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Vienna is skirting this issue

The city's use of images to encourage residents to rethink gender biases has some crying foul.

January 11, 2007|Alissa J. Rubin and Elisabeth Penz | Times Staff Writers

VIENNA — The posters around Vienna's neo-Gothic town hall set tongues wagging: In place of the traditional "Construction Work Ahead" symbol showing a man in pants and helmet, they depicted a ponytailed woman wearing rugged-looking boots and a skirt, and hefting a shovel.

On "Exit" signs, the traditional running male stick figure was replaced by a running woman, this time in high-heeled boots and a skirt, hair flying behind her.

On a sign warning "Beware the Road Is Slippery," the woman carries a little handbag.

The prototypes designed to encourage people to rethink some of the Austrian capital's gender biases, kicked up a kerfuffle of criticism from men and women -- but more from men.

The conservative newspaper Die Presse jabbed at the campaign for being unrealistic, scoffing at the depiction of a shapely construction worker wearing a skirt.

Readers were even less generous. In letters to the editor, men ridiculed the gender campaign as superficial and complained that it was a waste of money. Some women said they didn't like it because showing a woman wearing a skirt illustrated anything but equality.

"This has nothing to do with emancipation," wrote one Vienna reader, Patricia Stocker. "The traditional symbols of a skirt and high heels are ridiculous."

In style, the signs, part of a broader campaign by the city government for what Europeans call "gender mainstreaming," are more Depression-era WPA project than dominatrix. But the debate that the campaign set off laid bare just how touchy gender issues remain in Austria, one of the most socially conservative countries in the European Union.

This is a place where women of a certain age and income still do not go out without a hat and where the opening of the Winter Ball season, complete with women wearing elbow-length white gloves and swirling floor-length gowns, is still something of an iconic moment, broadcast on television.

"The majority of the people with a negative feedback are men," said Sonja Wehsely, the Vienna town council member who pushed the road-sign campaign. "So you see, it's not only about these little symbols, it's about something bigger.... We achieved what we wanted, not only to change the old-fashioned symbols but to promote the discussion about it."

Women's rights activists note that it took a highly publicized controversy before female musicians were permitted to play in the prestigious Vienna Philharmonic -- that was in 1997, more than 150 years into the orchestra's existence.

Women here earn on average 24% less than men in the same jobs. And, unlike in Germany and Britain, which have elected women leaders, or France, where at least one woman and possibly two will run for president this year, Austria's political parties remain dominated by men.

"We have a very small number of women in top jobs even in the public sector ... and that's where we have affirmative-action programs. It's worse in the private sector," said Monika Vana, a spokeswoman for the Green party on women's issues.

Vienna's initiative with signs is the most visible piece of the overall campaign aimed at changing this picture of disparity. The steps the Austrian capital is taking are in accord with strategies embraced in several other EU countries; gender mainstreaming is understood to involve looking at how public policies affect men and women and how they can be framed to ensure that both genders benefit equally and bear equal responsibilities.

The city has earmarked $5.5 million for shelters for women who are victims of domestic violence. And it has set up a system of child-care centers so working women (and men) have a place to leave their children.

Other new public signs, which show men doing work traditionally associated with women, appear to have prompted less controversy.

Emblazoned on stickers that will be placed in trams and buses is the silhouette of a man with a baby on his lap. The image is meant to encourage passengers to give up their seats to people who need to sit down, such as those -- of either gender -- with small children. And diaper-changing stations in City Hall now have signs showing both men and women changing a baby's diaper.

By contrast, the road signs, which Wehsely said cost taxpayers about $2,700, seem to have hit a nerve.

In the daily newspaper Heute, which is distributed free on every subway, Karl Morwald, a Vienna resident, was quoted saying: "Politicians are really great at making themselves ridiculous ... changing well-known signs that have been familiar for decades."

A man from the small town of Zwettl wrote, "some town councilors seem to be really bored and always hunting for new foolish things -- at the taxpayers' expense."

"Austria is very conservative. It's a Catholic country," said Vana, the Greens spokeswoman, who is also a member of the Vienna city government. "Change comes very slowly."

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alissa.rubin@latimes.com

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