Hannes Richter

Achievements in Austrian Gender and Social Policy

Hannes Richter
Achievements in Austrian Gender and Social Policy

The Last Four Decades

By Anja Mayer and Thorsten Eisingerich

“We are sharing fifty:fifty” - Distribution of house work as the theme of the Equal Pay Day 2013 in Austria. Österreichischer Städtebund

The 1970s in Austria: Times of Change

The 1970s in Austria were characterized by reform and change both within the Austrian society as well as the Austrian political system. A shift in traditional economic structures led to a greater prosperity and to the formation of a new middle class that exhibited a flexible and unpredictable voting behavior. A new civil society started to emerge.

The demand for greater autonomy, equality as well as the protection of the environment were underpinned by numerous protests: A new mentality, a new moral conception within the Austrian citizenry had arisen and the call for reform for a more modern government and society became louder than ever. It was during that time that the “New Women’s Movement” was formed that demanded equality and more rights for women. The “New Feminist movement” The “New Feminist movement” emerged alongside the general protest movements in the 1960s and 1970s as well as a reaction to largely patriarchal structures. Defining itself as a feminist counter-movement, it questioned the role of the woman in Austrian society as a whole and focused on steering the public discourse towards issues like health care and social security, sexuality, refuges, cultural associations as well as publishing houses and magazines.

Despite all these efforts, a legal system was still in place that championed old-fashioned views of the female role in society: A reform seemed inevitable. The Reform of old Structures The 1970ies led to unprecedented achievements in terms of equality for men and women and women’s rights: A moderate reform of the Austrian penal code had taken place, yielding the decriminalization of homosexual conduct between adults, marital disturbance and adultery. In 1971, besides major economic reform steps like the introduction of the VAT (valued added tax), forty-hour working week legislation and measures to restructure state industries, the Government enacted milestone social legislation through a major reform of the penal code, gender equality provisions, marriage grants (Heiratsbeihilfe), free school books, or the mother-child card (a pre-natal/post-natal care and infant health program).

One controversial provision accompanying these reforms was the so-called “Fristenregelung,” which legalized abortion within the first three months of pregnancy on the condition of a preliminary medical consultation. The latter provision met strong criticism especially from the Catholic Church and the pro-life organization “Aktion Leben,” which initiated a referendum and collected almost 900,000 signatures.

Their efforts, however, proved futile as the law passed nevertheless and is still in effect today. The new Austrian Family Law Following the reform of the Austrian penal code, the Austrian family law which at that time was still based on the General Civil Law Code of 1811 and championed traditional patriarchal role models was overhauled in 1975: With the reform, the patriarchal system was replaced with a partnership-oriented model. The new law saw the marital couple as equal partners with equal rights and duties. The husband was no longer legally considered the leader of the family, able e.g. to keep his wife from finding a job. Women could hence decide if they wanted to keep their maiden name or take up the name of their husband. Parents were to decide jointly about the education and upbringing of their children and equal contributions to household duties were encouraged.

The new family law also brought a major change to the divorce legislation as it became possible to be granted a divorce by mutual consent as well as to force a divorce in court despite the opposition of one’s spouse.

The First Minister for Women’s Affairs

Another important step for the equality of women in Austrian society took place in 1979: Not only did the Austrian Equality Act, which focused on equal pay for men and women come into effect, but that year also saw the establishment of the “Equal Treatment Commission” tasked with ensuring the equal treatment of men and women.

The same year, the government introduced four new state secretary positions, all of which were occupied by women. This move came with a lot of criticism not only from the outside but also from within his own party, to which Chancellor Bruno Kreisky allegedly responded: “Never poll the party’s rank and file about the death penalty or the emancipation of women”. In 1990, Johanna Dohnal, who had previously served as the state secretary for female affairs, became the first ever federal minister for women’s affairs of Austria.

The Glass Ceiling in Austria

In spite of the numerous reforms, a distinct gender pay gap as well as a relative underrepresentation of women in decision-making positions still remains today. According to a country profile published in 2012 by the European Commission the share of women serving on boards in Austria is 11% (compared to the average 14% in the EU); about 30% of management positions both in large companies as well as small and medium-sized enterprises are occupied by females.

By 2014, these numbers improved slightly. Furthermore, the country report revealed that the unadjusted gender pay gap among the EU-27 (16.4%) was the highest in Austria, with women earning 25.5% less than their male counterparts. A first step to mitigate the situation and to create greater income transparency was taken by the Austrian government in 2011, when the National Action Plan for Gender Equality in the Labor Market was introduced, requiring all companies with more than 1,000 employees to publish a gender specific wage report presenting the average salaries of male and female employees.

Another measure set by the National Action Plan was the compulsory indication of the future wage in job advertisements. Furthermore, to ensure an adequate female representation in the public sector, quotas were put in place for the Austrian Public Broadcasting Service, ORF (quota of 45% for almost all positions), Austrian universities (40% of women in decision-making committees and boards) and the public service sector (quota of 50% for all positions). Interestingly, the Law on Austrian Universities of Applied Sciences also includes a quota of 45%, which however should only be applied “if feasable.” In spite of all these efforts, the 2014 Global Gender Gap Report indicated that further challenges and opportunities for improvements remain.

However, some female academics do claim that gender quota for the upper echelons are missing the point - the rise of well-educated, ambitious young women being unstoppable and only a matter of time. The real issue would be the job disparity of men and women, the latter filling most of the low paid jobs thus earning barely enough to survive: Securing their decent livelihood should be the real priority. Gender budgeting Furthermore, in the wake of a far reaching budget reform in 2009, the core element of which was to include outcome-oriented budget processes “aiming in particular at the equality of women and men”, Austria attracted international attention by embedding gender budgeting into the constitution, thus becoming the first country to make gender budgeting legally binding for all public administrative bodies and hereby acknowledging that Budget decisions are “government policy put into numbers.”

All levels of government must thereby “aim at achieving the actual equality of women and men in budget processes” (new Art. 13 section 3 of the Austrian constitution). The jury is still out to assess the practical impact of these relatively recent legal provisions.