Open letter to published media

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Elina Lepomäki, MP

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.

Yours sincerely,

 

Elina

Why don’t girls code?

This is a translation of Saga Raippalinna’s (@sagamaraia) article Miksi tytöt ei koodaa? posted on 7 June 2016 on the website Wau.fi. Some examples of Saga’s professional expertise are a moderator for social sites, a trainer for user experience, and an illustrator.

Today I read what Juhani Mykkänen (@mykkanen) wrote (http://nyt.fi/a1464142470859) about so few women coding today. This certainly is nothing new in of itself, but that it is still the current situation, makes it worrisome. He writes,

“Our company has been very visible in media. And yet no female coder has made it to our job interviews. Not one.

“I hear the same story from others, too. I talked to the CEO of one of the largest programming companies in Finland. Among the coders applying for a job with them, less than one in a hundred is female.

“Less than one. In. A hundred.”

I grew up in the 80’s and 90’s. Then the gender roles were the norm; it was a time for liberal upbringing and girls could wear shorts, too, but still it was moms often living for homemaking and dads having a work life. Women were pretty and guys chucked beer.

Girls were fascinated by animals, dreamed of becoming a veterinarian, a teacher, or a hair dresser whereas boys were to become construction workers, carpenters, or researchers. Math, physics, and chemistry were for boys and biology, language studies, and arts for girls. In music classes it was the boys playing the guitar and the drums, girls were left with the piano and singing. Beauty and strength worked together, both from their sides.

Therefore it was nothing surprising that nerds quietly climbing out of their holes were considered freaks. A stereotypical nerd was overly slender, tall boy with glasses and bad skin. He knew computers and everything about math, physics, and chemistry. The kid  was even enthused about them, what an outlandish thing. No sane person would know so much about those things, but it is good to have someone to copy answers from in an exam.

The society worked in harmony: nerds to be despised and abused, jocks with good looks and finally girls in varying decrees of beautiful – those that where to be helped by the boys in anything more difficult or strenuous.

An exaggeration, I admit. Not far from the truth, however. Math has always been a specialty reserved for boys and if you are good at it, you are a geek. Geeks can be mocked, well because they are smarter or something. Weaker for sure. And for some reason worthy of despising.

 

I myself was a girl who always answered that my favorite color was read and that I loved animals, even though that wasn’t what I felt. They were everyone’s answers that were used for a lack of better ones.

I bought pink glitter and note books decorated with puppies and butterflies because cars really weren’t that interesting. The gifts I got were flower shirts with hearts all over. Lots of pink, cuteness, and frills. As my eighth birthday was coming up, my dad asked what I’d like for a present. “A computer,“ I said. I had always wanted a computer.

When I got a computer, it was – like for so many other internet vets – the turning point. We learned to play the games in English. We had to learn English so we could do more. Games were made so you could have them work the way you wanted.

We were the first ones and we would sit in front of a screen of text and write random command words just to find the right one. We played a game a thousand times over and more just to hone our skills and score. We sat enjoying music when a game was loading, sometimes a good fraction of an hour.

We were the original internet revolution, before it was a revolution. We geeks became the ones who made information a cool thing. We changed math from a memorized multiplication table to a tool of art and conquered the world by experimenting, building, and doing.

 

We are living a stage when a computer is no longer a focal point of embarrassment but a necessity of every household. A computer, a smart device, internet – this all is owned by everyone and girls as well as boys are wholly engaged in it. We all can be what we truly are, whether it is glitter or not, whether you want to be a hair dresser, researcher, or a mechanic. Gender is no issue.

Or is it?

In today’s world boys continue to be those who want to code. Who apply to work in coding. Who know the lingo, hang out with other coders, are the kings of the lan parties. Girls have slowly started appearing in hacker assemblies and cons and are gaming hardcore more than ever, but rarely do they code themselves. Even more exceptional is a woman coding for work.

Apollo lead software engineer Margaret Hamilton

Lead flight software designer Margaret Hamilton for NASA Apollo flights. By NASA [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The gender roles are alive and well in our societies, girls are girls and boys being boys, each group with their own physical characteristics and separate interests. Why such a difference?

 

I see it as primarily due to these roles that are so much talked about.

Math may be more popular than before, but it continues to be implied that it’s boys’ domain. Girls eventually figure it out that one either knows math or one doesn’t and somehow that has to do with gender generalizations.

“Girls can do this and this better, but this is for boys and therefore something I can’t be good at.” If biological traits are brought in the discussion, it may well be that girls are more prone to think in a different manner so that the general teaching may be a hindrance or an advantage.

