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Finland's tech sector's culture of silence on gender equality

Finland's tech sector's culture of silence on gender equality

| Text: Bengt Östling, photo: Mika Ranta, Helsingin Sanomat

Women who have chosen a tech career tend to avoid gender equality debates, according to the Nordwit centre of excellence which has spent the past five years studying women's careers in technology-driven work environments.

The Nordic countries have achieved a lot in the fight for gender equality. It is a cornerstone for the modern Nordic welfare states and the Nordics are trailblazers for gender equality in Europe. 

But perhaps things have been going too well? Have we been led to believe that there are no problems left to solve? In tech research and industry there is talk about a Nordic gender paradox, where people keep quiet when they once in a while experience a problem. 

Part of this paradox is that many no longer see any gender inequality issues. There seems to be a culture of silence, and problems are hushed up or “kicked into the long grass” as someone recently put it at a Nordwit conference.   

Tech-driven careers

Nordwit stands for Nordic Centre of Excellence on Women in Technology Driven Careers. It is financed by the Nordic Council of Ministers' funding organisation Nordforsk and began work in 2017. The project will conclude later this spring with the publication of a book. Uppsala University, the Western Norway Research Institute and Tampere University are all Nordwit partners.  

The project has looked at women’s tech-driven careers and how they get into technology in different ways compared to their male colleagues. E-health services are part of the project’s research areas, as is digital humanities in the gaming industry. 

Nordwit also looks at imbalances and practical problems in the Nordic academic and tech industry labour market. Women in the trade seem to be harder hit by workload levels and project culture.

"Gender equality means growth”

Finland held the Presidency of the Nordic Council of Ministers in 2021, and wanted to promote gender equality and a youth perspective in the Nordic cooperation, while also involving businesses and civil society.

The Finnish Presidency programme said that gender equality in working life leads to stronger economic growth because it gives access to a larger and more skilled labour force.

Päivi Korvajärvi Päivi Korvajärvi. Photo: Jonne Renvall, Tampere University.

Päivi Korvajärvi is a retired professor of gender studies at Tampere University, specialising in labour market research. Korvajärvi sees the Nordic cooperation as valuable and underlines the importance of having one Nordic channel that finances research and measures that improves gender equality. 

“Gender leads to awkward conflicts”

Nordwit’s research team in Tampere has interviewed some 30 highly educated women, and some of their answers seem to provide a new view of gender equality.

Highly educated women in academia and in private businesses and institutions would prefer to avoid gender issues, as they are regarded more as an awkward conflict between men and women.

It even looks like women who work in research try to avoid the gender debate altogether. Gender equality is sometimes more about having the opportunity to find a good balance between being a mother and having an interesting job.

The interviewees talked about a job that has become increasingly demanding with more temporary employment and shorter projects. Put together, these become challenging full-time jobs that feel far too demanding.  

“Earlier research has already shown that when gender issues are seen as a conflict in the workplace, it results in disagreements and a bad atmosphere. Who wants to work in an environment with conflicts and a bad ambience?” wonders Päivi Korvajärvi.    

There seems to be a desire to disregard the feeling of gender inequality and focus instead on international statistics, which of course show that everything is going well. People do not want to see existing discrimination or harassment in their own environments, and let issues pass. 

Korvajärvi refers to utterances like “everything is fine in my workplace, but there are those who have it worse”. Some want to keep things at a distance: “In Finland everything is fine, but if you look at Arab countries, for instance, women are seriously oppressed”. 

A culture of silence rather than sisterhood?

The Finnish interviews show that there is some kind of curtain or barrier. Neither the women in the workplace nor management want to see and act on problems.

The Nordwit project is therefore also about a culture of silence that seems to be present at least in many Finnish workplaces. All workplaces should have gender equality plans, but these are not even being used. If they are, it is to a small degree – they are considered to be no more than an obligatory piece of paper, says Päivi Korvajärvi.

She underlines the importance of management committing to gender equality and treating it as an important issue. This is important for the welfare and the atmosphere in the workplace, and, as a result, productivity. 

