Fighting patriarchy at top of Austrian banking

Gerda Holzinger-Burgstaller is still something of a rarity: Only 12 percent of financial enterprises in Austria are headed by women
Gerda Holzinger-Burgstaller is still something of a rarity: Only 12 percent of financial enterprises in Austria are headed by women ALEX HALADA AFP
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Vienna (AFP)

Gerda Holzinger-Burgstaller is out to shake up the banking sector: in a world still dominated by men in dark suits, the Austrian wants to break the region's glass ceiling once and for all.

On January 1, Holzinger-Burgstaller took over as head of Erste Bank and its 2,500 employees, combining the roles of CEO, CFO and COO.

The 42-year-old is still something of a rarity. Only 12 percent of financial enterprises in the central European state are headed by women.

"I can't count the number of times I've found myself surrounded by men in a meeting", Holzinger-Burgstaller tells AFP at the headquarters of the 200-year-old institution.

Among her goals is "to ensure that a woman never finds herself alone in the meeting room again", she says.

After a stint at the Austrian Financial Markets Authority (FMA), she rose rapidly through the ranks once she joined Erste Bank -- but had to battle sexism at every step.

The first question she gets in public meetings, she says, "are always specifically related to the fact that I am a woman".

"Only then do I get questions concerning my strategy or my ambitions for the company."

- Lagging behind -

"When a man becomes a boss, we don't ask him how he intends to reconcile his private and professional life," she says from her top-floor offices, overlooking the Belvedere Palace and the city centre beyond.

It is not just historic buildings that form the backdrop to Holzinger-Burgstaller's work, but some outdated attitudes too.

Many Austrians still expect young mothers to give up their professional aspirations and dedicate their lives to childcare.

While some perceive the option to take up to two years' maternity leave as a luxury, others say they need to defend their decision to return to work sooner.

When they do, it is often part-time. Roughly one in three women, however, aren't part of the workforce at all, according to official data.

That results in dramatic cuts in income and career prospects, as well as their state pensions not being worth as much further down the line.

In the "Women in Work" ranking of business consultancy PwC, which analyses data including gender pay gaps and compares full-time employment between men and women, Austria came 25th out of the 33 OECD countries -- a significant deterioration from 2013, when it ranked 13th.

"We are lagging behind -- I believe this is a particular issue in German-speaking countries," Holzinger-Burgstaller says.

- Society is ready -

"We must ask ourselves about the stereotypes that persist. Which division of roles does a society value? Do we pay attention to the way girls are directed in their education?" she asks.

Though not required to do so by law, Erste Bank put in place a quota system to fill at least 40 percent of its management positions with women.

That goal was reached in 2018. Five years earlier, that figure had been about 30 percent.

Preventing sexism is imperative, not just to foster equality, but because it is good for business too.

"More diversity brings new ideas for dealing with problems," Holzinger-Burgstaller says.

"Our objective is to implement this equality to the whole company", she adds, explaining that the company has made an effort to illustrate job adverts with photos of women, and that she directly encourages women to aim for management positions.

Although mandatory gender quotas aren't yet widespread in Austria, Holzinger-Burgstaller is a strong advocate of the idea.

"It is a useful instrument to encourage evolution," she says.

"Society is ready, I'm proof of it!" she says, before adding: "We're here to stay."