07 September 2012

A Viennese Summer

I have a job! A real full-time job! Contrary to what most of you might have been expecting, it is in business, not in non-profit.

At first, I wanted to wait before I shared the news. Too fresh the scars of existential insecurity. Too much to lose over a blog post misunderstood. Too vivid the memory of life without a job. Too much to reveal.

I had learned my lesson: Silence is golden.

This is as much as I dare to say about my job: I have a decent amount of responsibility, a multicultural team of expats that are like family to each other and I get to speak English on a daily basis.

Vienna looks a lot rosier now!

I have therefore decided to blog more about the city itself and snap some pictures as long as the days are still long. Hopefully, these posts will inspire more of my friends to come and visit, like Aike and Nhung did a few weeks ago. It was such a pleasure to have you guys here. May we see each other again soon - somewhere!

10 June 2012

A trip to Brno's International Fireworks Festival

A picturesque 1h 40min journey from Vienna through Lower Austria's prominent wine region, the Weinviertel, Brno is about halfway between Vienna and Prague.

To kill time until the beginning of the closing performance co-delivered by the Czech Republic and Austria, my friend Kat, her parents and I used the sunny day for some sightseeing in the country's second largest city (population 400 000).

Known today as one of Europe's largest exhibition centres, as host of international motor races, the annual fireworks festival Ignis Brunensis (lat. 'fire of Brno'), important centre for higher education, HQ of AVG technologies and large wine festival every September, the city is most of all proud of its legacy as former capital of the Great Moravian Empire.

Eventually, Moravia became one of the states of Czechoslovakia and I was told that even today, Moravians are proud of their cultural heritage and regard themselves as distinct from 'the Czechs'.
Informally, local freelance journalist and blogger Michal Kašpárek describes the city as the geek capital of the Czech Republic. His blog Brno Now is the local equivalent of Time Out, so if you consider paying the city a visit and wonder what is on or would like to get an insider's view on a city he is 'madly in love with', you know where to look. By the way, he also explains the mystery of the 'cock clock', one of the local sights commemorating the victory over Swedish invaders in 1645. Kat finds it resembles the London Gherkin. I found it reminiscent of a monument on Damtrak in Amsterdam, an association probably evoked by the tacky tourist traps and some other shops which have been allowed to occupy, unregulated, the lower levels of otherwise beautiful historic buildings in the city centre, much to the annoyance of locals themselves.

Brno is home to several museums, galleries and churches, most conveniently within walking distance of each other. Should you ever need to venture further or couchsurf with anyone living in the satellite suburbs typical of (not only) ex-Communist cities, you can always hop onto one of the many 'trolleybuses' or trams that swiftly take you to your destination.

Perhaps the most popular sights are the cathedral of Saints Peter and Paul (which was closed when we got there) and Špilberk (German: Spielberg) castle which was considered the toughest prison in the entire Austro-Hungarian Empire at the time. Being on a hill, it was also the venue of the opening and closing fireworks during the Ignis Brunensis and was therefore, also closed. The competition itself takes place on a dam where the water reflection mirrors the fireworks as a special effect.

Špilberk Castle

Since the hill would be the obvious choice for the crowds of spectators, we decided to watch the fireworks from the small park where we had some authentic Czech food (and some of us in Czech beer) which not unlike traditional Viennese cuisine, is rather meaty and starchy with thick creamy sauces. From the park, we had an unblocked and truly magnificent view on Špilberk castle.

The fireworks finale was totally worth the trip. Huddled under umbrellas, people stared at the sky in silent anticipation. Kat remarked that we all looked like we were waiting for the arrival of aliens. :D Someone tuned their mobile phone to the local radio station and turned the volume to maximum for all in the park to follow the countdown and the classical music.

And suddenly, the night sky was illuminated by the brighest lights...!

Famous residents of Brno include:
  • Gregor Mendel, grandfather of genetics trained as an Augustinian priest at a local monastery before he studied at the University of Vienna where one of his teachers was physicist Christian Doppler.
  • Physicist Ernst Mach was born in Brno and also studied at the University of Vienna.
  • Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk, first president of Czechoslovakia. An eager advocate of independence from the Austro-Hungarian Empire around WWI, he went into exile and lobbied around the world, including London, Geneva, Paris, Russia, Tokyo and the US, where he taught at the Univerity of Chicago (the city then being the centre of Czechoslovak immigration). While he was in London, he was one of the first members of staff at the newly established School of Slavonic and East European Studies at KCL before it became incorporated into UCL.

17 May 2012

A Test of Faith

It was not what was supposed to happen.

