Gender in Academia in Finland: Tensions between Policies and Gendering Processes in Physics Departments

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This article contributes to the growing literature on gender and physics by employing the concept of gendering processes to the study of physics departments in Finland. We show that gendering processes can have paradoxical and ambiguous outcomes for women. In order to understand gendering processes, we analysed two kinds of data: gender equality policies in academic organizations and interview data with 36 physicists, both male and female. On the basis of the interview data we argue that physics departments are gendered in the dimensions of symbols and images, interaction, and mental constructs. We also argue that there are tensions between policies and gendering processes in physics departments because policies do not fully succeed in identifying the processes that maintain inequalities between female and male physicists. The tensions explain why gendering processes have paradoxical and ambiguous outcomes. 

Finland is an interesting national context for studying gender and physics because it enables one to juxtapose gendering processes in fairly well-established equality policies and physics departments, which have low female representation. Despite the gender equality plans, the construction of the ideal worker in physics departments in Finland is surprisingly similar to the construction of the ideal worker in other organizations in other national contexts, reflecting the masculine norm of full- time availability and mobility. We say “surprisingly” also because the culture of physics abounds with attempts to rationalize the norms of long working hours, international mobility, and masculine toughness by appealing to those features that are thought to be specific to physics as an academic field.

The equality plans identify issues that are relevant in light of our interview data such as work-life balance, international mobility, gender-based discrimination, and sexual harassment. In this way, they function as counter-forces to the gendering processes in physics departments. However, the equality plans do not fully succeed in capturing the underlying gendering processes that emerged in our interview data, such as the ideal worker that conforms to the norm of long working hours and the norm of international mobility. While the equality plans give advice about how to deal with discrimination and sexual harassment, they remain silent about the norm of masculinity that is manifested in interactions and mental constructs.  The tensions explain why the equality plans have paradoxical and ambiguous outcomes for women. Instead of challenging the norms of long working hours and international mobility, the plans attempt to tackle the consequences that these norms have for women in academia, such as women’s difficulties in balancing work and family life. Thus, their message is ambiguous. The norms are perceived as problems, and at the same time, women are advised to cope with them. 

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