In other words, it might look as if female emancipation and sisterhood has disappeared from the workplace. That is not quite so, says Päivi Korvajärvi. 

In some workplaces, quite a lot is happening. But these are often one-off occurrences. #MeToo was a global issue but had an impact on individual workplaces. 

Gender equality in modern “gig academia”

Päivi Korvajärvi’s expertise lies in labour market gender research. Finnish politicians argue gender equality in the workplace leads to a stronger economy with greater growth thanks to a larger and more knowledgeable workforce.

The Nordic cooperation on labour market issues and gender equality has been developed in step with changes to the labour market, driven partly by educational and technological innovation, climate change, demographic developments and the integration of immigrants.

Päivi Korvajärvi also highlights how new technology changes working methods and structures in the workplace, procedures, goals, organisation of work and the segregation of women and men. There is also an increasing focus on individual workers.

“The neo-liberal way of thinking has penetrated workplaces in both the private and public sectors. Although many still talk about all kinds of team and Lean and so on, there is an increasing focus on individual choices and aims.”

The platform economy has also reached higher education and resulted in a “gig academia” with new working conditions.

Quotas or no quotas?

Women still only make up 30% of all professors at Finnish universities, and the number is even lower in the tech sector where it is less than 10%. The issue of quotas is a tricky one in Finland, says Päivi Korvajärvi. 

Quotas are seen as a fundamental aim in Finnish gender equality legislation. Women and men should be able to participate on equal terms in social decision-making and planning. 

State and municipal authorities must have at least 40% women or men. The quota can also be implemented in leadership and management bodies in companies that are majority-owned by the state or municipalities. The law does take into account practical issues which might mean the goal is less often met or will be met later on.

Things seem to go in the opposite direction when it comes to company and research leadership. Many women in leadership positions publicly say they do not support quotas, as they have bad connotations. People do not want to be a “quota woman”, but to be chosen based on merit and skills – not because of their gender.

There are still some Finnish listed companies that have no women at all on their board. These companies also have very few female CEOs, points out Päivi Korvajärvi.

Where there are women in the leadership, they face scrutiny. Professor Korvajärvi points to a recent interview in Helsingin Sanomat from 17 February 2022.

Foto Mika Ranta/Helsingin Sanomat

Nora Huovila didn't let her pregnancy stop her from expanding her company. Photo: Mika Ranta, Helsingin Sanomat.

Startup businesswoman Nora Huovila told the newspaper how her company’s hunt for investors suddenly came to a halt when it turned out she was pregnant. She felt it was an obvious thing to talk about, but many possible investors pulled out. Huovila wonders how many male CEOs have lost financing for their companies because they have been expecting a baby.  

Do we need more men?

Päivi Korvajärvi’s research interviews also covered numerical gender equality. According to the interviewees, it is not considered a good thing to have only women in a company’s leadership. Women in various leadership positions also seem to believe men are needed at the top, even if they are not as skilled as female applicants. 

The demand or request might come from external forces, like clients or investors, who do not value women’s progress. This became clear in situations where women were dominant in a company.  

“There seems to be a view that women-led organisations’ reputations are not quite right, their reputation improves if there are men in the leadership as well. We looked at the health technology sector, where males were considered necessary – without them, products or knowledge was seen as less than trustworthy,” says Päivi Korvajärvi.

Anger leads to action

Does it pay to get angry? It seems that only concrete discrimination cases lead to action. Päivi Korvajärvi would like to see emotional reactions, anger leads to action. But this seems to be lacking among the highest educated women in Finland’s tech industry – and beyond. 

The opposite emotion is silence and joint acceptance in the workplace. So it is not possible to argue that gender equality has reached its conclusion in the Nordics and that we can concentrate on solving other problems.

Still, there seems to be slightly less interest in gender equality right now, and the interest is cyclical. The issue needs to be addressed regularly in order to stay visible.  

The joint Nordic project for gender issues in technology has several aims – to create solution-focused research and proposals for measures that lead to permanent change.

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Nora Huovila

created debate in Finland when she went public to ask why some investors withdrew their money meant to expand her startup when they heard she was pregnant.


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