With almost two years un(der)paid internships under my belt, I had been passed over for promotion for the other intern,

the one with less than half (!) the internship experience I had
the one without prior migration-related experience
the one with economics (!) background
the one with zero 'field cred'
the one whose first application for a permanent job it was (ever!)
the one who speaks fewer foreign languages than I do
the one who HADN'T been advertising that she wanted a job
the one to whom this job was of less existential significance.

It was the closest I had come to finding employment in a long time and it didn't help that the rejection came five days before Christmas. Or that I had first row tickets to job handover briefings because the person who got the job had her desk right in front of me and our boss's was in the adjacent room behind her.


Making a career in development is like making a career in journalism: Most jobs you will apply for go to professionals from other disciplines. In development, that means agriculture, lawyers, engineers, medics, accountants and even city bankers and other MBAs.

There are countless posts on aid worker blogs giving career advice to those still hoping for a way to break into the industry (not so many for those trying to break into policy research though) and the long thread of comments reveal just how frustrated, desperate and cynical people become in the course of their job hunt. Occasionally, you find one or the other angry remark on how much unpaid work experience is enough or what happens to those who can't afford the luxury anymore and have to give up their dream.

The non-profit sector belongs one of those sectors where in the average amount of time others complete a BA degree (three years), you have progressed from volunteer to intern, to paid intern, to part-time staff, to maternity cover until eventually (if not bankrupt by this point) "qualifying" enough to beat the other 199 applicants competing with you for your first FT job.

"At the latest count there were more than a million unemployed 16-24 year-olds in the UK, making competition for jobs intense. Internships are seen are as a foot in the door and way of getting experience - particularly in politics, the media and fashion."
- BBC, 19 April 2012, "Liberal Democrats' unpaid internships criticised"

Serial internships have become the norm for many who hope to get lucky one day, prompting cynical views like the following:

"In July, I was at an interview for a three-month unpaid internship at a campaigning organisation in central London which specialises in using public and shareholder pressure to push corporations to become more ethical.

"What exactly would I be doing?" I asked my interviewers. They explained that the intern would work mainly on a campaign for corporations to pay all employees a living wage (£8.30 an hour in London). Didn't they find it a bit ironic, I asked, that they were looking for an unpaid intern?

"Oh," said my interviewer, looking surprised. "That's a really embarrassing question."

In June, I had returned from a two-year stint working for VSO in Cameroon. I'd been running projects, managing budgets, organising workshops and training, and earning a local-level salary. I loved working in international development; I'd had a great post-placement evaluation of my work. I also had a good degree from Cambridge and plenty of voluntary experience. But I had reckoned without the hurdle of the unpaid internship. If you don't have the right connections pretty much the only way to start a career in a UK-based international development role is to spend months and sometimes years as an unpaid intern. To get one of these internships (some I was interviewed for had more than 100 applicants) you can need years of experience, and preferably a master's degree."
- Guardian, October 30th, 2011, "Work for free – or not at all: the bitter choice for young graduates"


Unless you have London-based family to crash with to avoid the exorbitant rent (£400-600 a month excluding council tax you were exempted from as a student), this is of course an unsustainable path for many BA graduates. For that precise support factor in my job search, I came back to Austria.

While extensive internships are not encouraged in Austria and even tend to be frowned upon, a social science degree by itself does not get you as far as it would in the UK with the same amount of experience, especially if you are 'just' a Bachelor. The latter is because until recently, most Austrian university degrees would directly lead to a Magister/Magistra – an Austrian title that is comparable to a Master (more on the state of the Bachelor in Austria hopefully soon in another post). This is due to a local emphasis on certificates and formal education and the negligible value given to the transferability of skills.

In order to work with refugees in Austria for example, you would either need to be a certified social pedagogue (2-3 years), a social worker (3 years) or a lawyer. The few consulting jobs in international development that are NOT technical require M&E (monitoring & evaluation) experience or experience with project work that preferably includes knowledge of grant acquisition and familiarity with complex EU funding mechanisms (the kind where one printed submission dossier fills one or several thick folders).

There is no VSO-like organisation in Austria. There used to be such a programme offered by Horizont 3000 that I nearly ended up in Mindanao with but the paid overseas volunteering was abolished a few years ago. German-speaking development students and graduates try their luck via the GIZ which offers numerous paid internships in Germany and abroad with all expenses paid. Essential requirement is however that you are either currently enrolled or have graduated within the last six months.


Yes, it is true, Vienna hosts one of the UN headquarters and also the headquarters of IAEA, UNODC, UNIDO, OSCE and OPEC respectively.

