Last week we came together for the last ordinary half-year meeting of the Nordwit consortium. We had two days of summing up findings from all our publications; a long and diverse list of 30 published and soon to be published manuscripts from our nearly 5 years of research together. You can see the proud list here: Nordwit publications.
Looking back at our studies of women’s tech-driven careers in academia, private and public sectors, in Sweden, Finland and Norway, we discussed similarities and differences of gender patterns, of continuous gender discrimination, and of a Nordic gender equality ideal that often fails to manifest itself in these patterns. One of the similarities we discussed was how the Nordic gender equality norm works as a confirmation that gender equality has been agreed upon and perhaps also achieved, with the effect that the actual institutional practices do not (have to) reflect the gender norm that is simultaneously endorsed. This creates a gap between the norm of gender equality and the institutional practices, where the narrative about the first to a great extent hides discriminating practices of institutions within fields of tech-driven research and innovation. You can read more about this in several of our publications, including the recent article “Unpacking the Nordic Gender Equality Paradox in ICT Research and Innovation“.
We will continue to discuss these and other issues as we prepare the final presentations of Nordwit’s findings, conclusions, and recommendations for improving the situation for women in tech-driven careers, inside and outside academia. While this meeting was virtual due to the pandemic situation, we hope that the final meeting and the Nordwit conference in February 2022 will be a face-to-face meeting in Uppsala, where we can hug when we meet, drink coffee together in-between the sessions, and share stories about all the stuff that is hard to include when the meeting room is virtual.
A number of years ago I made a study on how universities recruit students to computer and machine engineering, what messages they send out to potential students. Is there a reason why those messages are not so attractive to women? I also did a comparison with a programme that really recruits women: nursing.
The findings were that the engineering programmes tried an “add-women-and-stir”, approach, but the result was largely “add women” without really doing any “stir”. I.e. there were pictures of women who told how good the programme was, but generally the descriptions were quite different from the way nursing programmes marketed themselves. Bachelor engineering programmes often downplayed the academic content of the programme and stressed the connections to working life – in contrast to nursing, which gave a more detailed explanation of what the studies themselves actually entailed. It seemed obvious that the two different programmes targeted two different groups: young men who were not that interested or excellent at school and young women who were academic achievers. While both programmes often told about the importance of learning to communicate, the meaning of the word was quite different: for engineers it would be about putting forward one’s ideas, while for the nurses it was about collaborating with colleagues and educating patients. What I found striking was the frequent appearance of the word “responsibility” when the nursing profession was described and its almost total absence when engineering was described etc.
Just out of curiosity I’ve made some unscientific follow-ups over the years, just to see if things have changed. Largely they haven’t. Just look at the images: whose hands are displayed, who is active? A heading in one university’s webpage, beside a smiling young woman tells that ‘Josefin has always wanted to become an engineer’, while the next image, recounting a lecture by a visiting (male) star is titled ‘The nerd is the winner’.
But there have been changes, too. There are notably more women in the images. However, the ‘add-women-and-don’t-stir’ is still the main approach, as the texts have not changed to the same extent. Most changes seem to have happened in descriptions of the working life after graduation: public sector and maintenance, work tasks that several graduates from these programmes will have, are lifted up as realistic and positive alternatives, instead of leaving them out in favour of the more flashy development and project leadership tasks in computer companies. However, it is still very seldom that I come across ‘responsibility’.
Of course, these educational programmes are male dominated and it would not be fair to make believe that they are not. The male domination cannot be changed by changing the marketing. Rather, if the programmes are to recruit more women and not only those who have ‘always wanted to become engineers’, it might be a good thing to reflect on what it is, not in the marketing of nursing, but in the programme itself, and the working life that follows, that attracts women, and set about making more profound changes. After all, descriptions of nursing programmes were attractive to both male and female upper secondary students – as long as they did not know it was the female coded nursing profession they were reading about.
