On Gender Equality: An interview with Prof. Dr. Ella Roininen

(We need to) encourage and empower people to make their career choices based on their true interests, instead of their families’ or society’s expectations of their role in life. And on the other hand, support them when they do so. As educators, managers, and professionals, we need to examine if there are cultural dynamics or discriminatory practices in our organizations that work to exclude certain groups or individuals. – Prof Dr. Roininen

Gender Equality

While doing my first work experiences and also while chatting with friends who were also young employees or have just finished their academic career, I realized that some jobs are seen as more gender-specific than others and that gender-neutral jobs are quite rare actually. This let me question the system. How can it be that especially women in the 21century are still unable to get the same payments as their male counterparts or have the social reputation given the position they have?

For those and more questions I interviewed Prof. Dr. Ella Roininen who teaches at Karls about International Management with the focus on gender and diversity as well as inclusion.

So let’s dive in.

Historic Roots of Inequality

Sven: Why are certain jobs (more than others) related to gender? Could it be based on or historically routed due to a stereotypical role or gender model?

Prof Dr. Roininen: In gender theory, gendered distribution of work is considered fundamental to the gender system. The gender system organizes the mutual relationship between what is considered masculine and feminine in society. These are social constructions. Two principles are significant to the continuity of the gender system: 1) women and femininity are clearly distinguishable from men and masculinity, both in practice and theory; and 2) men and masculinity are symbolically and societally higher valued than women and femininity. Man is the prototype of abstract humanity; it defines normality, against which women/femininity/the Other is measured and lacking (1). In sum, the term gender refers to our socially and culturally based understanding of what it means to be a man or a woman in society, and to the consequences that this has on our lives (2). 

One of the most prominent consequence of the gender system is that paid and unpaid work is divided into men’s work and women’s work. Theorists call this gendered organization of work: Work considered feminine and belonging to the private sphere of life, such as household work and taking care of children and other family members, tend to be connected with women, whereas work belonging to the public sphere of life, paid work, professional ambitions, science and politics with men. Consider jobs such as leading a firm, engineering a bridge or flying an airplane. We automatically think of a male leader, male pilot, male engineer, without much noticing these basic assumptions.

Furthermore, “women’s work” and “men’s work” are in a hierarchical relation to one another, which has massive implications both at the societal as well as individual level: globally 95% of state leaders and 92% of the world’s executives are male. Women work two thirds of the world’s hours but earn only one tenth of the income. (3)

According to Joan Acker (4), one of the most prominent theorists of gendered organizations, the understanding of male as the primary breadwinner in a family and the ‘original’ worker reflects in organizations’ cultures, such as in the distribution of roles and power. The male boss-female assistant combination is a school example: Leadership and rational thinking fit with masculinity, taking care of other people’s needs and a lower responsibility job to make time for a family life, with femininity. Business units within a company tend to follow this gendered casting. You may observe finance, technical and sales teams dominated by men, whereas HR and communication teams by women. Heads of the departments are typically male in all areas.  

We could also observe this pattern happening in traditional male fields, where women aspire to be part of. For instance, women may start studying management and engineering equally excited and interested in as men, but there is some evidence that masculine culture and practices in the fields may discourage their progress as they advance. (5) Many a man may even find it hard to consider a female dominated profession in the fear of being judged and stereotyped for it. A woman in a male dominated profession, and a man in a female dominated one, may find it hard to fit in. He or she may get treated differently or stereotyped by the majority. And here we come back to gender roles, norms, hierarchies — and psychological and economic consequences on human beings. (6)

Of course, the theories I cite here are already older, and I encourage all readers to observe how the described cultures and structures are persisting or challenged in today’s working life and organizations, and in this way identify ruptures for ever wider understanding of gender roles. When gender roles loosen, all genders have more freedom to become who they want to be, personally and professionally.

Empowerment of Women

Sven: How can we empower women in order to have a go at more men-attributed jobs?

Prof Dr. Roininen:  Gender diversity is a hugely complex issue. It deals with how society sees men and women; how different professional fields are discursively constructed; how specific organizational cultures and dynamics form and so on. There also isn’t just one big group called “women” or “men”; different social positions intersect. There are people from different ethnic or social backgrounds, young women, non-binary people and transpeople, older ones, parents, singles, and so on. People with disabilities and racialized people. All of these varied positions have an effect on our experiences in working life. 

So, we need to work at different fronts. On the one hand, encourage and empower people to make their career choices based on their true interests, instead of their families’ or society’s expectations of their role in life. And on the other hand, support them when they do so. As educators, managers and professionals, we need to examine if there are cultural dynamics or discriminatory practices in our organizations that work to exclude certain groups or individuals. Leadership and management practices such as meeting, compensation and promotion patterns, flexibility in work arrangements, and access to networking and mentoring programs need to be evaluated.

We further need to start to change society from the very bottom. Growing up, the environment may either encourage or discourage people from their interests and ambitions. So we have to be careful how we treat kids. As parents and educators, I think it is important that we are aware of the messages we send to little children. You may have observed that people speak differently to little boys and girls, or teachers to older ones. Socially constructed images of gender and difference are in our minds, and they needs time and effort to change. So we need to train ourselves, our educational institutions and working organizations to become aware of what we expect from ourselves and from others, how we communicate these expectations to our environment, and what kinds of opportunities we consider are suitable and appropriate for different people, as well as finding out the best ways to support the aspirations of those around us. Everybody can use a little push to be able to live out their full potential. 