People always mention the UN but unless you are a driver/cooker/cleaner/security officer/nurse/teacher/accountant/nuclear scientist/organised crime expert (ie former police officer or home office civil servant)/petroleum physicist/translator, you will browse the job listings for a long time. You could try getting in as clerk or a typist (high school diploma is fine but you need "five years of progressive experience" in punching a keyboard, sorting mail and picking up the phone. Unless you fit into one of the above categories or are a diplomat or spouse of a P-grade officer, your chances of getting hired are virtually nil.

Since you will bring up the JPO/AE route next, Austria currently hires every two years and candidates face serious competition from Vienna's very own Diplomatic Academy. The main foreign languages in demand are Russian, French and the languages spoken in the Balkans. Sorry to all of you who learned Farsi/Urdu/Arabic/Chinese or any other language spoken South of the Mediterranean and East of the Urals.

People often do not realise how complex and competitive hiring policies for HQ jobs are (compared to those in country offices). It is almost a science (and art!) in itself to get hired. In my personal experience, country offices – mostly comprised of national staff and thus less diverse – tend to hire people who are likely to be content with the idea of staying in that particular country for a while. Over-advertising your international ambitions and desire to rotate to other countries within a reasonable amount of years tends to work against you. This is in line with Austrian business culture which rejects the concept of careerism and promotes values like stability, reliability and tradition.

As you read at the beginning of this post, I tried to get into a job with such an organisation via the internship route. This last brush with near-employment marked somewhat of a turning point for me. After six humiliating months of wasting my brain cataloguing and reorganising parts of the in-house library and left to fend with the deeper (and more time-consuming) layout mysteries of our office software for 400€ a month, I MORE THAN DESERVED to get hired. The best part is that when I kept pushing for more responsibilities, they said they did not want to "abuse" (!) their interns by giving them substantial tasks!

I later happened to see an ad for another job within that organisation that would have been an even greater match to my interests.

I did not apply.


"It’s natural that at some point on the journey we embark on in our lives, where we set ourselves a goal, where we follow our dream, that we get to a part where we feel like giving up on it. Where we are willing to accept failure. Where we no longer see it possible for us to achieve our big dreams, and so settle for mediocrity in life."
- click here for source

For a while, I continued sending out applications.

No matter how perseverant or determined (and grads of 'idealistic' degrees tend to be blessed/cursed with a particular tolerance for long-term reward gratification) I had been, I needed to evaluate their progress honestly and consider alternatives on how to make a living for myself.

One day I just accepted that I had to get back on my feet, get my wits together, move on and step by step, start to climb the hill NOW. Not tomorrow, not next week if I don't hear back from this or that job application...


I contemplated the typical technical jobs always in demand in international development.

I chose the field which seemed the most attainable and low risk for me with the meagre means at my disposal. Something that will land me a secure job elsewhere even if things don't work out in development (this is tricky because a Master in social sciences in the UK can be the deal-breaker in securing my dream job and I would never know once I changed career paths).

I signed up for a taster. This taster is an opportunity to experience the harsh sides of aid work in a relatively familiar environment. A real-life simulation, if you will. I figured if I like this kind of work (which I shall protect from premature criticism for now), I would pursue it academically, even if that would have been unimaginable to me up until two weeks ago. If I don't enjoy it and haven't been offered another job by that time, I will still go back to university, enrol for a language degree (portability of study materials are the deciding factor here) in a last attempt to cash in my benefits before I lose eligibility for them and with that money, get myself back to Asia to hustle for a job.

The mere idea of starting from scratch and investing your time and energy in what could possibly be another five-year journey (1 year to wait for next admission cycle, 2 years to study and 2 years of mandatory minimum work experience) in an entirely different discipline is daunting to say the least.

Even more daunting however would be the prospect of settling for anything less than my dream.

"A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step"
- Lao Tse

03 May 2012

Visualise: 10 Amazing Infographics

They say, a picture is worth a thousand words.

This is certainly true for infographics which present facts, figures, proportions, distributions and linkages in a visually appealing way and have been popping up all over the internet and newspapers. A well-designed infographic can summarise an entire article and has the advantages of...
  • ... catching the attention of the speed-browsing eye,
  • ... delivering information in a way that makes it easier to understand for the busy or less educated person and that is
  • ... easier for the brain to retain.
I have wanted to post about infographics ever since the Afghanistan war strategy made big headlines in UK dailies in April 2010 (see #5), so without further ado I give you ten of the most intriguing infographics. As usual, click to enlarge:

#1 Why infographics?

