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Mind the Gender Gap: Statistics Reveal the ‘Missing Women’ Phenomenon

The Ministry for Education in Finland has identified a three-dimensional gender segregation in ‘careers in research’: (1) a vertical segregation, where the number of women decreases drastically the higher one climbs in the academic hierarchy; (2) a horizontal, persistent segregation between and within academic disciplines, especially between social sciences and humanities on the one hand and business and the natural sciences on the other; and (3) segregation in quality of employment, that is, in the gendered proportions of scholars holding permanent or temporary contracts within academia after defending their PhDs (Opetusministerio 2006, p. 32). This is despite the fact that Finnish equality legislation (since 1987), and measures such as equality planning (since 2005), have mandated universities, and the Academy of Finland as the major governmental research funder, to draw up concrete plans for increasing gender equality within academia. According to statistics from 2010, roughly 50% of PhD students, postdoctoral, and mid-career researchers in the Finnish academy are female, and just 24% of professors. When these statistics are compared with the other Nordic countries, Finland actually seems to be doing better in all these categories (NIKK 2014).1 However, we feel IR presents a rather different picture.

The discipline of International Relations was established in Finland in the 1960s. It is currently taught at five universities, and the number of full permanent professors in the country currently totals seven. The first feminist IR PhD thesis was defended in 2004 (Penttinen 2004), which has inspired at least one generation of feminist scholars to choose IR as their discipline either in Finland or elsewhere. As the amount of prominent feminist scholarship has increased, it has become globally acknowledged through international awards2 and by a number of international publications (Kantola and Nousiainen 2009; Penttinen 2011; Jauhola 2015; Repo 2015; Sarma 2016; Vaittinen 2014).

Feminist IR has been (at least a small) part of IR curricula at most of the five universities since the late 1990s. Yet, maintaining a career as a feminist IR scholar is far from easy: the cut-off point of the ‘gender scissors’ is at the early career/postdoctoral phase. Although women have recently been hired in permanent professorships in political science, IR in Finland remains all male: all the full permanent professorships across the five universities have always been held by men, while women have held temporary senior lecturer and professor positions. One woman holds a permanent senior lecturer position (out of the seven senior lectureships that exist). A slight majority of undergraduate and graduate students and approximately half of postgraduate students are currently women.

Moreover, there is a recent generational shift in Finnish IR: the first IR professors hired in the 1960s have all recently retired, and they have been replaced by younger male professors in their 40s and 50s. This shift was directly reflected upon by several feminist scholars in our dataset—who have embarked upon their career in the past 15 years—in their responses as a turn towards anti-feminism: whereas the recently retired generation had pioneered in opening space for and actively supporting feminist work in the late 1990s and early 2000s, the new generation that now occupies the decision-making positions is closing ranks on the “malestream” and keeping feminism and feminists out. Feminists are dismissed both unofficially and officially, as will be discussed below. The contemporary context of neoliberalisation, marketization and streamlining of universities seems to be particularly harsh on those scholars who challenge the mainstream. Before moving to discuss the results of the collective memory process, we highlight here three structural factors that form the core of the problem for feminist scholars, and female scholars more generally.

First, the possibilities for females and feminists to pursue a career in IR take place in the rather peculiar structure of Finnish academia overall: there is no tenure system in place and the few permanent positions (senior lectureships and professorships) are rotated as ‘musical chairs’ when someone with a permanent position receives external research funding, thus opening up new temporary positions. Strategic temporary positions, such as professorships, add merit to the CVs of, in reality, mainly young men and may become useful if and when such positions are opened up later for permanent recruitment. Patriarchy is alive and well in Finnish IR, but it is masked as meritocracy. As Tara Brabazon puts it, “Patriarchy and its structures are still blocking women’s progress into senior university positions, wearing the frock of meritocracy to clothe the injustice” (Brabazon 2014, p. 50).

Second, as Pietila (2015) suggests, possible causes for the gender gap in academia may be the result of unequal treatment of men and women, which manifests both as direct/systemic and as indirect discrimination. In practice this means, for example, that merit standards are not gender- neutral, that men and women have unequal access to mentoring and social networks, and that academic excellence, and expertise in general, is constructed around gendered notions of expertise (see, e.g., Pietila 2015, p. 7). All in all, career advancement takes place through informal and invisible processes, where the few gatekeepers, permanent professors and heads of department, play a crucial role. Most of the funding for junior academic positions comes from external funding, through research projects that are all based on short-term research contracts. Such positions are not publicly advertised, but are rather given as rewards to insiders or supervisees of professors (European University Institute 2014). Furthermore, external research funding available within Finland is extremely competitive, as less than 10% of applicants receive funding (Academy of Finland 2015).

Finally, not only do women fall short under the illusion of meritocracy (which relies on gendered notions of expertise and actively rewards young men), but women generally face different challenges to men. These include potential work-family conflicts and an inability to balance work and family life, or work and life in general. The personal costs of succeeding in an academic career are higher for women than men; for example, forming a family, which usually takes place at the early career phase, affects women more acutely than it does men. We find it important to shed light on the experiential side of these structural forms of discrimination; thus we approached fellow and former early career feminist IR scholars to reflect upon what all this means in our everyday lives. Before moving to these accounts, however, we will discuss the methodology used in our approach.

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