I think the younger generations are changing the previously quite rigid picture. I see a lot of this around here in our student body. I am impressed by the awareness, courage and openness of our students when it comes to challenging gender roles and norms. It is more us professors and the university staff that are lacking behind, and we need to keep observing ourselves, willing to learn and grow in this aspect, too.

Sven: Why is it and how can it be that women still get paid less for the same amount of workload or responsibility, even if in the same position?

Prof Dr. Roininen:  The pay gap between men and women is rooted into the gendered working life, and again relates to the so-called gender contract between men and women. In short, there are a number of causes for it, some of which relate to the horizontal and vertical gender segregation of working life, institutional factors, gender norms and factors related to women’s and men’s personal life choices. All these again relate to how people are brought up and what we as society think of different people’s roles in it. After these ‘explicable’ causes are filtered out, the adjusted wage gap remains. The adjusted wage gap is the one that is especially complex and interpreted as discriminatory. Here we need to look into the organisational practices, in which wage discrimination can be minimised via HR policies and practices, such as trying to de-bias hiring and assessment procedures. Legislative measures are also important, and they need to be diligently installed, in a way that suing an organization for salary discrimination is both safe and consequential. Wage transparency at organisational and individual level also leads to a greater equality. This can start from each of us, when we personally tackle the stigma of sharing our salaries with others. 

In the contrary, it is often said that women are not as good negotiators as men when it comes to salaries and promotions. In my view, this is a simplified assessment, dismissing both the organizational as well as wider cultural dynamics, such as the above-mentioned socialization into gender roles, how different genders’ assertive behavior is viewed in companies, and psychological confidence about one’s your place in the professional life. Here I dare to generalize a bit: especially earlier generations of women often grew up to believe to be secondary in their needs and professional skills. I have never been what one may call a good negotiator; I normally take what is offered. For a long time, I believed I can be happy just to be offered a nice position. Only as I grew older, did I realize that actually I do have a very valuable contribution to make. I don’t need to be grateful for being given a job, but can carry myself with pride and confidence, true to my values — and ask for more money when I feel it’s justified. 

Talking about wage transparency, I think large corporations are better in this. Many have certain institutional practices in place, such as fixed salary brackets etc., which must be followed by hiring managers. Hence all employees have the same information to which salary bracket each role falls. This may still leave room for biases and selective performance assessments; therefore, a mix of measures is always needed to address any inequality.   


Things we can do in favor of more Equality

Sven: How could we as society change in favor of more equality? How could we as working individuals change this behavior in favor for (female) coworkers?

Prof Dr. Roininen: These two are huge and multidimensional questions, that cannot be answered pre-emptively in general, let alone in this space. The change starts at the political, educational, working organization, language and representation, as well as at individual level. We could talk more about each of these in further interviews. I focus here what we as individuals can do to support our female, non-binary, trans, racialised or in any way othered, suppressed or discriminated co-workers: Train your awareness on the hierarchical binaries and prejudices you have in your head, use gender-neutral language, actively include people, encourage them in what they do, speak to people kindly and understandingly, and support their ambitions. Stand on their side if you observe discrimination. Believe them when they tell you about it. We all can do this if we want to. We all can step into other people’s shoes to consider their experiences in working life, and how it may differ from ours. We need not be wrapped up in our own world views and privileges but hear out the other and take responsibility for equality in our working environment. Sometimes it just enough to keep talking about equality, sometimes heavier measures are needed. 

Sven: What can we do if we encounter an inequality, especially regarding our future or ongoing working life? 

Prof Dr. Roininen: I really like this question, it’s an important one. If we talk about encountering discriminatory behavior, I say: Whatever you do, do not stand still and accept it. Especially in the beginning of your career, you may not be in a position to challenge your seniors of superiors, but you can always show in your behavior and gestures that what is happening is not ok. Show the discriminated person that you are on their side. You can even sensitively support the person experiencing inequality, even if they themselves find it hard to admit that it happened. Further, look for official channels to report any misconduct. Here at the university, all students should contact me as the Diversity and Equal Opportunities Commissioner if they suspect any kind of discrimination. I really mean it. You can come to me even with the smallest of concern and trust me to follow it up in a fair manner.

Finally, develop your own practices and personality to notice and change your own potentially unequal practices and thoughts. Here at Karls I have arranged several public lectures on learning about gender and othering, about discriminatory practices and empowerment. There is really a lot to learn to all of us. I will continue these lectures and workshops in the coming semesters, and therefore, as a response to this post, I would be more than happy to hear everyone’s suggestions in the comment field as to what kind of topics you would like to learn more about! 

I hope this got you as well as it got me a deep and interesting insight in a complex issue that we unfortunaly are still might have to face in our future working life. But as also Prof. Dr. Roininen stated, it’s about every individual in a society to make the change. So be humble and let’s change this inequality together. If you have any more experiences to share or or comments or replies feel free to do so.

By Sven Lohmeier *SL (KarlsStorytellers


  • (1) Hirdman, Y. (1990a) ‘Genussystemet’, in Demokrati och Makt i Sverige. Maktutredningens Huvudrapport. Uppsala University, Department of Government. 
  • (2) Butler, J. (1993) Bodies That Matter. New York and London: Routledge. 
  • (3) Women Deliver (2016) http://womendeliver.org/ 
  • (4) Acker, J. (1990) ?Hierarchies, jobs, bodies: A theory of gendered organizations?Gender and Society, 4(2): 139-158.
  • (5) Silbey, S.S. (2016) ‘Why Do So Many Women Who Study Engineering Leave the Field?’. HBR, 23.8.2016 
  • (6) Cf. Gherardi, S. (1995) Gender, Symbolism and Organizational Cultures. London: Sage.

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