#2 The biggest shift since the Industrial Revolution

I am pretty sure it was meant to be shared (given that it presents stunning figures about social media) but since the image has All Rights Reserved, I can legally only link to it.

#3 The complex world of human relationships and non-monogamy

This was actually shared by one of the students among the Gender in Anthropology class at SOAS.

#4 Left vs. Right in the United States

#5 US strategy for the war in Afghanistan

When presented with the graph in a slideshow, General Stanley McChrystal, the US and NATO force commander supposedly remarked, "When we understand that slide, we'll have won the war".

The amusement and even serious concern about facts vs. illusion (see above article) was echoed with a public debate about whether or not slideshows in general really are always as effective and useful in conveying information. Having attended a public lecture by Khalid Koser who visited his former employer SOAS on a short trip from Geneva and demonstratively showed how perfected oratory and presentation skills can make 60 minutes fly by even without a projector, I do agree that measure is key.

#6 Eleven days that shaped 2011

As voted on this site.

#7 The 21st century challenges surrounding water

By Suez Environnement which according to its Wikipedia article, is a French utility company which declares an interest in sustainable development.

#8 Human trafficking statistics

From We Are Chapter One (larger image available on their blog) and posted on Stop the Traffik's blog.

#9 The global arms trade

Sadly a less 'sexy' development topic for most development studies students (and probably a more central issue in war studies or security studies), the impact of the global arms trade on conflicts and power-relations is often over-looked.

#10 The rise of the slacktivist

Fascinating times for the social activist!

Please note that I did not verify any of the information shown in any of the images above and can therefore not guarantee their accuracy.

Browse more infographics on the following sites:

21 April 2012

Cover Letters from Unemployed Overachievers [Reblogged]

Ah, the joys of begging for a job as a graduate! After being back on the road after my third major internship (surpassing two years of unpaid work experience in international environments), drafting cover letters has become somewhat of an excruciating routine I could not get myself to keep up with anymore without a lot of cynicism:

Screenshot - Another futile attempt (click to enlarge)

Since the idea of doing some kind of job where one at least hopes to be of actual assistance to other human beings without having to starve or enter cycles of material dependency oneself is becoming increasingly surreal, particularly outside the circles of SOAS or exposure to aid settings, I try to stay in touch with reality by reading expat aid workers' blogs and was delighted to have found the following tongue-in-cheek post which has been shared over 3000 times on Facebook so far (because it really hits the nail on the head!):

Reblogged from Stuff Expat Aid Workers Like:

Dear Hiring Manager for [insert International Humanitarian Organization],

I would like to apply for the position of [insert vague sounding job title that has no meaning outside of the given organization]. I believe that my educational background and skills make me uniquely suited to this position. So far in life I have proven myself capable of taking on the challenges required for this position, which I understand pays under $20,000 a year for working in one of the most dangerous countries in the world and undertaking tasks that no one else wants to do.

As you can see from my tiny-font, two page resume, I attended a top-level undergraduate university where I excelled at taking on more than I could possibly handle while maintaining a high GPA, completing 12 internships, and finding opportunities to travel to Western Europe where I was enthralled by the ancient architecture and many art museums. My travels prompted me to do a semester abroad where I discovered a disdain for “tourists” who travel in packs taking pictures of 50 monuments in a single day instead of spending hours at cafes drinking wine and smoking like real Europeans. After my study abroad experience, I completed my senior honors thesis on the topic of [insert esoteric topic of no interest to the majority of the world].

Upon graduation with highest honors, I took a year to backpack around the world to extremely poor countries where I spent most of my time drinking local beers and posing for pictures with street children. This experience led me to want to help alleviate poverty. I therefore obtained a volunteer position in which I dedicated a couple of years of my life to living in a mud hut. While I did not have cable television, I was able to use this time to learn curse words in five tribal languages, grow dreadlocks, drive a motorbike, learn to drum, and discover the real Africa. These skills will undoubtedly prove essential in my future career.

After this unique experience, I attended an ivy league graduate school where I obtained a Masters degree in appearing humble while actually making other people feel inadequate and uninformed. From my peers I soon learned that there is a hierarchy to international work, and I became determined to not just help poor people, but to help the poorest and most desperate people, preferably those living in war-torn countries under military dictatorships where the chance of being kidnapped, blown up, or summarily executed is very high. Only by working under the very worst of conditions can I prove to myself and my peers that I am in fact as ballsy as they are and just as willing to die for a project that is under-funded, poorly planned and probably has little chance of actually helping anyone.

