Vienna gives a gender change to its signs

On a recent Wednesday afternoon, Gunther Mendel took a break from ice-skating with his 8-year-old son, Tobias, to photograph his goofiest faces, like the one where he rolls his eyes back into his head and stretches his tongue out of his mouth.

"I'm a lucky dad," Mr. Mendel says outside Vienna's eminent City Hall building, the Rathaus. Meanwhile, workers inside the building were trying to make active dads like Mendel, a sign of the times – literally.

In mid-December, the Vienna City Council launched the "Vienna Sees It Differently" campaign, unveiling posters which featured the city's public pictographs – but with gender changes.

Now, those changes are being implemented all across the Austrian capital. By the end of the year, all city buildings will have signs featuring men changing diapers and women riding elevators. This month, the Vienna Public Transport system, which is also taking part in the campaign, will begin replacing old, tattered stickers for reserved seating with updated ones featuring men with babies, elderly women, and disabled women.

"The campaign shows familiar images in an unfamiliar way. We want the effect to be jarring in the best sense of the word," said Sonja Wehsely, the former city councilor for women's issues, at the campaign's press conference in December. "By playing with our expectations, the campaign encourages us to change the way we think, see, and act."

Ursula Bauer, the city's project director for the implementation of gender mainstreaming, says they set out to be provocative and their mission was accomplished.

Though Ms. Bauer says the city has received "hundreds" of supportive e-mails and calls, it "easily" has gotten 3,000 complaints – 80 percent of which have been from men.

Complaints ranged from speculated costs of the campaign, to men saying female pictographs are exclusive to women declaring that skirts represented an "unemancipated" female.

Mendel, however, thinks the campaign is progressive. If he needed to change a baby's diaper and saw the new sign, he says, "I would feel 100 percent integrated." Overwhelmingly, diaper-changing facilities are found in women's restrooms.

"It shouldn't always be the same stupid signs. This generation is different," Mendel says. He suggests that 30 to 40 percent of fathers in this capital city are now "changing nappies at home and in public."

The campaign has stimulated both public and private discourse, says Marlene Parenzan, vice president of the Austrian Women's Ring, a Vienna-based umbrella organization for women's groups.

Gender mainstreaming in politics is easier, Ms. Parenzan says. "What is much more difficult to change is the people themselves. The population as a whole is not very gender-sensitive," she says of the city, where the world's most respected and most well-paid symphony orchestra did not admit women until 1997.

"Men and women need to be shocked somehow," she says. "Their attention needs to be drawn to the fact that we are not [treated] equally."

Vienna's campaign might inspire change on the national level and eventually pique some interest in the European Union, says Bauer, the project director. She has received calls from provincial Austrian and German government officials asking about the campaign.

Even privately owned local businesses have called to inquire where they could pick up the signs, most notably the exit sign depicting a female.

The campaign "can't change the whole society, but it can offer at least the fundaments, and this is what you have to do – especially when you use public money," Bauer says. Gender mainstreaming means "to step back and say: 'Couldn't it be different?'," she adds.

But when it comes to EU or Austrian regulations, sometimes that answer is "no." So the female exit sign – which shows a woman with wind-blown hair racing toward the door, as she is stylishly clad in a modern dress and mid-calf high-heeled boots – will not be used across Europe anytime soon.

Franz Kaida, a member of the Association of Austrian Safety Practitioners, a Vienna-based interest group for active and retired safety experts, says his main concern was that the signs complied with EU legislation.

Mr. Kaida, however, did have one question about the artistic liberties taken with the city's campaign signs: "Do you think that long hair, skirt, and boots represent all women?"

But until the city finds something better, the Viennese – both male and female – will continue to cross the street at the crosswalk, which is marked by a sign featuring a man donning a fedora.

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