Feminist Encounters: A Journal of Critical Studies in Culture and Politics has published a highly interesting special issue on Feminist encounters in research and innovation (September 1, 2021), with guest editors Gabriele Griffin, Yvonne Benschop and Liisa Husu.
The editorial of the special issue emphasizes the importance of feminist perspectives and feminist knowledge for the research and innovation that faces the grand challenges of the 21st century (e.g. ecological sustainability, and digitalization and artificial intelligence), intersecting with deepening inequalities.
In addition to the editorial, this special issue consists of ten research articles. They are grouped into three categories: feminist knowledge, stretching innovation, and career inequalities in research and innovation. However, the articles contribute to at least two of these perspectives as they all draw on feminist research. New alternative ways of understanding ‘innovation’, strongly connected to feminist knowledge, are the focus of three articles (Berglund & Petterson; Petersson McIntyre; Griffin), but also feminist uses of metaphors, as discussed in Moratti’s article, disrupt and unsettle conventional thinking, and thus produce innovations. In the same vein, most articles discuss gender inequalities in research and innovation, starting with Moratti’s analysis of metaphors that undermine women in academia, continuing with gendered paradoxes in the rhetoric of Norwegian information technology education (Corneliussen) and the expressions that ‘undo’ and then also undermine gender in Finnish research and innovation (Korvajärvi). Women face the persistence of gender inequality in all career stages in research and innovation in the Nordic countries (Griffin & Vehviläinen), and in Norwegian information technology (balancing work and motherhood: Seddighi) as well as in small and medium-size family firms in Canada (Hamilton, Thomas & Ruel). Despite this, they also find ways to continue their research and innovation work.
The first article in this special issue is Lea Skewes and Stine Willum Adrian’s research interview, ‘The Long March Through the Patriarchal Institutions: A Dialogue Between Rosi Braidotti and Nina Lykke’. Braidotti and Lykke are internationally well-established feminist scholars, activists and professors who have collaborated for decades. They mirror their lives and mobilities across countries and disciplines, and discuss their careers in institutions under academic capitalism. They reflect each on how they have come to understand feminist research that troubles mainstream epistemologies, and how they have developed Feminist, Gender and Women’s Studies. Although they did not do career planning, they found positions and spaces to develop feminist knowledge and establish new institutions within local, national and European patriarchal institutions. However, they do not claim that the development of feminist knowledge would have been possible for them in any circumstances. The long march included tensions and they had to tackle contradictions. They had to leave, move on, and find new places for knowing. The interview provides an illuminating perspective for the rest of the articles in the special issue. Contradictions and tensions appear all over in research, innovation and entrepreneurship in these articles. Several of these focus on gender inequalities and examine how they persist in current social and cultural practices, while other articles create new ways of understanding and knowing within contradictory institutions and societal practices.
Several research articles in this special issue originate from research conducted in Sweden, Norway and Finland, within the Nordwit centre, and/or from an international workshop ‘Re-thinking Research and Innovation: How Does Gender Matter?’ February 25-27, 2020, held at Uppsala University, both coordinated by Gabriele Griffin.
More than 600 researchers together for 3 days for the Gender, Work, and Organization conference, GWO 2021. This was an online and delayed version of the GWO 2020 conference, which should have been in Kent, UK.
There were nearly 40 streams of different topics at the conference; on professional careers, entrepreneurship, identities, discrimination, theory and a long list of other topics!
Minna Salminen-Karlsson and I organised a stream together with the title “Rural Frontiers In-Between Tradition and Change: GWO in rural contexts”.
This was our first dip into the rural in a GWO perspective, and we really enjoyed the fantastic papers from across the world, including Australia, the Netherlands, Mexico, the UK, Italy, New Zealand, the Solomon Island as well as from Norway and Sweden. After so long time of no travelling, it was wonderful to get those deep dives into these diverse cultures, as a next-best to travelling ourselves!
