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25. March 2008

Seismograph of Society

The social scientist Edit Schlaffer speaks with Margit Schwarz-Stiglbauer: about the rise of Islamic women, constraints in coeducation, and the litmus test for partnership.

The renowned social scientist Edit Schlaffer is known to a broad public primarily as the author of numerous popular scientific books about gender research. She does not carry the cliché of a man-hating activist: clear and without prejudice, Edit Schlaffer starts from real circumstances to analyze the problems with which men and women are confronted today. It is therefore not surprising that argumentative superficialities and stereotypes in these important issues irritate her. As, for example, the discussion about reconciliation of work and family life, as it is led in Austria. “This discussion unfortunately has little substance and detracts from the real problems,” she laments. “Other positively proven models that already exist in Europe would need to be investigated for their applicability in Austria. Why do we not bring in experts and think about new paths?”, she suggests. She cites the Dutch model, in which a large portion of employees work part-time, allowing parents to care for the children two days a week. Or a further example: two colleagues from Harvard and Bologna are currently researching a model for the realization of gender freedom: tax rebates for women. Not only do women profit from this, but also the companies that employ women. “Although the organization of the family is still viewed as a private matter today, the appeal of ‘mother to child’ no longer carries in any societal way,” Edit Schlaffer concludes. Childhood development is already moving towards total societal responsibility. “We need a totally new mental orientation and new models. Society needs to get involved,” she challenges. The fact that men are not tied in to early child rearing—a time during which the “fundamental moral, responsible, and socially competent orientation is laid”—is a “societal tragedy,” Schlaffer asserts. “Children learn from partners of the opposite sex—how things are seen, how conflicts are carried out, and how differently we perceive the world based on our gendered impressions. Not giving our children this opportunity is an unbelievable social and emotional loss,” laments the mother of two teenagers.

New Men
The scientist who built up and ran the Ludwig Boltzmann Research Center for Politics and Interpersonal Relationships and who already established innovative research topics about gender and development during the 1980s definitely sees the readiness of “new men” for increased partnership: “They also feel that they lead a partially foreign life, cut off from emotional benefits, because they are not present enough. But they do not dare to take the risk yet. They fear that they are treading a risky career path when they get more involved in the family. In Scandinavia they recognized the problem early enough,” she explains, and talks about a researcher-couple that she met in California: he goes in to the lab at 5 in the morning and returns home at noon, and then she leaves for work. “Biographically, children only need increased care for a few years. One fails to see why women should therefore fully drop out of their career,” Schlaffer stresses.

Lost Boys
Despite the female majority among university graduates, Schlaffer attributes the fact that there are still so few female professors primarily due to unfair distribution structures: “A woman’s reproductive years fall directly during the main career ascent. How is a woman to achieve a full professorship when she wants to or should have two children? This is also a societal concern, not just her private desire.” She also believes that the fact that women are not given the opportunity to establish themselves scientifically, and that men simultaneously take on even more positions of leadership, is “not a long-term perspective” for the the university as an institution. She regrets that the educational system concerns itself with PISA-studies or the like, but not with the boys who fell out of the system because they were often less motivated and less scientifically oriented at this age: “We are producing an entire generation of ‘lost boys’.” And she names an example: because boys are doing so badly in standardized placement tests for elite American universities, there is currently a hot debate in the US about the introduction of a male quota.

Early Warning System
Edit Schlaffer sees her areas of expertise as reality-based and project-oriented research that can bring about change, and regrets that social sciences’ ability to help shape society is not taken seriously enough. "We feel more powerless than we actually are. This goes far past political consulting. The decisive function of social science is an early warning system.” Especially in the current situation of national and international tension, she believes that her area of expertise is more needed than ever.

Women without Borders
This recognition was also the motivation for the founding of  Women without Borders (WwB) in early 2002. The occasion was the seizure of power by the Taliban in Afghanistan in the mid-1990s and the “obliteration” of 50% of the population practically over night. Women were not allowed to go to school or university, seek employment, or move alone on the open street. Pictures of swaddled women in their burkas traveled around the world back then. Edit Schlaffer felt the responsibility, which lies in one’s own freedom, to react to these dramatic events. After the fall of the Taliban-regime in late 2001, Schlaffer founded “Women without Borders” and the first project “Empowerment of Afghani women for Afghani women.”
This was the first initiative to prepare women for the elections in September 2004, and for their long-term participation in political and social life. For the kick-off of “Women without Borders” Afghanistan’s first minister for women, Sima Samar, came, and pleaded: “We need you, so that you publicize what is happening to us.”

