This is a translation of Elina Lepomäki‘s open letter to representatives of published media posted on her blog 13 June 2016. Lepomäki was one of the three candidates for the chair person of the National Coalition Party, one of the longstanding ‘big three’ parties in Finland. The vote, which Petteri Orpo won, took place on 11 June 2016.
Dear representatives of media,
Helsingin Sanomat (HS) had an interesting piece this morning (Paavo Teittinen: “‘Miesten alueelle’ osaamisellaan tunkevat naispoliitikot ovat usein medialle vaikeita”) that dealt with the bias against women in politics and in media. The column talked much about me personally so I want to expand the view it took.
This isn’t a question of only gender, but that people are easily marginalized in the published media to a person with a single characteristic. I don’t think that this serves the plurality we need in public debate.
I have played a part in public discussion for about five years now, two of which I have been a member of the parliament. It was interesting to see how from the day I became a MP I was reduced to a mere fraction I was just the day before. I had been known as an expert with professional accomplishments when all that vanished; now I was nothing except a woman, “a youth”, and certainly a member of my party.
I can see that a politician wouldn’t be asked to be one of the experts in a talk show, but I was nevertheless astonished that from that point on I was invited solely to talk shows with other “young energetic female politicians”, including Li Andersson (she was elected as the new chair of the Left Party on 11 June 2016).
I respect Andersson in her work and I don’t view her as “a rising star”; she already is a star to her cause here and now. She has worked diligently to accomplish that and she combines several characteristics that I can admire. We have the same gender as it seems, but that is where as our similarities mostly end.
We are both women biologically, but Andersson is about six years my junior. Her education is a bachelor in political science and she will likely receive her Master’s shortly. I, on the other hand, got my Master’s of Technology over ten years ago. Andersson has done a long career for her age in politics starting with the youth organization of her party and in municipal politics. She has also co-authored some books.
I did a stint as an assistant to a MP when 19, but I have no experience in municipal or youth politics. I have run some small companies and a student magazine, worked as an expert and leadership positions in finance for ten years, am I am the chairperson for Libera, the most prominent independent think tank in Finland. In addition, I am a mother.
I never felt that I was given any disadvantage or advantage because of my gender – until I entered the political arena. I never even considered it even though I have studied in computer science and worked in finance and startups that are male dominated fields. The HS text I mentioned above talks about pushing into “men’s world”, but for myself it came along as an issue only with politics and publicity.
For example, the behavior of men and women in the public eye seem to be treated just a little differently. I typically have a stoical facial expression so I hear people telling me that I should smile more on a daily basis. On the other hand, Alex Stubb (the previous chairperson of the Coalition Party and one of the three candidates for the position in the last election) smiles too much according to many.
I have been pondering why is it that I must continually face claims that I am “too far to the right”. This despite that I am not even a traditional Finnish rightist but a classical liberal supporting issues such as a universal and obligation-free social security, liberal values, and criticism of employer organizations. A rightist is just another classification that rarely brings anything to a fact-based discussion.
In the Coalition Party I am mainstream with my market liberalism, as also other people have said. I think the main difference is how the market mechanisms are generally understood (i.e., the price of goods based on competition and consumer based demand). Namely, a self-restricting market doesn’t exclude public funding.
Or maybe my unsympathetic delivery conveys stubbornness, even though in my various roles in work life – and in various countries – I have learned to cooperate and compromise with all kinds of people and organizations. Is it possible that the “uncompromising” characterization could derive from a hint of preconceived notions?
If I may, I would ask one thing from you, respectable reporters. Don’t make gender or other meaningless markers like age a burden for us politicians. Don’t purposefully set up gal-on-gal or old geezer-on-old geezer debates. That categorizes us from the start. Let’s remember all the PM’s and finance ministers that are still in their thirties; there are many.
If I am put in the same group as Anderson as “young” women, why not also put me together with someone six years older woman or man in the “near middle aged” category? Or, something really out of the box, how about grouping me using another qualifier than age or sex? For example, “here we have two M.Tech. who will debate on the copyright legislation”. Or, “two members of the Grand Committee in the Parliament discussing the role of ECB monetary policies in the economic stability of Finland”. There are already several reporters who have found such couplings regardless of age or gender.
As a 22 year-old analytic in the Nordea bank, you interviewed me on the financial situation and on interest rates, and my gender or age were non-issues. I don’t think it even crossed your minds. That was 12 years ago – but I’m still considered “young”.
Youth as life itself is not a bad thing, but in politics it emphasizes two things: your opinions are not considered as valuable (or they are “ideological” with “unpolished edges”) and as a person you are only “a promise of the future”. It seems particularly strange after 15 years of work experience.
The social media statistics from two months of my campaign revealed the following. A typical Lepomäki supporter was a man between 35 and 44 years of age. Of my supporters there were 65 percent men, 35 percent women. The average age of female supporters was higher than that of males. For men that was 38 and for women 49. These average ages were fairly high considering that the average age of Finnish people in social media is about 35 years.
I don’t see any clear age or gender grouping here. Based on these statistics I’m not “a feisty standard-bearer of the new generation”, though I have young people also supporting me. Could it be that if one is conveying a mainstream – i.e. status quo – message, they are automatically more “adult”? And vice versa.
When we published a report criticizing the Finnish employment system based on employee and employer organizations in the summer of 2013 with the Libera think tank, a reporter of HS named me, then the CEO of Libera, to other reporters “an errand girl of old pigs”.
If age was central to business thinking – or all kind of quotas were set up – my claim is that the national economy would be fairing much, much worse than now. I for one was in a director level duty in London when 26 years of age in one of the largest investment banks in the world, but even then it was not an issue for anyone. The image of the conservative nature of the finance business is greatly exaggerated in the public in Finland. Ilkka Paananen founded Supercell when 32. There are other examples by the thousands.
This one is a fabulous piece of self-reflection found in today’s HSy: “Media isn’t only reflecting the society around us. It itself also adds that reality, creating norms and forcing politicians into certain molds. This is what each politician of course faces, but with female politicians it often is a negative frame that diminishes the respect they deserve.”
And the media are we!
I look forward continuing a successful working relationship.