Academia's Glass Ceiling Cracking

Even with four women leading Austrian universities, real progress is still far off

News | Sara Friedman | October 2011

Only a little more than a year ago, not a single woman held a Rector’s chair at an Austrian university.  Now there are four.

First, molecular biologist Sonja Hammerschmid became Rector of the Veterinärmedizinische Universität Wien in June 2010. She was followed by materials engineer Sabine Seidler at the Technische Universität (TU) in March 2011. Then April saw the appointment of neuropsychologist Christa Neuper at the Universität Graz, and lastly, art historian Eva Blimlinger was named rector at the Akademie der bildenden Künste. Within only eleven months, the percentage of women rectors at Austrian universities rose from 0 to 19 per cent.

Definitely progress. Still, it’s only 19 per cent of university rectors, while women make up a significant majority of students at most Austrian universities.  At the Universität Wien, in the 2010/2011 school year female students numbered over 54,000, in comparison to barely 30,000 men. The exceptions to this rule are in the sciences and business; the Technische Universität Wien, the Wirtschaftsuniversität Wien, and the Universität für Bodenkultur Wien all have clear male majorities. Overall, the number of women registered as students drew equal to men only around the year 2000, but women have been pulling ahead ever since.  Now, more than 142,200 women study at public Austrian universities compared to around 122,800 men.

So what’s the problem? "Austria has been at the tail end of giving women opportunities in the university system," says Dr. Gudrun Biffl, Professor of Economics and Director of the Centre for Migration, Integration and Security at the Donau Universität Krems. The numbers support her claim. A 2010 article "Glass Ceilings at the Universities" [Gläserne Decke an Universitäten] in the Austrian daily Der Standard presented some disheartening statistics.  While women start off equally or even overrepresented as undergraduates – making up 56 per cent of Austrian university graduates – their comparative numbers decline at the doctoral level and plummet sharply at professorial and professional levels.

Academic research, particularly in the sciences, remains a mostly male-dominated realm.  A European Commission study entitled "She Figures 2009" looked at these trends on an EU level, finding that only 30% of researchers on average are female; in Austria this average is only 25%. For the 2008/2009 academic year, the gap is even wider, when 21% of lecturers and a mere 19% of professors at Austrian public universities were female.

In fact, until 2007, there had never before been a woman rector of an Austrian university, when Ingela Bruner became the first, appointed vice chancellor at the Universität für Bodenkultur Wien. She left the office at the beginning of 2009 and until the appointment of Dr. Hammerschmid, there were no female university rectors in the country.

Should these recent appointments be indicative of a wider trend? Or is the act of breaking through the glass ceiling the beginning, not the end, to the struggle?

A 2008 study from the University of California at Irvine suggested that at the same time that women rise in academia, the positions they achieve are simultaneously devalued. While man enjoys a certain aura of power and prestige as a department chair or as the head of a university, the same office occupied by a woman is viewed as more bureaucratic and "service-oriented". Thus the new titles may not result in a real change in status or reflect the growing equality of women in academia.

The simple act of electing a female rector is not immune to scrutiny, particularly with the quota system in place.  In an interview with Der Standard in July, Dr. Seidler downplayed her importance as the university’s first female rector, preferring instead to highlight her competency.  The last thing she wanted to be considered as was a "Quotafrau," appointed solely for reasons of promoting gender equality.

Biffl thinks this misses the point. Without quotas, "people don’t even think about it," she says, seeing the quota system as the means through which the glass ceiling in Austrian universities has been broken in the first place.

Still, the more women hold high-ranking positions at universities, the weaker the stereotypes become. When there are enough for long enough, women’s competence will simply command the respect that their positions deserve and make their gender unworthy of mention.

Dr. Blimlinger, of the Academy of Fine Arts, told Falter that she’d applied for the position simply because she knew could do what was required, which she described is a "typical woman’s way of thinking." These women may not only pave the way for others, but also inspire the next generation to see academia as a possible career path.

Even as gender equality has been long established legal, the actual social consequences of a decades-long struggle have taken some time to play out. There are jobs that are still earmarked by tradition for women, and university rector is not one of them.

Are Austria’s four new female rectors reason enough to celebrate a shattered glass ceiling?  TU press spokesman Werner Sommer readily acknowledged the difficulties women have faced in an unfair system. "We are now moving in a direction toward normalcy," he emphasized.

Perhaps in the cut-and-dried world of academia, quietly taking steps toward achieving a balance is victory enough. At least for now.

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