This experience will allow me to live on a permanent adrenaline rush, which will mean that I do not need to use drugs the way my over-privileged peers do. At the same time, it will allow me to become more arrogant and cynical and give me the credibility needed to scoff at anyone who questions the effectiveness of my chosen career. Following this, I intend to return to my home country where I will land a cushy job at a university or think tank and get paid an exorbitant amount of money to create policy guidelines that are not possible to implement in the real world.

As you can see I have spent the past seven years of my life working unpaid internships for the friends of my semi well-connected parents, and am enormously in debt as a result of my determination to live in the world’s most expensive city while attending the world’s most expensive graduate school. While my high school friends are married with kids, houses, and cars, I am still using my parent’s address and couch surfing in a city where a glass of wine costs $12. However, a position at your organization will enable me to add to the number of visas in my passport, give me stories to tell about being shot at by rebel armies, and imagine that I am helping people by living in poverty with them.

Thank you for your consideration, I look forward to hearing from you.

E… W… S…

P.S. Do not ignore this cover letter because I have cc’d my professor who used to work for your organization as well as a family friend who is on your Board of Directors.

(Submitted to SEAWL by E.W.S; unfortunately SEAWL is currently underfunded and unable to justify an increase in headcount.)

26 January 2012

Don't let the men of the Vienna Philharmonic keep playing with themselves

Duly resuming two decades of tradition, I woke up on 1 January 2012 and switched on the TV to tune into the annual New Year's Concert by the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra. Televised live from the Musikverein into more than 70 countries world-wide, the concert is attended by some 2000 people who are willing to pay up to 940 € a pop in a ticket lottery and thereby ensure a sold out show by end of January twelve (!) months in advance (penny pinchers might be interested in the fact that the cheapest tickets sell for merely 25-350 €!).

Different concert masters from around the world salivate every year over who gets the chance to conduct the concert which traditionally features three essential musical pieces (Donauwalzer, Radetzkymarsch and Wiener Blut) accompanied by the Vienna State Opera ballet and for those that can stomach 1.5 hours of classical music (like me!), an annually changing variety of other classical pieces.

© Alfred Weidinger

So what's the deal with the Vienna Philharmonic? Why is everyone crazed up about it? What makes it so special?

It is considered one of the best orchestras in the world and an important 'brand' in the historicist image Austria exports as classical music capital of the world (as I call it, the 'Hollywood' of classical music, if perhaps less bold) thanks to big names like Mozart, Beethoven, Haydn and various Italian and Hungarian composers from the former Austrian empire - that for a time ruled half of Europe - synergising their talents in Vienna. Just like fine arts students flock to Paris for a formation, young people from around the world seek musical training in Austria's conservatories today.

Given this image, "the Vienna Philharmonic not only commands the highest concert fees of any orchestra - as much as $200 000 a night, and sometimes more, on standing-room-only international tours - it sells more recordings and earns more money for its members than any other orchestra, except perhaps for the Metropolitan Opera orchestra. Its reported annual income amounts to about $15 million after expenses, income divided among the 150 players. In addition, Philharmonic members earn large government salaries for their jobs in the Vienna State Opera orchestra, and a significant minority earn yet a third salary, also government-paid, to teach at the Vienna Music Academy." (MSNBC)

Nevertheless, the prestigious image of the orchestra is not as squeaky-clean as it appears to convey

As three ballet fairies in blue designer dresses are whirled through the air and land half a turn later in a fourth position démi-plié, I wonder why it is that such an internationally renown and acclaimed institution as the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra (hereafter abbreviated as VPO) has virtually no female performers in its ranks. Given the time I spent away from Austria and my relatively consistent disinterest in Austrian current affairs and by proxy, perusing Austrian dailies, I assumed that the more-obvious-than-obvious gender imbalance in the VPO has gone virtually unchallenged in a (transitioning) patriarchal society whose organised women's groups are not lobbying on the same scale as say, their counterparts in the US where they have considerable leverage in national public discourse (partly due to the different democratic system). Being accused by a women's group in the US can create considerable discomfort to the organisation or individual whose image is put into question. In Austria, where political correctness is one of the 'American concepts' Austrians generally prefer to reject by principle, arguments brought forward by women's groups often just evoke a smirk by members of the public.

As for the VPO, a brief internet research confirms that a strong campaign against gender discrimination in the ensemble has been fought for almost a decade now on the cyber front – led prominently by a guy from New Mexico, William Osborne.

