The Women in Law Conference | Vienna | September 12-14, 2024

Decoding CEDAW: Austria’s International Obligations to Combat and Confront Gender Stereotyping

This text explores the complex and intricate relationship between law and gender stereotypes, particularly focusing on Austria's obligations under the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW). The growing interest and research in gender stereotyping within the area of human rights and women's rights is undoubtfully noteworthy. Nonetheless, legal complexities arise in defining and confronting gender stereotypes, given their subtle, yet significant influence on societal norms and individual liberties. This examination seeks to assess Austria’s compliance with its obligations under CEDAW, highlighting both the efforts made and the challenges faced in eliminating harmful and wrongful gender stereotypes. This is done through the lens of the analysis provided by the CEDAW Committee’s case-law and Austria’s reports and communication in the past years. While Austria’s engagement with the CEDAW Committee is not without flaws and has room for improvement, it does demonstrate some tangible effects.

Decoding CEDAW: Austria’s International Obligations to Combat and Confront Gender Stereotyping

by Meadhbh Fitzsimons and Zuzanna Kowalska

In the past several years, gender stereotypes and gender stereotyping have become an important research area for international and domestic stakeholders responsible for upholding human rights standards, especially women’s rights.[1] Apart from the multiple non-legal disciplines covering the topic, the issue has been discussed by both legal scholars and the UN Treaty Bodies. We seek to address the international obligation regarding gender stereotypes imposed on States, with a particular focus on Austria, by the Convention on Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW). The legal sphere is usually characterised by its focus on having relatively clear and comprehensive definitions (at least for lawyers) of legal concepts and terms. Indeed, it may come in different forms of legislation as well as in case-law of the courts, international law being no different. However, it comes as a challenge to define and structure social practices and terms that are not exclusive to the legal area. This is what makes it difficult to address the elimination of gender stereotyping as a human rights law obligation.

What does CEDAW say about gender stereotypes?

CEDAW invokes the term “stereotyped” twice, however there are different forms of mentioning the existence of bias, prejudices, social or cultural patterns and customs in several parts of the convention, them being interlinked with stereotyping. Under Article 2(f) of CEDAW, States Parties are to undertake all appropriate measures to combat discrimination against women, including legislation, to modify or abolish existing laws, regulations, customs, and practices. It therefore recognizes that gender stereotypes reinforce discrimination. Article 5(a) obliges the States Parties to “modify the social and cultural patterns of conduct of men and women, with a view to achieving the elimination of prejudices and customary and all other practices which are based on the idea of the inferiority or the superiority of either of the sexes or on stereotyped roles for men and women.” Furthermore, article 10(c) covers the obligation of State Parties to eliminate discrimination within the field of education, including the elimination of any stereotyped concept of the roles of men and women at all levels and in all forms of education, in particular, by the revision of textbooks and school programmes and the adaption of teaching methods.[2] The Convention seems to focus on three tools to address gender stereotyping: changing the legislation, the education and modifying and transforming social and cultural patterns. The first two are relatively easy to grasp, because of their specificity and given the competences of the state, which could amend the law that perpetuates stereotypical belief or modify the public schools’ curricula. The latter however arises as the biggest challenge – the democratic state is generally not able to control the beliefs, social norms, or customs of the society.

What is a stereotype exactly?

The explicit definition of gender stereotypes is absent from both the Convention and from the jurisprudence of the CEDAW Committee, even though it was the first international human rights treaty to introduce obligations on that topic. In the literature, stereotype has been defined as “a generalised view or preconception of attributes or characteristics possessed by, or the roles that are or should be performed by, members of a particular group.”[3] Stereotyping on the other hand should be treated as a process of ascribing to an individual specific attributes, characteristics, or roles by reason of their membership in a particular group.[4]  In the research report commissioned by OHCHR, apart from different terms, compounded stereotype was defined as  “a generalised view or preconception about groups that result from the ascription of attributes, characteristics or roles based on one or more other traits.”[5] This concept becomes extremely important for the analysis of the intersection of stereotypes (e.g., stereotypes of women with disabilities, stereotypes of queer women, stereotypes of women of colour etc.). As for defining the term “gender” one should be aware that there are no explicit legal definitions. Some of the regional human rights instruments have put forward some versions, e.g., the Istanbul Convention defines gender as “the socially constructed roles, behaviours, activities and attributes that a given society considers appropriate for women and men.”[6] The labels are usually used to showcase the disadvantaged positions of women in comparison to the privileged position of men.[7] Gender stereotypes however, with their ability of being both positive and negative, could affect both women and men as well as people not fitting into the socially constructed gender binary.

