FINLAND

Top of the EU class

A look behind the scenes at research in Finland, one of the most feminised countries in Europe.

Helsinki, capital of a country where gender mix rules. © Shutterstock
Helsinki, capital of a country where gender mix rules. © Shutterstock
Bacteriologist Pirjo Helena Mäkelä, now aged 78, was the first woman to be admitted into the Finnish Academy of Sciences in 2003. © Shutterstock
Bacteriologist Pirjo Helena Mäkelä, now aged 78, was the first woman to be admitted into the Finnish Academy of Sciences in 2003. © Shutterstock
The brain functions of a day-old baby are measured using non-invasive methods at the University of Helsinki’s Cognitive Brain Research Unit. © Veikko Somerpuro
The brain functions of a day-old baby are measured using non-invasive methods at the University of Helsinki’s Cognitive Brain Research Unit. © Veikko Somerpuro

With 42% women members of parliament, a predominantly female government, and a woman head of state for almost 10 years, Finland can teach most European countries a thing or two about gender equality. This is nothing new. In 1906, Helsinki was the first capital in the world to introduce not only universal suffrage, but also identical political rights for women and men. Finland excels in yet another, apparently unconnected, field: research investment. With 3.75% of its GDP devoted to research, and 26 researchers per 1 000 inhabitants, the country is the outright world leader, outpacing the United States and Japan, not to mention the rest of Europe.

Finland’s excellence in gender equality and research investment has resulted in the country having the highest proportion of women in positions of responsibility in research in the European Union (23.5%). Take Teija Kujala, director of the University of Helsinki’s Cognitive Brain Research Unit, for example. The 45-yearold director reports that she has never encountered discrimination at any time in her career. Although she was the first woman in her laboratory, women are now in the majority in the unit’s 30-person team, which is an exception in the traditionally male discipline of neuroscience. “It is not because we discriminate against men, but because women are more interested in the discipline,” she smiles.

Openness is the rule

In Finland, the entire research environment offers highly favourable conditions to women. The Space Research Unit of the Finnish Meteoro logical Institute (FMI), housed in spruce new buildings at the heart of the science campus in Helsinki, is typical. Its director, Tuija Pulkkinen, has nothing of the passionate feminism you might expect from her reputation and popularity with the students. With her cool gaze and calm voice, she never replies to a question without first taking time to reflect. All the same, she has clear ideas on gender issues. “In my mind, it is as important for a research laboratory to be open to women as it is to be open to the international scene or to different age groups. This type of diversity produces the best science,” she explains. Although she does not go so far as to say that women conduct research in a different way than men (because physics involves resolving equations and identifying laws that have nothing to do with gender!), she has found women to be careful and patient, verifying their results and taking precise measurements.

Tuija Pulkkinen (herself the mother of a 15-year old) is well aware that women’s family responsibilities limit their availability at certain periods, especially in Finland, where the eightmonth maternity leave can easily be extended. Tuija believes that these ‘absences’ are manageable and should not be used as an excuse for discrimination. “There are years when some scientists are more productive than others, but afterwards the trend is reversed. We can accommodate this, and even ensure that it does not penalise a person’s career, for instance by allowing someone to sign publications even if their contribution was not vital. Science is a team effort. Our space projects often span 10 years or more, so productivity should be judged over just as long a period. If we allow someone to work part-time, or to work from home for a while, it arouses gratitude and commitment – and in most cases that person will make up for lost time later. I am convinced that making people happy enhances their creativity.”

Company attitudes

Even at Nokia, the world high-tech giant and an object of national pride, the conditions offered to researchers might seem idyllic to many European women. Despite this, the company ranks number one in its category in a highly competitive environment. Virpi Roto, a smiling and energetic 40-year old, is Principal Scientist at the Nokia research centre in Helsinki, a majestic glass cathedral that visitors are only permitted to enter accompanied, wearing a badge and without a camera. Her speciality is adapting the mobile internet to user needs. Recruited as an IT graduate, Virpi Roto obtained a social science doctorate thanks to study leave of 10 % of working hours, which Nokia grants to all employees wishing to further their education. She works a 37.5-hour week, and stayed at home for the full period of her two maternity leaves. When family constraints require her to be at home (because her husband is travelling, for example), she is allowed to work from home without the least problem. She nevertheless concedes that, if she had taken on the responsibility of managing her department, it would certainly have reduced her room for manoeuvre. She is quick to point out that this was not the reason she refused several such positions though, saying that it was because she is more interested in the research side. At Nokia, management is still a male stronghold.

And therein lies the problem, just as in academic research, albeit to a lesser degree. “The main problem for women researchers today is taking up positions of responsibility,” says Tuija Pulkkinen. “Although the proportion of women in the labs is 50 %, only about 20 % of women are managers. It’s such a waste. Two out of four group leaders under my responsibility are women and they perform well. They consider their staff more holistically than men, who often confine themselves to work aspects alone.” Although Tuija acknowledges that when women take on management responsibilities their work is less directly scientific, she says: “it puts us in a position to facilitate and guide the research, which is very important.”