Thank you to everybody who participated in the rural stream! And a big thank you to the organisers of the GWO 2021 conference. It was amazing to share these three days with so many researchers!
Although I hope we will have the opportunity to have face-to-face conferences again, we certainly see the potential of digital conferences for including people from every corner of the world.
A friend who shares my interest in women and information technology asked me if I know anything about women in the Swedish history of computing. She was thinking of the gender conscious rewriting of British and American computer history, showing the important role that women programmers played in the infancy of computerization. The film Hidden figures is maybe the most famous of them, but there are also books like Programmed Inequality by Mar Hicks or Recoding Gender by Janet Abbate. How about Sweden – do we have unknown sides of our history, too?
I knew of no such study, but my curiosity was awakened and so I started surfing the net. The history is quite well hidden, but, finally I found a pioneer, comparable to the ENIAC girls who programmed the huge wartime computer in the USA. The Swedish person was Elsa-Karin Boestad-Nilsson, who programmed computers for the Swedish armed forces from 1948 on.
Elsa-Karin Boestad-Nilsson had studied mathematics and physics, and after graduation she got a job at the Swedish Defence Research Agency. Her story has clear similarities to that of the ENIAC girls. Just like in the US, it was mathematically educated women who did calculations by hand, while male colleagues travelled to the US to learn more about this new thing, computers. Boestad-Nilsson invented a mathematical method that shortened certain calculations, but nobody encouraged her to publish her findings. Her story tells about being looked down upon, as she recounts in an interview in the Swedish magazine “Forskning och framsteg”:
After one years’ employment she was allowed to attend a meeting, and heard the question: “What is such a small missus doing here?” The department manager replied, “Miss Boestad is daughter of professor Boestad in the Royal University of Technology.”
It was the calculation assistants that were to program the computers – as Boestad-Nilsson says, the male researchers thought it a dreary work, and rather used a female assistant who programmed for them. Boestad-Nilsson, however, did her programming herself. She was fascinated by computers, when they started to materialize, by the creativity and problem-solving challenges that the early machines required. The female programmers did very much unseen work to get the early programmes running on shaky computers. Boestad-Nilsson became the head of the calculation division and that division came to consist mainly of women – the first Swedish computer programmers.
Boestad-Nilsson’s story has clear parallels with the story of the ENIAC girls who programmed the first computers in the USA. No wonder – the position of women as pen-pushers was similar in both countries. In both countries programming changed genders and became a male activity, when it became clear that programming was about dominating the computer, rather than being attached to a computer as an auxiliary.
A student thesis by Patrik Persson brings history forward to 1978-1985. Persson has analysed the illustrations in the Swedish computer magazine Mikrodatorn. He shows how again women were seen as auxiliaries. Now it was the men who programmed, and women who used the office machines – a parallel to when men made the machines and women programmed. Again, women did the work that was regarded too simple and dreary, requiring no problem solving. Especially when usability was discussed, women came into the picture transmitting a message: this machine is so simple that even a woman can use it. While men took a dominating pose beside the machine in a photo, women stood by the computer humbly using its services. Only men could get recognition in the computer world, women were anonymous.
Men as the creators, women as the users. How about today? Things have changed. Nobody can deny that women can and do program. And things have not changed. The idea, very obvious in Persson’s material, that women are more “human” and less technical seems to be well and alive in our subconscious. Reading Persson’s thesis I recall a video from my own university, targeted to presumptive computer engineering students. Three alumnae are presented, two men and one woman. What do they do? The woman works with sales, the men are a system developer and a programmer.
This is the history we carry with us – and the history we transform.
In Finland, the last few weeks have a special meaning to researchers working in the social sciences and humanities as the most important funding agency, the Academy of Finland, announced its funding decisions. The Academy granted funding for 59 research projects and 21 posts as Academy Research Fellow. In the former, the success rate was 13%, the share of women of the funded researchers was 51% and of the applicants 48%. In the latter, the success rate was 11% and the share of women of both the applicants and the funded researchers was 62%.
