Gender troubles in research and innovation work in Finland

Organizations are places where gender inequalities are experienced in the everyday work life. However, the highly educated Finnish women, some identifying themselves feminists, that we interviewed within the Nordwit program seemed not to emphasize gender issues very strongly in their organizations. On the contrary, in our analysis we found that the women often seemed to downplay gender effects in the R&I organizations. In addition, they seemed to find gender insignificant in their working environments. When being asked questions related to gender, the interviewed women usually referred to two issues: (1) their own, often non-existent, experiences of gender discrimination, or (2) themselves as mothers. Why is that?

Without aiming to provide a comprehensive picture, I pick up some fragments which I find significant. The interviewed women emphasized that reasons for understanding gender as unimportant was the lack of personal experiences of gender discrimination or gender inequality.  However, while denying the relevance of gender on an individual level, they were uncertain to what extent gender mattered on a broader level. They would for example have observations of possible gender discrimination against their colleagues. Thus, the expressed insignificance was not one hundred percent sure. Still, they were hesitant to rely on anything else than their own personal experiences. The interviewed women also questioned gender impacts by doubting their existence, providing counterexamples, or arguing that gender was entangled with other issues such as personality or personal characteristics. 

Why is the personal experience so important when discussing potential gender impacts?
One answer might be found in the assumptions and the taken for granted situation on a societal level. The culture of being proud of one’s country’s gender equal reputation may make it inconvenient to recognize something that does not fit with this positive picture. Only in cases where the women had experienced gender discrimination that had affected them badly, the recognition of discrimination was clear. However, for them the threshold to make it public or proceed to court was high.

In the Finnish Nordwit interviews gender was strongly related to women and to the discrimination of women. Gender as such included an inherent conflict and subordination, which the women tried to sidestep or silence. However, there were also some counter activities. Some female group leaders, professors for example, had supported their female group members and shared lessons from their own experience of inequality. After having been on parental leave, some of the interviewed were thankful to their female leaders for being able to still have research funding and continue in the same research group. Simultaneously, the numerical gender balance felt important. The female group leaders or managers aimed to create diversity in their groups. This was why they were sometimes willing to recruit a man over the qualified women candidates to the female-dominated groups. The women who were in managerial positions or had ownership in the firms were very concerned of the potentially negative reputation of female dominated firms.

Besides the binary conflict, it became apparent that gender was related to being a mother. When the interviewer was asking something about gender, the women would often reflect on it in relation to their children, but not much in relation to their partners (even though almost everyone were in a heterosexual relationship). Having children was for many of them a way and a reason to live a life outside of work. Being a mother seemed to cause deeper affection and commitment than work. Although the arrangements between work and care seemed to work well, some of the women had chosen to work less, or had made changes in their career plans.

On a broader level of society and gender politics, I think that it is a quite narrow view to comprehend gender only as a potential conflict that may cause inequalities, or as mothering that provides life outside work. In the former case, gender represents something negative including issues that female researchers aim to avoid and even keep in silence. In the latter case, gender represents something positive and protects women from the risk of working too much and provides space outside working life. In both cases, gender becomes significant based on individual experience, while on an organizational level it remains gender. The understanding of gender as a conflict and as closely connected to mothering seems to be a norm that, intellectually or emotionally, is difficult to overcome.

At least two things remain to be considered when it comes to gender and organization.
On a conceptual level, gender as it is used in organizational contexts needs to be extended and revised. On a practical level, this means that people in managerial positions should continuously reflect on the implications their organizational understandings of gender have on their leadership.

Päivi Korvajärvi

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