Stereotypes threatening the enjoyment of human rights

Human rights framework is mostly concerned with the gender stereotypes that affect recognized human rights and fundamental freedoms, not all existing forms of stereotyping. It seems that it would not be possible to require from the stakeholders to eradicate stereotypes in general, especially given the potential incompatibility with, e.g., the freedom of expression. The Committee usually requires the States Parties to modify and transform “harmful gender stereotypes” or “wrongful gender stereotyping.”[8] Harmful gender stereotypes limit women’s or men’s capacity to develop their personal abilities, pursue their professional careers and make choices about their life plans. Gender stereotyping is wrongful when it results in a violation or violations of human rights and fundamental freedoms.[9] The harm is done by the application of stereotypical belief to an individual in such a way as to negatively affect the recognition, exercise or enjoyment of their rights and freedoms. One must always remember that human rights cannot be just viewed individually but a part of a larger group of interdependent fundamental rights, in which it is paramount that they all are considered indivisible with each other.

CEDAW Committee’s General Recommendations express and expand on stereotypes set out in the Convention, although there is no specific one which explicitly covers stereotyping. For instance, the Committee identified the obligation to address prevailing gender relations and the persistence of gender-based stereotypes that affect women not only through single acts by individuals but also in law, and legal and societal structures and institutions.[10] It also obliged to eliminate stereotypical beliefs that are the root causes of gender-based violence, thus recognising the connection between these two.[11] This exact observation is absent from the Convention. Furthermore, it stated that gender should be considered as inextricably linked with other factors that affect women.[12] Thus, to eradicate all manifestations of discrimination, the states should acknowledge intersectional discrimination and discern the intricate connections between different identities of a person. The Committee has identified the application of gender stereotypes in some cases it dealt with, deeming them a violation of human rights. These included consideration of various forms of violence against women, such as domestic and sexual violence, as well as reproductive rights matters and employment discrimination.[13] Additionally, the Committee underscored the adverse consequences of judicial stereotyping, a situation that may constitute a breach of principles related to non-discrimination and the right to a fair trial.[14]   States should be aware of how the role of judiciary in identifying and addressing stereotypes is a crucial element of anti-stereotyping strategies. They should provide resources and training that builds awareness and capacity of judges to address their biases.[15]

Austria’s compliance with anti-stereotyping

States that ratified the Convention are under scrutiny of CEDAW Committee and they are frequently recommended to eliminate stereotypical behaviours or attitudes in their societies by taking actions, Austria not excluded, since the state ratified the Convention in 1982.  

There are certain limitations to the realisation of both CEDAW’s provisions and the Committee’s recommendations, as it hinges largely on the state’s willingness to cooperate and implement changes. Effective communication between the Committee and the state needs the engagement of both parties. The Committee draws its observations based on the state’s report so it mostly depends on the detail and data provided by the state. Austria’s last report was submitted in 2017[16], followed by the submission of the shadow reports provided by non-governmental organisations. Some of them advocated for change of the state’s policy when it came to removal of sexist portrayals in advertising and media landscape, as well as for the improvement of treatment of intersex people who fall victim to medical “correction” of their external genitalia due to gender stereotypes.[17] In Concluding Observations from 2019 the state has been recommended to:

“(a) Continue its efforts to eliminate stereotypical images and attitudes regarding the roles of women and men in the family and in society […], in particular by promoting equal sharing of domestic and family responsibilities;

(b) Adopt a comprehensive strategy to eliminate discriminatory stereotypes regarding the roles and responsibilities of women and men in the family and in society, by, i.a., strengthening the coordination among the existing institutions and improving the joint monitoring mechanism […];

(c) Continue monitoring the portrayal of women in the media and on the Internet, as well as in statements by public officials, and encourage the media to convey positive images of women and their equal status with men in public and private life […].”[18]

Similarly, the Committee expressed its concern about the persistence of discriminatory stereotypes concerning the responsibility of women for childcare (ultimately reducing their career prospects in the labour market) and the increase in hate speech against women and girls in Internet forums and social media, in particular against women belonging to ethnic minority groups.[19] In Austria’s answer to the list of issues and questions, stereotypes and harmful practices were addressed, including the State’s measures directed at anti-stereotyping. The awareness campaigns and educational projects taken by the State gave the picture of Austria’s compliance with some of the obligations, mainly focused on awareness-directed measures and educational initiatives.[20] The progress regarding some of the recommendations was presented in 2021, however the issue of stereotypes was not included.[21] Another periodic report was due in 2023, however it has not been submitted yet or made available to the public at least. For now, we have to wait to see what progress we will get to see.

