Advancing gender equality through collaboration between researchers and regional agencies

On December 3rd 2020, Nordwit’s Tampere team helped organise and participated in a seminar, titled Why does it benefit small and medium-sized businesses to consider (gender) equality? The seminar was part of a series of discussions titled Research and innovation in the Pirkanmaa region: gender equality as a solution, organized collaboratively by the Council of Tampere Region, the Centre for Economic Development, Transport and the Environment, Nordwit at Tampere University and the Ministry of Economic Affairs and Employment. The previous events in the series were workshops, which mapped the current state of gender equality in regional research and innovation (workshop 1) and focused on practices in university and regional funding (workshop 2). The third event was a open-to-all online seminar of about 30 participants, and its objective was to discuss the meaning of (gender) equality for a small or medium-sized business’s innovativeness and resilience.

Contrary to popular belief, Finland is significantly behind many other European countries in terms of gender equality in research and innovation (RI), and RI is particularly male-dominated in the private sector (17% women). According to statistics from the Council of Tampere Region, only 10% of the highest leadership of start-ups in the region are women. The significance of the seminar, therefore, was to encourage local businesses to take gender equality into account in their operations in order to change these troubling statistics.

In the first part of the seminar, the opening words were given by one of the organisers, Elina Hykkönen from the Council of Tampere Region, and then we heard from Heidi Keso, Doctor of Economic Sciences and docent, who has researched gender in business organisations and is a entrepreneur herself. She stressed that gender equality in businesses means taking concrete action, and rather than paying attention to individual women or men, it is crucial for the culture of the business to take into account different marginalised groups and the hierarchies between them. Keso presented research which showed that diversity and particularly the participation of women in the leadership of businesses improves innovativeness and resilience. Taking gender equality into account also improves the profitability, sales and customer satisfaction of a business. In summary, Keso stated that it is wise for the leadership of a small or medium-sized business to work towards gender equality, because it is a requirement for the growth and innovativeness of the business, if not even its survival. After Keso’s presentation, there was a talk from Minna Metsälä, chair of the Tampere Chamber of Commerce (2018-2010) and experienced board member, who called for support to help women advance in businesses step by step to management, leaders and onto boards.

The second half of the seminar was a panel discussion, lead by Kirsi Siltanen from regional consulting firm MDI, in which the participants were encouraged to discuss concrete methods and practices of gender equality in businesses. They were asked (1) how gender equality creates business, (2) how gender equality creates growth and sustainability and (3) how gender equality is created through action, as well as some questions provided by the seminar participants in the chat. Development Director Petri Räsänen from and the Ministry of Economic Affairs and Employment began by describing a currently in-progress RI development project led by the ministries of Economic Affairs and Employment and Education and Culture, which barely mentions gender equality once, and stating that he needs to take the message from this seminar to that project. He also talked about how difficult it can be for governmental organisations to fulfil their gender equality mandates in some fields that are very gender segregated, and that there is a dire need for more women in STEM in higher education.

The panelists who represented businesses described the ways in which gender equality is formed in their companies. CEO Sanna Silfverberg’s business produces extremely light and easy-to-use building blocks from recycled materials, which allow for construction of buildings very quickly and with next to no equipment. She described how the company takes gender equality into account on multiple levels, from product design (blocks small and light enough for women to wield), to having both a male and female representative present in client meetings, and to including rest rooms for both men and women in their factory blueprints for licensing partners in Africa. Chief Sustainability Officer Kristiina Härkönen described how she was the first employee in a programming firm started by a group of men, and that because of this, the now large company has always hired people to do the same jobs regardless of gender. She also talked about how her business puts a lot of thought into flexible practices that help employees balance responsibilities at work and at home. Providing support for employees with families was seen as an central tool for gender equality by all the panelists.

Marja Vehviläinen gave the closing words from the perspective of Nordwit and academia, summarising the seminar and emphasising that gender equality or lack thereof affects individuals, but is ultimately a structural and cultural issue which needs to be addressed on a structural level. Building on Räsänen’s comments about certain STEM fields having very few female students, Marja also suggested, for example, that these fields in higher education need to change their curricula to be more appealing to female students, and that businesses can still advance gender equality by broadening their scope when hiring, instead of focusing on candidates with a specific degree. She concluded that building gender equality requires action, as well as inclusive and collaborative knowledge production, which utilises different types of knowledge from different groups.

Liekki Valaskivi and Marja Vehviläinen

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