Gender discrimination in technical professions in Finland

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This week our blog looks at gender discrimination in technical professions in Finland. We base it on a research article written by Susanna Bairoh and Sanna Putila. They published it in the Finnish research journal Työelämän tutkimus in early December 2021. 

TEK, the employee union of academic engineers and architects in Finland, quite often publishes interesting articles and blogs relating to those professions in the Finnish labor market. Often these articles and blogs are based on their membership surveys. We’ve referenced these surveys as well as the salary data they provide a number of times in our blogs. See, for example, this blog here.

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Some background on the study

According to Susanna Bairoh and Sanna Putila, about 20 % of employees working in technical professions in Finland are women. 

They say that in international comparison, the share of women that start technical subjects at the university level is remarkably low in Finland. In 2016, only 18 % of new students in these fields were women. At the same time in Norway, they constituted 24 % of new students. Their share was 29 % in Sweden and 30 % in Denmark. 

Despite attempts at increasing the share of women in these fields, progress has been slow.

Currently, in Finland, women make up about 23 % of all students in the technical fields. This is in total for all degree levels.

Out of all students who started their university studies in the technical fields in 2020, 22.7 % were women. This was again irrespective of the degree level.  

In this study, Bairoh and Putila examined TEK membership survey data from 2015 and sample survey data from 2020. Their goal was to answer these three questions:

  1. How common is gender-based discrimination at the workplaces of university-educated technical professionals?
  2. What kind of gender-based discrimination experiences do highly educated members of TEK have, and how do those experiences vary according to gender? 
  3. How does the masculine culture of the technical fields manifest itself in these experiences?

The survey data they used included both numerical data as well as verbal comments of survey participants.

In this blog post, we summarize their findings. 

Frequency of gender discrimination in technical professions in Finland

Bairoh and Putila report that the 2015 membership survey data show a huge difference between men and women in reported experiences of gender discrimination and inappropriate behavior.

Irrespective of the age of the respondents, women in technical professions report such experiences much more frequently than men. Depending on age, 26-32 % of women reported having had such experiences. Only 1-4 % of men reported them. 

They note that a high position doesn’t shield women from these experiences. 28 % of women in upper management reported experiences of gender discrimination or inappropriate behavior. 36 % of women in middle management did. 

Bairoh and Putila also report that there were significant differences between industries.

The share of women in technical professions reporting these experiences was highest in the manufacturing industry (36 %). It was lowest in universities (19 %). 

In turn, the share of men in technical professions with such experiences was lowest in the manufacturing industry (1 %) and highest in government (6 %).

In the 2020 sample survey, 14 % of all respondents reported having experienced discrimination. For women respondents, the share was 21 %. For men, it was 10 %. 

60 % of women reporting discrimination attributed it to gender. For men reporting discrimination, 21 % made the same attribution. 

Bairoh and Putila say that because the survey questions were different in formulation in the two surveys, the results are not directly comparable. However, the results of the latter survey indicate that women in technical professions still face gender-based discrimination quite often. 

Types of gender discrimination in technical professions in Finland

The second question Bailoh and Putila examined focused on the different types of gender-based discrimination experiences. They also wanted to know whether women’s and men’s experiences were different.

In the 2015 survey, 427 out of 696 women reporting discrimination elaborated on their answers. 97 of 191 men did so.

Women mentioned that they had experienced gender-based discrimination with respect to career progression (32 %), salary and benefits (29 %), their credibility as experts (26 %), and behavior towards them (21 %). This latter category includes harassment. 

Bairoh and Putila especially pay attention to the questioning of women’s expertise. They point out that it was the third most frequent experience of discrimination. Men, however, did not report such experiences at all. In their responses, men often reported what they perceived to be the favorable treatment of women. We discuss this point below.

Women in the 2020 survey also reported career progression as the area in which gender discrimination most often occurs. Women felt their skills were not recognized despite the existence of clear criteria for selection or promotion. They also reported receiving general references to “attitude” or “style” when inquiring after justifications for selection decisions. 

According to Bairoh and Putila, the theme of lacking credibility as a subject expert features prominently in women’s answers. They said their skills were doubted or questioned, and that they were addressed as a girl (my translation of the act of what is called tytöttely in Finnish). 

Especially younger women reported these experiences but those over 40 also mentioned them. 

Bairoh and Putila report that those in managerial positions also reported that their expertise was questioned. The respondents attributed this to their gender. They felt that men in similar positions did not have to prove their know-how.  

This is a summary of women’s experiences. Men’s reports of gender-based discrimination were very different. We’ll look at those next.

Men’s reports of gender discrimination

As we mentioned, men often said they had witnessed favoritism towards women at work. Bairoh and Putila explain this further.

To the men, this perceived favoritism means that women don’t have to be as qualified as men to achieve certain positions. According to them, some women are so-called quota women. By this, they mean women who they think are only in their positions because their employer aims to have a certain percentage of women in specific positions. These women, then, have not earned their positions by their own merits at all. Instead, they are there to fill a quota.

Some respondents think that the equality policies of their organizations inevitably lead to favoring unqualified women over qualified men in recruitment and promotion situations. 

As an explanation, Bairoh and Putila suggest that in a culture where questioning women’s qualifications is frequent or normal, the equal treatment of women can thus actually be perceived as unjustifiably favoring women. Especially this can be the case if the standard assumption in the culture is that women’s career progression cannot by default, based on their skills and merits, be equal to that of men. Thus any advancement of women cannot happen because women have earned it. Rather, women’s advancement must happen at the expense of men. And due to policy choices by the employer and managers.   

The data at their disposal did not allow Bairoh and Putila to examine the discrimination sexual or ethnic minorities might face in technical professions in Finland.  

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