manfred Werner/Wikimedia Commons; shows Gabriele Heinisch-Hosek


debi said…

Prejudices are such a sad thing.

In the US, the top-down efforts have definitely improved education opportunities, but I don't believe the bottom-up effort has been fully embraced here. Girls are not encouraged near enough in sciences and math in the US (nor in Austria from your data).

I was very fortunate in that my mom and dad totally supported my love of sciences. I received a BS in Mathematics and Physics. At the time I was the only woman in the department!

But my point is - without the support from home, it is very difficult to break out of the prejudicial mode of the country. Your point about bottom up change is, in my mind, the foundation of improvement.

Anonymous said…
I tend to think it also has to do with it being barely possible in Austria to have children (as a woman) and get into a high ranking job.
By the time a university career really takes off, most women are around thirty and they have to be very lucky if they have partners, who are willing to share parenthood equally, let alone take the lion’s share for a while.

So one of the main factors where politics could really interfere for the better, would be with making it financially a lot more profitable if both parents take an equal time off from their jobs.
Otherwise the number of women in high ranking academic jobs will always be hobbled by those of them who want children having them during the time an academic career needs the most attention (and unpaid overtime).
Debi and Nixennacht,

Thank you for taking the time to leave comments - and for your patience. I too believe that support from home is the best way to encourage girls to shoot for the top. But not all parents are up to the task, and ideally the support would come from schools too.

Regarding gender politics: Austria already has comparatively generous laws when it comes to paid parental leave from work. By contrast, women and men in the United States receive no government support if they stay home with a new child.

Austria's model is complicated and includes five different options. In one of these options new mothers/fathers who want to stay with their young child receive 80 percent of their last pay check for a maximum of 14 months - provided partners split the time with each partner taking at least two months off. If parents do not split their paid leave time they lose two months of benefits.

The splitting angle was introduced to Austria's parental leave law this year to entice more fathers to stay home with young children and to distribute the negative work related consequences of parental leave more evenly between the sexes. A gender equal ruling would force men to take seven of the 14 months, and I am all for it. Since men generally earn higher wages and salaries than women I am not sure everyone would be happy...

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