The percentages tell the familiar story. In terms of gender, the story is positive, and the Academy keeps its reputation: no apparent gender bias is observable. When it comes to the success rate, the story is gloomy as described in the Academy’s web pages by Sami Pihlström, the chair of the research council for social sciences and humanities, “With scarce resources, the competition for research funding is fierce, and many excellent projects are sadly left without funding.”
Not surprisingly, funding decisions create heated discussions and strong emotions among academics. There are few who are happy, lucky, and successful, and the vast majority who are disappointed, frustrated, and angry. Since applying for the Academy funding is more or less an obligation in universities, and there is no vision for increasing resources, this yearly emotional turmoil cannot be easily avoided. According to what I have heard, someone has even suggested that the days when the Academy announces its funding decisions should be named as the annual days of structural envy.
What is more, discussions on research funding expand beyond academia. My colleague Pia Olsson, having investigated these discussions on Twitter, refers in a blog text to Finnish journalist Ivan Puopolo´s tweet: “Which one would you fund: cancer research or researcher’s self-reflection on the emotions while playing the cello?” The message is clear: public funding should be targeted at research which has obvious, preferably measurable, benefit for taxpayers. This emphasis has strengthened also in political discourse, demanding increasing societal and economic impact from science.
We who are working in the social sciences and humanities face these demands and doubts about the relevance of our work. In this context, we need to legitimate our research and justify why we should be paid from public money. Importantly, it is these fields under a growing pressure in which women researchers and students tend to be the most represented.
In the fall of 2021, the Nordwit team at Uppsala University will arrange a course at advanced (PhD and Master’s) level on gender and digital technologies in healthcare. The course will run on Zoom during Tuesday and Thursday mornings in October. The primary target group is advanced students in medicine and care related disciplines, but other disciplines are not excluded.
Caring professions are becoming increasingly digitalized. People who chose to be nurses, doctors and other kinds of healthcare professionals find themselves increasingly interacting with digital technologies instead of directly with patients. This development is experienced as both good and problematic. However, how gender is intertwined with the entry of computers in healthcare organizations, and how it influences both staff and patients is a topic that is insufficiently discussed.
Our aim with the course is to help and inspire those who plan for a further career in healthcare research and development to consider the potential gender aspects of the digital transformation that is taking place. We do not expect particular prior knowledge on gender issues, but start with discussing gender in healthcare organizations and gender and technology more in general, before turning to the actual topic of the course: digital tools that are used by healthcare staff. Our guest lecturers come from Sweden, Norway and Ireland, each representing their particular research areas: gender and AI in healthcare; women, technology and careers in healthcare; implementation of digital health services for carers and cared; gender, age and technology; and gender, ethics and healthcare technology. Taken together these different areas show how gender is relevant in many different ways in the digitalization of healthcare. They are also pointing at a number of issues and aspects that are still waiting for being researched to inform practice, so that digital healthcare will provide effective and empowering tools for different kinds of users.
Åsa Cajander, one of the course leaders is professor at the Institution for information technology, in Human-computer interaction. She does research in relation to ICT and work, mainly health care and the IT systems that connect health care with the patients, and public authorities and their IT systems used for administration of services. In addition to having a gender perspective in her research, Åsa is a gender equality practitioner, being the gender equality adviser to the university vice-chancellor. The other course leader is Minna Salminen-Karlsson, associate professor in Sociology at the Centre for Gender Research. She has researched ICT education and ICT workplaces in a gender perspective, and has also worked as a practitioner, being a gender equality specialist at the university. Their common interest in gender, ICT and work has brought Åsa and Minna together in researching gender aspects in the digitalization of healthcare, from the perspective of healthcare workers.
We look forward to meeting postgraduate students with different experiences and different research interests in the domain of healthcare. The course is free of charge, but the number of places is limited. For those who only want a taster as an eye-opener, the readings and seminar discussions on the course will give 3 ECTS. For those who already want to try their hands on examining a particular issue more in depth, writing a course paper will give additional 2 ECTS.