If teaching is adapted to male thinking, female thinking can’t perform the same. I, for one, am a synesthete, meaning that I think everything as images, colors, smells, tastes, and sounds. Combined with a twist of ADD, I ended, after nine years of math in school, with third grader skills, regardless of computer skills.

Additionally, it is worth considering that even if we were talking about a girl excelling in math, she might think that it is not possible to make it her profession, let alone be specialized in something that sounds as boring as coding. You only sit in front of a computer drinking energy drinks, that’s what it would be like, definitely not for me!

 

“Coding is the language of the future, and every girl should learn it. As I’ve learned from watching girls grow and learn in our classrooms, coding is fun, collaborative and creative.” A quote by Reshma Saujani (@reshmasaujani), a lawyer and politician who founded of the organization Girls Who Code (see a FastCompany article about the ‘movement’).

 

And how interesting coding seems is one of the most important aspects when considering one’s future career in that field. If you don’t ever know coding as anything else than through the predominant nerd stereotype, you can’t see that it is much more than a computer, a screen, and bunch of zeros and ones.

Just think how many times this week you have heard talk how the real life is outside the screen and how computers are the ruin of us.

Girls are taught to obey, follow the rules and act cute. A good girl is not treading dangerous paths, and someone inexperienced doesn’t venture out unless forced to or actually has adventure in their blood. Girls must be given a chance to understand coding as an instrument of art, as a building block and as something else than an empty, passive activity that is only a turnoff to their friends.

After they are through with school they are let out into the great world – and it is led by those old hippies and the parents of us internet revolutionaries. They if anyone have point of views about the world and the roles it sets us in.

The conservative view is that man knows and woman is to be helped. This thinking is practically broken, but it surely continues to affect the subconscious of each of us, to varying degrees. The enlightened can recognize these thoughts and erase them whereas many others follow what they just feel seems right. A woman stands by a door and I open it for her. A man stands by a door and I expect him to walk right through.

A woman’s problem in the coding market is to be taken seriously. How do I present myself as a capable employee without additional proof to cancel out the negative impression due to my gender? How can I avoid a situation where my attractiveness sets the overall tone for the interview?

If I stay after hours, will I be faced with a slimy creep that will climb up my skirt? Will my coworkers be decent, will they include me, and will I be an equal? Will I be there to fill a personnel quota or will I hired because of my talents?

 

Everything at work depends on you being taken seriously. Whether it’s the coworkers who (unwittingly or not) treat you differently because you are a woman or a boss who either gives you a special treatment or the cold shoulder based on your sex. These are matters that are continually discussed but not really internalized. Women are so used to it that they don’t even notice the extra validation they project, and men, on the other hand, don’t see how much more they should change in order to make women feel accepted.

Please, understand this: equality is not going to be achieved by talking about men and women. Even with the exception that the shiest girls need special support so they would dare to measure up. Just as the most unruly boys must be restrained so that others could have their say.

When a job announcement is written, it is reads a coder not a male coder. When the office spaces are set up, they are made for everyone to enjoy with no genderization. When we are working together, we allow each person to be as irritating as they happen to be – whether it’s a collection of coke cans or a small explosion of glitter in one’s cubicle.

Pink Rhinestone Keyboard by Crystal Case

Detail of Crystal Case Pink Rhinestone USB Keyboard

Let’s break the conventions. Let’s treat people based on their interests and not their sex drive.

 

If I was leading a programming firm and if people were a little more playful in general, I would task them to genderize others the opposite for a day: to treat men as they treat women and vice versa.

In this way there might come some revelations how differently we treat each other – starting with the topics of discussion.

I would have those who consider themselves slow talk to and listen to those who are ridiculously complex in their talk, and I would let everyone be themselves. I would let them have their fun during the working hours: fun creates trust, trust builds strength and power – and strength awakens creativity, learning and, for a lack of a better word, mixing.

In addition, I would start a coding school and I would invite all kinds of people to enroll. As the internet revolutionaries we are not to teach coding, per se, but rather show why we code. What is a coder achieving and what is the code good for?

By increasing the appeal, positive experimentation, and participation we would have a future in front of us where the code isn’t bound by ancient rules of segregation, preconceived notions, or generalizations.

When the question “Why girls don’t code?” is posed, let as also present an answer. Girls don’t code because coding is not yet owned by everyone. And

 this isn’t some feminist propaganda. This is a matter of generalization, classification, of segregation. We spend all too much time focusing on the non-issues here.

Coding should be for everyone, available to all, understood by all. Also by those who don’t do it for a job.