What about men?

What can be done to help women to rise higher up the organisation’s chain of command? “Part of the answer is to get men to take a more enlightened approach to family issues,” says Teija Kujala. “Since it is usually women who stop work when children are very young, they have shorter careers with interruptions. Childcare should be shared more equitably between the sexes.” This is a trend that is starting to emerge in Finland, where some young academic couples now share parental leave. “When I go to conferences or seminars abroad, my husband takes care of the kids, because he travels less,” explains another scientist, adding with a sigh: “He more or less goes along with it, but the rest of the family is quite another matter...”

It is also vital for women researchers not to set limits on themselves. We know that women tend to be less self-confident than men and are less inclined to ask for promotion. This is confirmed by Tuija Pulkkinen: “When the position of Vice-President of the European Geophysical Union became vacant, my initial reaction was to tell myself that I had far too much work as it was and that I wouldn’t be able to juggle it all. Then I thought about it some more. I came to the conclusion that a man was certain to get the job in the end, a man just as busy as I was, but that he would think ‘I have the talent, I can do it’. So I applied for the job… and got it!”

Work still to be done

Despite this progress, there is still a long way to go. Although women continue to advance, the momentum seems to have been lost. Some women researchers are even talking about a new ‘macho’ generation that favours relaxing vigilance over equality. According to 78-year-old Pirjo Helena Mäkelä, a doctor, bacterio logist and the first ever female member of women in of the Finnish Academy of Science, “there are clearly more women scientists than there used to be, so it’s harder to exclude them, but prejudice remains. The worst thing is that most discrimination is subconscious. In fact, many people are completely insensitive to women’s aspirations and feelings. That is why I tend to be more ‘feminist’ today than in my youth.”

Although she knows that such ideas are politically incorrect, Pirjo Helena Mäkelä sometimes wonders about the rationale for such long periods of maternity leave, having herself raised four children whilst pursuing a brilliant academic career. “If women stop for too long, we can do irremediable harm to our scientific development.” This does not mean that she advocates women renouncing their family life for their careers, though. In fact the very idea makes her angry. So what is the solution for juggling the two? “We have to get organised. While men need to plan only a day at a time, we need to plan the whole week, and must take care not to bungle our experiments so that we don’t waste time repeating them later… The really important thing,” she concludes, “is for women to refuse to settle for secondary positions where they are only occasionally given interesting titbits to do. Real science means having a goal and a fierce determination to achieve it.”

Only time will tell whether women scientists in Finland can eventually overcome the obstacles that bar them from positions of high responsibility. One thing is certain, what was a poor rural country barely half a century ago has produced an exceptional crop of highly educated women who now occupy positions in every walk of life. Just recently, the famous PISA survey (1) conducted by the OECD revealed that 15-year-old Finnish schoolchildren had the best scientific performance in the world. “I think it probably has something to do with their mothers’ excellent level of education,” says Liisa Husu. “I know it has not yet been demonstrated, but it makes good sense, don’t you think?” It certainly does.

Yves Sciama

  1. The OECD International Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) is a triennial worldwide test of 15-year-old schoolchildren’s scholastic performance, designed to assess how far students near the end of compulsory education have acquired the knowledge and skills essential for full participation in society:www.ocde.org

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With the aid of the law

Liisa Husu © Yves Sciama
Liisa Husu © Yves Sciama

Although women have advanced in Finnish research mainly on their own merits, without the unrelenting political pressure that began in the 1980s, they would not have succeeded on such a scale. “Although the first law on gender equality passed in 1987 was really just a collection of pious hopes, it was a step forward,” says Liisa Husu, an expert on gender in science.

Sipping her cup of hot chocolate in Café Engel, a well-known Helsinki haunt of cake and pastry addicts, the sociologist still remembers her time spent as an assistant to the Equality Ombudsman, a sort of national mediator with an important role in Scandinavia, appointed under the early gender equality legislation. “At the time I was young and very obviously pregnant. With my boss, a former minister, we would charge into the offices of all the university vice-chancellors to persuade them to promote and explain the new law and women’s advancement. Symbolically it was very successful!” The law allowed discrimination cases to be brought and, even though they were few and far between, they caused quite a stir. The law was strengthened in 1995.

“One measure stipulated that each university had to present a Gender Equality Plan and, most important of all, at least 40 % of every research steering committee had to be female.” In Liisa Husu’s view, this second measure did a lot for equality. Since that time, which was a real turning point, the country has produced a periodic Gender Equality Barometer to measure the effects of these policies. In 2008, it recorded growing dissatisfaction with gender equality issues amongst the most highly educated women, whilst at the same time women’s level of education was rising overall. Liisa Husu believes that this is a sign that, despite the progress made so far, there is still much to do to reap the enormous scientific potential of Finnish women.



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