We are happy to provide more information about the course:
The pandemic has made the boundary between working hours and family life even more blurred, and many wonder how this will affect working life in the future. We may find some answers in fields such as information technology (IT), where measures ensuring gender equality fall shortand the gender balance is still uneven.
Norway is celebrated as a country with good arrangements ensuring women to participate in working life on an equal footing with men. But is that so?
“If it had been only me, it would never have worked,” said a mother when she described her career in IT. She was one of 28 women we interviewed for our Nordwit-study on women’s careers in IT.
Norway and the other Nordic countries score high in international indexs of gender equality. This is the result of many decades of political struggles of which we are reaping the benefits today, in the form of schemes such as full daycare coverage for children over one year, flexible parental leave and a separate paternity leave. This policy has helped many women to return to the labor market earlier after giving birth. By comparison, one in three Italian women leaves work after having their first child.
IT is one of the fields in Norway where arrangements supposed to ensure gender equality come short. The field is still today male-dominated, characterized by competition, high wages and long working days, and consequently a difficult working place for women with care responsibilities. Some studies have shown that women in IT often have more flexible working conditions, but also longer working days, than women in female-dominated occupations. This reflects a work culture that we can call “greedy” – that is, a culture demanding and expecting work commitments exceeding normal working hours.
In contrast to the dominant narratives of working women in media, for instance describing a tradition of women reducing their work engagement due to “a choice to prioritize family over work”, the women in our study work full time even when they have described a choice of prioritizing children and family over careers. These women felt that they had given up their careers even when they worked 100 percent.
The women who described their experience of having a good career development, by comparison, worked more than full time. This was possible because they had a partner or close family who could contribute to care for children and family. This indicates that the balance between work and family life is an illusion in industries where the job routinely supplies itself with the employee’s leisure and family time in the form of frequent work trips, courses and meetings in the afternoon and long working days.
Flexible working hours has been an important work arrangement for creating a better “balance” between responsibilities related to family and work. Like other studies, our analysis shows that flexible working hours can, surprisingly, put more strain on women by making it acceptable (even expected) to work both evenings and weekends. The problem is that flexible work in this form, as more work in the space and place of family life, is an addition to other care responsibilities that women often have the main responsibility for.
Our study thus shows that when women succeed in career development in fields such as IT, it is not women’s flexible working hours that are the most important measure. On the contrary, it is their partners’ flexible working hours and predictable work routines and their choice of using it to childcare, that gives women the space they need to develop their career. As one of our informants said: “I commute to work, and then my husband picks up and delivers the children every day. But also the one day a week that I work from home, it is still him who picks up and delivers the children, since he is a teacher.” Here we move into an area that politicians cannot reach directly: the private sphere – the way couples negotiate to make their everyday lives run smoothly. Negotiations that are necessary for women in fields such as IT to achieve a better balance between family and career appears to remain a chapter between those at home. A different way of seeing it is to ask for new ways of promoting gender equality in working life. An important issue right now is to keep an eye on the changes that the pandemic has brought with it: the home office – working where and when we want to. The new home office might strengthen women’s participation in working life. At the same time, the increased flexibility at the home office may prove to be a double-edged sword for working women. This should, however, not be considered a private sphere issue, but rather be noticed by both employers and trade unions, and it should concern everyone who still cares about gender equality.
Two weeks ago we had our 6-monthly extended Nordwit Centre meeting – who would have thought a year ago that in April 2021 we would still all be on zoom?! But the experience made clear, in more ways than one, that we have all begun to get used to what I call ‘changing workscapes’ – changing work environments in which where and how we work has adapted to the necessities of the covid situation.
