Women's protests
Women protest against violence and for their rights. © unsplash+

Frequently, it's the questions one can't answer that open up new vistas. “Ten years ago, I was a visiting researcher at York University in Toronto,” says Nora Ruck, a psychologist who does research and teaches at the Sigmund Freud Private University in Vienna. “In Toronto, I was asked how awareness of the psychological dimension of gender discrimination had developed in German-speaking countries, and I was quite unable to comment on it.” In contrast to Canada or the USA, there was hardly any research on the subject in Germany and Austria. On her return to Vienna, Ruck decided to change that.

The “psychological dimension of gender discrimination”, an academic turn of phrase, relates to a simple idea: women are still treated differently – mostly worse – in society just because they are women. This encompasses a vast gamut, starting from the stereotypical “innate role of motherhood” to tangible professional disadvantages, such as the gender pay gap and forms of structural and physical violence. This discrimination which women are constantly exposed to has clearly a psychological dimension.

Peak phase of psychological women's studies

Today, the subject is addressed by a broad field of research, dealing with questions such as: why do people discriminate against others? Why do so many put up with this discrimination? And, last but not least: what are the psychological effects on people? “This can even extend to manifest clinical diagnoses,” says Ruck. “After many years of experiencing discrimination some people develop the same symptoms we know from post-traumatic stress disorder.” Naturally, this field of research was not always that wide-ranging, but has developed over time. Ruck and her colleagues (Vera Luckgei, Barbara Rothmüller, Elisabeth Parzer, Emelie Rack, Florian Knasmüller, Max Beck and Nina Franke) have examined the course of this evolution in Austria up to the end of 2022 in the FWF-funded project “The Psychological is Political”.

In the context of Vera Luckgei’s Master’s Thesis, the research team was in for a surprise. They had originally assumed that there had been no or extremely little women-specific psychology at Austrian universities. “We quickly learned otherwise and discovered that there was a phase at the University of Vienna in which women's psychology was taught for approximately 15 years. And a surprising amount of it, at that, even by international standards,” notes Ruck. Starting from the mid-1980s, there were not only up to 10 seminars per semester offered in this field, but also a total of six positions for visiting professors. This came to an end at the turn of the millennium. So, in addition to “Where, when and how did women-specific psychological knowledge emerge in Austria?”, the researchers asked themselves another question: How did this knowledge come to the University of Vienna, and why was the subject unable to establish itself there in the long term?

Personal details

Nora Ruck is Assistant Professor of Psychology at the Sigmund Freud Private University in Vienna, where she is Vice Dean for Research and Head of the Psychology PhD program. She studied psychology at the University of Vienna with an additional background in cultural studies and feminist science studies. Ruck has also studied and conducted research in the Netherlands, Germany, the USA and Canada.

"The psychological is political" was funded by the Austrian Science Fund FWF with EUR 305,000. Building on this, Ruck will continue to carry out the FWF-funded citizen science project "The psychological is participatory" until April 2024.

Autonomous women's movement and first counseling centers

A famous theory by French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu is based on the assumption that society is divided into relatively autonomous “social fields”. The way these fields are structured has a considerable influence on how knowledge is produced there. To put it more simply: the left-wing ideas and thoughts arising on a factory floor are different from those generated in a lecture hall. Austria has two social fields where the origins of knowledge about gender-specific psychology can be found: the autonomous women's movement and the first women's counseling centers.

Having emerged in the late 1960s in the USA, the autonomous women's movement arrived in Austria in the early 1970s. In this context, something like the first seed was sown. “So-called self-awareness groups were very important in the autonomous women's movement,” says Ruck. In simple terms, women came together in groups to talk. When they emerged in the USA, these groups were originally intended to serve consciousness-raising, i.e. politicization, says Ruck. The idea was that by talking about discrimination, the participating women would take on a more active part in the fight against it.

From the political to the psychological

“The participants quickly realized, however, that they had a greater sense of psychological wellbeing after these talks. More and more women felt comfortable with just talking in the groups, and that did not make them politically active.” As a result, the focus of the groups shifted more and more from politics to psychology – they turned into what is known today as “self-awareness groups”. When the concept arrived in Austria, it had already taken this more psychological turn. For a few years, “knowledge production” about discrimination and its impact occurred primarily in the women's movement: women exchanged ideas, produced leaflets, founded women's publishing houses and women's bookshops.

In the late 1970s, a second area emerged from the autonomous women's movement that generated a great deal of knowledge: women's counseling centers. “This ultimately became the focus area of our project,” says Ruck. The team conducted interviews with the founders of counseling centers such as “Frauen beraten Frauen” (today Frauen* beraten Frauen*) and various migrant counseling centers. Context for these interviews came from archived material and historical statistics on the funding structure in order to get a complete picture of the historical development of women-specific psychology in Austria.

NGOization of counseling centers

“Having started to operate informally in the late1970s, the counseling centers were transformed into associations in the first half of the 1980s,” notes Ruck. This shift changed many aspects: while initially still taking their guidance from the principle of the new women’s movement – no hierarchies, no division of labor – the counseling centers needed different structures for legal reasons when working in association format. “The counselling centers saw a development that we have called NGOization.” Given that the structures in the social fields – see Bourdieu above – have an influence on what happens in these fields, the counseling centers no longer produced the same type of knowledge as the autonomous women's movement. “At the beginning, it’s still clearly to be seen that everything is geared towards the problems of the clientele,” says Ruck. In other words, if a lot of women come with a particular problem, a great deal of reading and thinking will be devoted to this problem. “Later on, the funding logic forced the counseling centers to focus more and more on the requirements of the providers of funding.” Accordingly, they had to become more professional and establish a proper reporting system.

So these were the two social fields in which knowledge of the psychological dimension of gender discrimination was generated in Austria. These were also the fields in which answers were developed about how the ongoing discrimination against women affects psychology. The question remains as to how this body of knowledge accomplished a trajectory at the University of Vienna and why that ended. According to Ruck, it was students who launched the process. It was also students who approached the “Frauen beraten Frauen” counseling center. In 1984, women working at the center held the first courses at the university. In the 15 years that followed, the courses continued to expand.

A sudden political end

The process came to a relatively abrupt halt between 2000 and 2005. After the change of government to a coalition between the ÖVP (People’s Party) and the FPÖ (Freedom Party), communication with the Ministry of Women's Affairs, whose agenda belonged to the FPÖ, was severed. What was even more decisive, however, was the new University Act of 2002, which abolished the so-called tripartite framework, thereby eliminating student participation. “Students were no longer allowed to have a say in the allocation of teaching contracts,” says Ruck. This was very relevant for this women-specific area of teaching. “It had always been fought for by student activism.”