Practical implications

The conversation surrounding gender stereotyping as a form of human rights violation carries significant practical consequences. Austria, in order to diligently fulfil CEDAW’s obligation to modify the social and cultural patterns of conduct of men and women, with a view to achieving the elimination of prejudices and thus eliminate wrongful and harmful gender stereotypes from their society, should consider multiple measures. It is critical to recognise the importance of cooperation and effective communication in reporting before the CEDAW Committee. For tangible progress, Austria should offer comprehensive, transparent data to track advancements and identify areas needing further attention. Building social awareness is crucial in the fight against gender stereotypes and is essential for fostering a more inclusive and equitable society. Cultivating a collective consciousness that values and rejects gender stereotypes creates the environment in which gender equality could be sustained and policies directed at its achievement – effectively implemented. Beyond raising societal awareness, it is essential to consider the influence of legal professionals in driving broader change. The judiciary in particular, exerts substantial influence on societal norms and should be acutely conscious of gender stereotyping and implicit biases. Implementing thorough training programs can help legal professionals recognize and address gender biases within the legal system. However, the journey towards combating stereotyping must also include introspection and personal development.

[1] See for instance: Cook/Cusack, Gender Stereotyping: Transnational Legal Perspectives (2010), Brems/Timmer, Stereotypes and Human Rights Law (2016), Frańczak, What seems to be the problem? Problematisation of gender stereotyping by the Council of Europe (2021)

[2]  Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, 18 December 1979, United Nations, Treaty Series, vol. 1249, p. 13, available at: https://www.refworld.org/docid/3ae6b3970.html; Article 2(f), 5(a), 10(c),

[3] Cook/Cusack, supra note 1, p. 9.

[4] Ibidem, p. 12.

[5] Cusack, Gender stereotyping as a Human Rights Violation: Research Report, OHCHR (2013), p. 15.

[6] Council of Europe Convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence, 11 May 2011, available at: https://www.refworld.org/docid/4ddb74f72.html, Art. 3(c).

[7] EIGE, Gender Equality Index 2020. Digitalisation and the future of work (2020)

[8] See: R.K.B. v Turkey, Communication No. 28/2010, UN Doc CEDAW/C/51/D/28/2010 (2012), para. 8.8.

[9]  Cusack, supra note 1, p. 17-19.

[10] UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), General recommendation No. 25 on article 4, paragraph 1, of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, on temporary special measures (2004), para. 8

[11] UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), General recommendation No. 35 on gender-based violence, updating general recommendation No. 19 (2017)

[12] UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), General Recommendation No. 28, on the core obligations of States parties under article 2 of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, (2020), para. 18

[13] See:  Karen Teyag Vertido v the Philippines, Communication No. 18/2008, UN Doc CEDAW/C/46/D/18/2008; Ángela González Carreño v Spain, Communication No 47/2012, UN Doc CEDAW/ C/58/D/47/2012 (2014); L.C. v Peru, Communication No. 22/2009, UN Doc CEDAW/C/50/D/22/2009 (2011); R.K.B v. Turkey, supra note 8.

[14] Karen Teyag Vertido v. the Philippines, ibid., para 8.4.

[15] See: UN OCHCHR, Background paper on the role of the judiciary in addressing the harmful gender stereotypes related to sexual and reproductive health and rights: A review of case law (2018).

[16] CEDAW/C/AUT/9, 15 May 2017.

[17] See: NGO Shadow Report Supplementing the 9th Austrian CEDAW Report, Austrian NGO Coalition 5 June 2018, available at:https://tbinternet.ohchr.org/_layouts/15/TreatyBodyExternal/TBSearch.aspx?CountryID=10&ctl00_PlaceHolderMain_radResultsGridChangePage=31&ctl00_ContentPlaceHolder1_radResultsGridChangePage=10 (accessed: 25 January 2024), p. 6-7; NGO Report to the 9th Periodic Report of Austria compiled by StopIGM.org/Zwischengeschlecht.org, 2 October 2018, available at:https://tbinternet.ohchr.org/_layouts/15/TreatyBodyExternal/TBSearch.aspx?CountryID=10&ctl00_PlaceHolderMain_radResultsGridChangePage=31&ctl00_ContentPlaceHolder1_radResultsGridChangePage=10 (accessed: 25 January 2024)

[18] CEDAW/C/AUT/CO/9, para. 21, See as well: CEDAW/C/AUT/CO/7-8, para. 21

[19] Ibid., para. 20.

[20] CEDAW/C/AUT/Q/9/Add. 1, 25 March 2019, para. 46-69.

[21] CEDAW/C/AUT/FCO/9, 23 July 2021.

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