But beyond that it has catapulted many people including our Centre members into much more strongly technologized work environments. Many of us now work in what we in the Centre describe as ‘tech-driven’ jobs, of necessity, as we commune and do our work mainly or even exclusively via various types of digital platforms. And only yesterday morning (6 May) it was announced in the news in the UK that 43 out of 46 large organizations surveyed had declared that they did not envisage a return-to-the-office-as-before scenario for their workers post-covid (this is, of course, assuming that there will be a post-covid situation… if the World Health Organization is to be believed, this is not on the cards any time soon…).
The ‘deep reach’ of tech, which many of us have experienced for the first time during covid, is clearly here to stay. What covid has taught us is how quickly and competently many of us can adapt, technologically speaking, to this situation. This raises questions around the classification of jobs and professions. Are we not all becoming some sort of ICT expert now? One of the discussion points of our Centre meeting two weeks ago was the extent to which statistics accurately reflect contemporary work situations. There are many thing statistics can do but also many things they cannot do. They cannot, for example, record in-job changes or the shift to technologized work environments very readily. They also do not show professional development (in the form of additionally acquired skills in/through one’s work environment), on-the-job informal learning (which we have all had to do so much over this past year), or the acquisition of knowledge and skills through second degrees. However, one might argue that these modes of professional development have become much more endemic over the past few years. In our Centre we have seen many examples of professionals in diverse contexts whose jobs have changed beyond all recognition over the past few years through the technologization of workspaces. It’s time we started to reflect more sustainedly on how we can describe and account for these changes.
Nordwit recently had its two-day Spring meeting, through zoom of course. One of our topics was statistics and particularly statistics on gender and gender (in)equality in research and innovation.
We all agreed that we like – or even love – statistics. The academic world is full of statistics that we produce and use in many ways. The world outside the academy – politicians, media, experts in public and private sector organizations – eagerly wants to have statistics to be able to name facts. Statistics and numbers are found equivalent to factual knowledge social phenomena including gender inequalities. Thus, the statistical figures represent an image of a hard and true knowledge. People rely on facts, and the possibility to present numerical facts provides convincing truths. However, during our discussion it also appeared that statistics are far from easy to find, and even more difficult to interpret in the analysis of gender inequalities.
Statistics around gender inequalities are produced both in national institutions such as Statistics Finland, ministries, labor unions, Technology Industries of Finland, and supranational institutions such as OECD, ILO and European Commission. The numbers presented in the statistics derive from various sources. These sources also include a variety of definitions and guidelines according to which the raw data is classified. My close colleague Merja Kinnunen (1997) analysed already twenty years ago how gender was embedded in statistical classifications in Finland. She showed that classifications are institutionalized texts, which are also a means to manage and control the material world. The classifications include cultural perceptions, symbols and images and at the same time they describe structural features of society. Thus it is worth remembering that the statistical descriptions also shape, maintain and legitimate the existing structures.
Currently supranational statistics such as She Figures, a key source for an analysis of gender questions, are based on other supranational databases such as Eurostat. However, the assumption is that these originally national sources, are equivalent and they measure the same issues in each society. This has needed a lot of standardization and negotiation. It has been necessary because equivalent information provides better chances to make comparisons between the countries. Still, it is relevant also to ask the same questions that Merja Kinnunen (2001) posed: How do the classifications and statistics as institutional texts participate in the legitimization of the differences and hierarchies between women and men in society? As statistics is highly standardized across the (Western) countries, it is also relevant to ask, what kind of reality do the standardized numbers tell and what kind of reality remains hidden behind the figures?
Kinnunen, Merja (1997) “Making Gender with Classifications.” In: Rantalaiho, Liisa & Heiskanen, Tuula (eds) Gendered Practices in Working Life. London: Macmillan, 37-51.
Kinnunen, Merja (2001) Luokiteltu sukupuoli[Classified Gender]. Tampere: Vastapaino.
She Figures 2018 (2019) European Commission, Directorate-General for Research and Innovation. Luxembourg: Publication Office of the European Union.