In the meantime, the organization works around the world on numerous projects, and is invited to important international conferences. The secret of its success lies in its approach to its work: exclusively project-oriented, and always in conjunction with local organizations who usually know best what they need. Their approach supports current societal processes—without judgment and without ready-made answers. At the beginning of a project there is always listening, and finding out through discussion, what the real needs are. Many women drowned in the South Indian tsunami, because they could not swim. The organization offered swim lessons to the women. With the swim lessons, the standing of the women rose as well—in a village-based society “that is starkly afflicted by domestic violence.” In this way, internally desired processes can affect societal change through project-specific support from the outside.

A New Awakening in the Near East
It is these kinds of societal changes that the WwB scientist is researching, aided through the FWF, specifically in the Arabic world through the Translational Research project “Building Bridges—Women’s Empowerment in the Middle East.” A real pool of female talent is on the rise and will give these Islamic societies a new face,” Schlaffer forsees and adds: “In Saudi Arabia there are already over 70% female students. Physics is filled by women in Bahrain.” Within the framework of this project, the scientists sought to ease the entrance to employment for young Saudi-Arabian women through job fairs. “The universities had already organized these themselves. The problem was that the women were not brave enough to go there. They lacked the training to learn how to present themselves, and to gain the courage to jump the hurdles,” she says. So the scientists developed training programs and implemented them in two leading Saudi Arabian universities. And they saw: “This is the key: the willingness to say I can do this. I believe in myself,” Schlaffer is convinced.

Boys’ Days
But why is physics dominated by women in Bahrain, while in Austria we are searching in vain for more female science students? “Due to the separation of the genders in these countries, a multitude of female role models exists. The girls are not pushed aside in school by dominant boys,” Schlaffer explains. So back to separate boys’ and girls’ classes? “No. Coeducation is of absolute value. But one must balance out possible deficits,” Schlaffer is convinced and reports on a project in conjunction with the Ministry of Education. For some time there have been “Girls’ Days,” during which girls visit businesses and learn about non-traditional jobs. Now there should be “Boys’ Days” as well. The children should be encouraged to think beyond their gender borders and to find new action areas. “This is a revolutionary concept and means that boys go into fields that are labeled as feminine, underpaid, and underqualified, but that are incredibly important to society,” Schlaffer explains. She names the healthcare sector, which, due to rising life expectancy, is the challenge of our time. Bringing young men into these sectors will give new worth to the job descriptions in the care sector, to increase its worth in image and pay. The social scientist is sure that “these gender imbalances need to be dealt with on a social level and not on the interpersonal track.

Social imbalances have been one of the researcher´s main focus since the 1970s, when she, as a teacher at the social academy, learned that social workers were being confronted ever more frequently with the problems of domestic violence. As a young assistant professor, she conducted a study on this topic, which she describes both as a “kick-off” both for her research practice and her research field: “Looking at violence and power in inter-gender relationships was completely new at that time. Also that the private is political and that is does not float in a nonhierarchical space. This was my formative starting point.

Building Bridges
Schlaffer, who is very active in the Near East, sees the current challenges of her craft beyond the gender imbalances in ethnic and religious tensions. She identifies the goals: “we must convey that, beyond the ideological crusades, we will listen, work out a catalog of measures, and initiate points of contact.” Until recently, “Women without Borders” was the only western civil society organization to be invited to the Islamic World Economic Forum in Malaysia. This fall she will present the FWF report at the World Women’s Forum in Seoul. She is excited as “these are unbelievable chances to gain visibility and to build bridges.” Especially in light of the problems of integration faced by Muslim immigrants in Europe, Schlaffer regrets that there is no hard data: “We don’t know how they are actually doing. We would need a large scale research project and would have to gain access to the invisible mothers,” she challenges. At the moment she is contemplating starting a football club for Muslim girls in Vienna.

It is clear with all of her projects: Edit Schlaffer is a perfect networker. Her credo: “Looking beyond national interests and looking at the world with a bird’s-eye view.” And what is her advice to young female researchers?

Choose the field of study that interests you, work hard at it, and don't get distracted by how useful the information will be later in life. And when choosing a partner: a litmus test for fairness and partnership is essential. Without this compatibility, nothing can be achieved,” she is sure. To achieve this, she believes that we need not only entirely new social models, but also support and training: “The women here, for all intents and purposes,” she smiles, “need what we are doing in Saudi Arabia just as much.”

This portrait was published in the info magazine of the Austrian Sciene Fund-FWF (


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