"Part composer, social historian and musicologist, Osborne [60] came to the issue of gender bias through long and bitter experience. For many years, he and his wife, Abbie Conant, a classical trombonist, fought sexism in the Munich Philharmonic. Their court battles with that orchestra, following Conant's arbitrary demotion from solo to second trombone, ultimately ended in a precedent-setting legal victory [after she had to have her lung volume measured in a hospital (!) by court order in order to prove that she had the same physical capability as a man to play a wind instrument]." (MSNBC)

"We would have been powerless without the internet"

Launching an online campaign in the early days of the internet (we are talking 1995, Facebook and Twitter had not even been conceived yet, let alone Windows XP!), he successfully generated debate and support through sending emails, posting in (IRC!) chat rooms and websites and sharing his scientifically-based arguments on the issue of gender bias. I quote,

"More than three years ago, in 'Art Is Just an Excuse', the first of several seminal essays, Osborne contended that the Vienna Philharmonic's belief in male supremacy was gender bias of the worst sort, rooted in a historical rationale of national identity and cultural purity, and that its exclusionary policy was part of an intolerable racist heritage. [...]

Chief among Osborne's allies were Monique Buzzarte [whose slogan I chose as title for this post], a New York freelance musician and writer who put up a Zap the VPO Web site to encourage and track the protest, influencing the National Organization of Women to get involved and Varda Ullman Novick, a Los Angeles media researcher and pollster who acted as a traffic catalyst, instigating debate by forwarding e-mail messages to key music list servers." (MSNBC)

By revealing how the VPO is governed and the employment policies surrounding the orchestra, Osborne shed light on the systematic sexist discrimination.

Kurier: "US Womens' Groups Threaten Boycott of the Philharmonic / Massive Pressure on the Orchestra to Take Women Musicians"

Repeatedly threatened with boycots during their concerts abroad and finally giving in to rising international pressure, the first woman admitted into the VPO was harpist Anna Lelkes who by historic vote on 27 February 1997 publicly 'joined' the orchestra conveniently on the same day the VPO flew to the US to play in New York (in its only other US stop on that tour, the Vienna Philharmonic played three concerts at the Orange County Performing Arts Center in California, where about 150 protestors demonstrated). I put the 'joined' in apostrophes here because Lelkes had in fact been playing with the orchestra for 26 years as a permanent substitute prior to her 'upgrade'. So for nearly three decades, "[s]he earned less pay and her name never appeared in the programs. She was a non-person". Osborne further adds that, "hiring women harpists is nothing new. Male harpists are rare." (MSNBC)

In disgust at Lelke being voted into the VPO, its then-chairman Werner Resel resigned and Austrian conductor Hans Swarowsky allegedly shouted at her, "Your place is in the kitchen!"

As the Los Angeles Times reported on the same day of the vote, the orchestra had declined on another occasion to "audition a highly qualified female candidate for solo viola, namely Vienna Academy-trained violist Gertrude Rossbacher who had played for 10 years in the Berlin Philharmonic, where she had been hired by its legendary conductor Herbert von Karajan. The Vienna orchestra filled the solo viola position with a male second violinist, not a regular viola player, from the Vienna State Opera."

At this point, I should probably mention that "The Vienna Philharmonic is the private band of the State Opera Orchestra, which holds the auditions. After three years, a State Opera musician is eligible for the Philharmonic. Thereafter, musicians work for both." (The Independent)

"Three women are already too many. By the time we have twenty percent, the orchestra will be ruined" (statement of a male VPO member in Austrian weekly magazine, Profil).

Of course, the question whether satisfying the notion of human rights would should be pursued for its own sake without regard for the performer's ability and skill is justified. Musicians should be awarded membership to the VPO based on merit, not on gender. I don't believe though that there are not enough equally qualified female musicians who would like to join the orchestra.

In March 2010, Francesca Jackes from the Independent wonders why "[t]here are still no women outside the string section even when women comprise 62 per cent of students at the Viennese University of Music and Performing Arts, and have done for 20 years with better graduation results than men, so why does the VPO hire 20 times more men and why is the firing rate for women higher? (another Austrian orchestra, the Bruckner, has 35 per cent women)."

Is female to male as nature is to culture?

The introduction of re-audition requirements for musicians returning from maternity leave based on the fear that the long absence would threaten the 'artistic continuity' of the VPO is one of the reported discriminatory employment practices.

