The main concern of Daniela Schallert, Executive Director, ABZ Austria, a women's training organization is that gender imbalance in her country's education system may be under valuing and under utilizing its female citizens. "Men continue to outnumber women across Europe at universities, research institutes and in industry," she says. ABZ is Vienna based and has a staff of 65 women, including experts, who work mainly to ensure gender equality in the labor market.
At present, Mechanical Engineering attracts 10 per cent of female students to Vienna's Technical University, while the percentage of women in Chemical Engineering is two per cent. Further statistics regarding female employees in academic fields reveal that few women make it to high positions. Female academics total 24 per cent in Austria and in Europe the number is just 29 per cent.
To make a difference ABZ got together with Renate Brauner, the capital's vice mayor, in an effort to increase the proportion of girls studying natural science and technology related subjects. Brauner chipped in Euro 200,000 (US$1= Euro 0.74) for a summer campaign this year to introduce 100 female students between 16 years and 18 years to university departments that are considered a male domain.
Come July and August and girls from different state run schools in Vienna, who have signed up for the summer programme, will get an opportunity to become familiar with the natural sciences and technological subjects in the hope that they will opt for them once they finish school. Experts will introduce them to traditionally male dominated topics, as they meet professors, help with research work in laboratories and spend time in computer rooms. At the end of the one-month orientation period, each student each will be paid Euro 700, as an incentive.
These efforts are expected to eventually mainstream gender disparity on a campus like the Vienna University of Technology where female students enrolled in 2007 comprised a mere 25 per cent of all students. Subjects such as informatics, physics and mechanical manufacturing continue to be dominated by male students to this day.
The ABZ works in close cooperation with Vienna University, the city's University of Technology, and University of Natural Resources and Applied Life Sciences. The main challenge remains to break through the unwillingness of many female secondary school students to study traditionally male subjects. "Due to the stereotyping, women do not even think of being part of technical education. For women and girls here to choose a non-traditional profession means challenging the accepted female identity. Therefore, year-after-year girls go for typical female professions in an attempt to preserve the female identity," Schallert observes with regret, adding that this way of thinking pervades the Austrian school system and the higher academic fields.
According to Schallert, the classical three professions chosen by a majority of women in Austria continue to be retailing, secretarial help and hairdressing. And the conventional view of women as housewives and men as breadwinners is the rule not just in Austria but across Europe where gender inequality on university campuses is rampant. In 2006, the European Commission (EC) reported that although 40 per cent of Ph.D. students in the natural sciences are female only 11.3 per cent make it to the top positions as professors and research directors. In engineering and technology, 21.9 per cent of Ph.D. students are female, but this total dips to 5.8 per cent at the highest levels of academia.
The average proportion of women on scientific boards is 24 per cent, with Norway and Finland at 48 per cent and 47 per cent, respectively. This figure is a stark contrast to countries like Italy and Poland, with 13 per cent and seven per cent. Research funding also suggests a gender gap. In 17 of 26 European countries, men have higher success rates for securing funding. Aware of the low level of female representation in scientific and technical research in general and in higher positions in particular, the EC and European Parliament would like to see the number of women in higher scientific ranks raised to 25 per cent.
The European Union (EU) first started to address the issue in 1999, when it set up an evaluation committee known as the 'Helsinki Group'. Sociologists and natural scientists on the panel - hailing from EU member countries - drafted reports on the situation in their countries. The group also appointed 'statistical correspondents', based at national universities and private institutes, to ensure European statistics were comparable across countries.
The reports of the Helsinki Group and their correspondents serve as guidelines for the EU and individual countries. Gender inequality has been an issue in Austria for long. The ABZ was born in 1992 to help women find gainful employment. The entry of Austria into the EU in 1995 was also an invitation for women to participate in the common labor market. Within two years the ABZ had developed an integrated programme providing counseling, orientation and job placement for women wanting to return to the labor market. The ABZ's Work While Learning programme introduced women to non-traditional subjects such as information technology and the new media in the late 1990s. The work of the publicly funded non-profit organization continues to revolve around strategies that make women creative members of the economy.
In order to prepare women for a future in non-traditional jobs, the ABZ offers training and a work programme according to the principle "learning by doing" to 20 women each year. Two other initiatives help out women interested in technical professions. FIT, or women in technology, is a project of the public employment service where women also benefit from the advisory service of the country's public employment service.
MUT, or girls and techniques, was founded in 2002 with the similar aim to support and encourage women and girls to pursue a more technical profession. However, the greatest challenge remains: To break through barriers of gender stereotyping that has harmed women's self-esteem. As a result of stereotyping, girls are not expected to perform well in Maths and science in school. Consequently, girls' self-confidence in these subjects is diminished. In the manner of a self-fulfilling prophecy, this has led to fewer women pursuing the study of the "hard" sciences. And those who do succeed in the sciences early in life are known to abandon it later.
Very few studies compare men's and women's career paths in the sciences but it is well known that a majority of professional women eventually allow their partner's career to take precedence over theirs. Most women generally bear the major but unpaid responsibility of childcare and accumulate 'time out' periods from their careers. Women publish fewer papers during their early careers compared to their male colleagues and in the bargain they end up contributing towards making societal change almost impossible.