What happened was that in response to the decision by then State Opera director Ioan Holender to automatically employ any female musician who wins an audition, the Philharmonic's leadership and officials of the Austrian government altered leave-of-absence regulations in order to provide a disincentive for maternity leave (as they openly admitted). These regulations state that,

"[i]f a woman takes a maternity leave of less than one year she must reaudition upon her return, but without competition from other candidates. If she is gone more than one year, her position will be advertised and she must compete against other applicants." (Osborne: A difficult birth)

In contrast, so Osborne elaborates, "men have long enjoyed special privileges as members of the orchestra. They are exempted from Austria's compulsory military service. And they are allowed a one time, one year sabbatical with no reaudition requirement. Reauditioning for 'men and women' was deemed necessary only when it became apparent women might enter the orchestra." (ibid)

Osborne further argues that simple financial considerations dispelled the expressed fear that women would take maternity leave for years as the compensation for maternity leave at the time was a tiny fraction of the 8000 $ a working woman in the orchestra would earn on top of the state opera salary. He also adds that women in prestigious positions tend to have fewer children or none at all as they often consider their career more important than extended maternity leave. Finally, if taken into consideration that in Austria, men can take paternity leave as well, it becomes obvious that the concern is unfounded.

"Children can enrich a musician enormously, give her strength, improve her expressive capabilities. One is quite quickly back at one's performance level.  It is a question of organization." - a female musician (cf. Osborne ibid)

Change of tune?

At the point of writing, there are at least five women in the Vienna Philharmonic (one harpists, two first violinists, one violist and one concert mistress). During the entire otherwise flawless 1.5 hour performance, I spotted only one.

On the bright side, I enjoyed watching the Vienna Boys Choir, an almost equally prestigious globetrotting Austrian institution that chimed in for two pieces at the New Year's Concert. Visually more ethnically diverse than the VPO, it comes closer to the kind of contemporary image I would prefer being represented by in the world. I can live with a designated boys' choir. A philharmonic orchestra however is about aspiring harmony among a diverse group of instruments far less influenced by anatomy than vocals and, by not employing qualified women, it somehow is unfaithful to its ideal. There is nothing wrong with exclusive women's orchestras or exclusive men's orchestras but as a national orchestra representing the country as a whole (and not just 49 %), the current practices are a disgrace and should be dispelled by fair auditions, i.e. 'blind' auditions where panel and auditioning person are divided by a screen to obscure the latter's identity (this is already common practice elsewhere in the world).

Then again, if in another ten years from now (and twenty years after the debate was initiated), the orchestra is still almost entirely male and if its violation of EU anti-discrimination legislation will still be endorsed by the Austrian government (which funds the VPO with millions of euros each year), perhaps it will reflect Austrian culture – and intrinsically, gender parity within it – quite accurately.

Sources for further reading:

Kurier, 15 January 1997, "US-Frauenverbände drohen mit Boykott der Philharmoniker / Massiver Druck auf Orchester, Musikerinnen aufzunehmen (US Womens' Groups Threaten Boycott of the Philharmonic / Massive Pressure on the Orchestra to Take Women Musicians)" (click HERE)

Kurier: Other related articles published in the six months preceding above article (click HERE)

William Osborne, February 1997, "A difficult birth: Re-auditioning after maternity leave in the Vienna Philharmonic" (click HERE)

Los Angeles Times, 27 February 1998, Jan Herman, "Vienna Philharmonic still under fire / A year after naming its first female member, the group continues to face criticism that it's a white male club" (click HERE)

MSNBC, 20 January 2000, Jan Herman, "Taking on the Vienna Philharmonic. Composer-activist plays the Internet for women's rights" (click HERE)

Profil, 24 February 2003, Peter Schneeberger, "Die Zwei-Prozent-Gesellschaft (The Two-Percent Society)" (click HERE)

Austrian Parliament, 7 March 2007, Reply by Federal Chancellor Alfred Gusenbauer to the enquiry by Green MP Wolfgang Zinggl (click HERE)
Telegraph, 12 September 2009, Michael White, "Women in the Vienna Philharmonic! Shows how sensitive Austrians are these days..." (click HERE)

The Independent, 4 March 2010, Francesca Jackes, "All white on the night: Why does the world-famous Vienna Philharmonic feature so few women and ethnic minorities?" (click HERE)

Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra's website (click HERE)

Zap the VPO:
Old website (click HERE)
New website (click HERE)

Full list of media coverage as listed on the website of the International Alliance of Women in Music (click HERE)

06 January 2012

Christmas in Vienna

With my wool-gloved hands I clutched the steaming mug, fingers warming to the touch while I licked the remnants of my well-spiced apple-cinnamon punch off my lips with an appreciative smile. Instead of traditional snacks such as gingerbread hearts, candied fruit, roasted almonds or Brezel, my aunt and me munched organic corn tacos and mango enchilada from the Mexican deli around the corner.


Huddled in circles around tastefully lit punch stalls, people at the Christmas market discuss their plans for Christmas while those lining the more brightly lit stalls were ooh-ing and aah-ing at the various mostly hand-crafted items on display.

The Christmas market on Spittelberg didn't let us down this year and was as intimate as ever compared to its more commercially laid out counterparts at Rathaus (town hall) or Schönbrunn castle – both locations also highly frequented by tourists. Spittelberg is an artsy quarter behind the Museumsquartier (MQ), the eight-largest cultural complex in the world (60 000 m²), and is locally known for its shops in which artists sell their welded silver cutlery and bronze, silk paintings, mosaic and self-blown glass jewelry.

Nativity scenes and saints carved out of olive wood from Bethlehem

Klimt-inspired glassware

Hand-painted Christmas balls

Spread out on two parallel alleys on Spittelberg, the Christkindlmarkt, named after the Christkind (a mythical figure which brings the presents on Christmas eve in Austria before Coca-Cola allegedly succeeded their invented Santa Claus into saint-like status), is renown for the creativity of its vendors and I think, the most lovely of all Christmas markets in Vienna - and of those, there are plenty: Groups of stalls are spread out across town every 500m, some smaller, some larger.

Organic food gifts are also offered, in this case: Honey and wax candles
I prefer the chilled-out Christmas markets to the crowds of people buying Christmas presents in Vienna's shopping mile, Mariahilfer Straße or the large shopping malls on the outskirts of town and thus probably missed most of the subliminal Christmas prompts. So, with no visual aides to daily remind me of Christmas, no countdown calendar, minimal exposure to Christmas carols (due to refusing to immerse myself in the Christmas shopping craze), no Christmas cards in the post, not watching TV much, no cookie exchanges with the Filipino family which is not the baking type, no skiing or holiday trip abroad, mild temperatures and no snow, Christmas arrived quite suddenly for me. On top of that, it was overshadowed by the negative outcome of an internal job application I was informed of five days before Christmas - merry Christmas to me!

It is not surprising then that on Christmas eve, the desire to have some kind of 'proper' Christmas finally overpowered me. After all, it was my first Christmas in my parents' home in seven or so years and I hadn't set foot in it at all in that time. I literally made the best of what I could find and transformed a handful of green velvet hangers and some trinkets I found at home into a Christmas tree (the star on top was substituted with a yellow tissue paper), a fallen twig from one of the pine trees surrounding our house into a 'Mistletoe' and a cornflakes box and other empty gift-wrapped containers into fake presents for decoration. I made up for the usual joy of arts & crafts in the run-up to Christmas by doing some origami and teaching my aunt and my mother how to fold a crane – which involved a lot of laughter.

The improvised Christmas tree in our living room

I even created my own holiday TV programme to substitute the dreadful holiday season on Austrian TV (Sissi trilogy, Home Alone, Notting Hill, Bridget Jones and other movies everyone knows inside and out already but which are shown every year just the same) for Taiwanese movies (I can recommend Zoom Hunting, I yet have to watch The Drummer and some others), Japanese ones (Noriko's Dinner Table was a bit weird, in a creepy way), Korean ones (Old Boy! Strong narrative techniques, suspense until the last minute, impressive acting by the lead actor and the crazy long unchoreographed fighting sequence shot in one continuous shot! Next movie, once I find it: Happiness!).

On Christmas eve proper, we celebrated in my aunt's karaoke bar, shaking our booties and singing ABBA and various other classics (English and Tagalog alike). We ate pancit (noodles), chop suey and a Filipino dish of meat stewed with banana leaf strips. There also was what I shall call 'Gulasch with a twist' (an orangey Hungarian soup with pork chops and red pepper also popular in neighbouring Austria), the twist being the chili my aunt's friends had added which gave it a deep red shade.

For our second Christmas dinner, we joined an old family friend in her new home outside of Vienna near the forest, whose kids – my mischievous childhood playmates – I saw the first time in like, 15 years! It is bizarre to see two overweight kids grown into solarium-tanned, VERY built and/or liposuctioned adults hung with self-earned designer clothes and jewelry who are in a position to binge away thousands of Euros with colleagues in one night. We ate fish and a really hot, yet delicious yellow curry with (lots of!) real chili that seared my taste buds away.

On our final dinner for this year, I also had the chance to catch up with my niece who is older than me and visiting Austria with her husband and daughter. Let's hope I get to visit them in Australia one day!

 I hope you all had a merry Christmas!