Can women be leaders?

A column published in the business students' magazine Kylteri describes disdainful attitudes towards female students at the School of Business, even though Aalto has zero tolerance for inappropriate behaviour. What is the situation regarding equality in the School of Business and how could it be improved?
The picture shows the School of Business with a white text "equality" in a black box in the middle of the picture.

Aalto University and the School of Business are working hard to promote EDI issues *, and we aim to keep our community open and inclusive. However, there are people in the School of Business whose behaviour towards women is disparaging. From them, you can hear comments that it is natural for more men than women to be elected to managerial positions. Or that certain things are meant for men and others for women.

We got together to deliberate on the state of equality and diversity at the School of Business with Siiri Varis, first-year student in the bachelor's programme in Economics; Topias Turppa, Chair of the KY Board; Professor Rebecca Piekkari; and Sami Itani, Professor of Practice.

The picture is from the inside of the School of Business and it has the white text "diversity" in a black box in the middle.

The meeting was inspired by the column written by Siiri Varis in the Kylteri magazine, titled “What the f*ck again” **. Varis raised the issue of female students being undermined at the School of Business as encountered by her. The purpose of the meeting was to share experiences and consider together what concrete actions could be taken at the School of Business to improve the situation. 

Change in attitudes required

Siiri Varis said that she has received a lot of feedback on her column from students at both Aalto and other business schools. Many had said that it was easy to agree with her experiences of women being belittled. Hidden discrimination is about everyday acts, such as how we talk to each other, that may appear small as such. Unfortunately, such experiences are part of daily life for some people.

‘For example, just today a student said to me that I should let him think about the technical implementation of a project because as a woman it’s not my field. I said to him that, in fact, I’m very interested in technology and that he should not make such assumptions based on gender. However, he did not seem to take me seriously,’ Varis says.

Topias Turppa also knows that it is difficult to change attitudes and that belittling of female students and other inappropriate behaviours towards women do occur at the School of Business. As a result, the School of Business may not appear as an attractive option for young women choosing a place of study. He highlighted the issue recently in his speech at KY's Annual Ball.

‘I wanted my speech to give raise for a fruitful discussion at the dinner tables, and it seemed to work,’ Turppa says with satisfaction.

A lot at stake at the School of Business

For the School of Business, promoting EDI issues is particularly important, as the share of women of the new students in the school's largest programme, the Finnish-language Bachelor's Programme in Business, has fallen to less than one third.

‘It’s a major social problem if we, as the leading Finnish School of Business, cannot attract a diverse student body because, in such a case, we fail to provide companies and other organisations with the diverse workforce they need,’ says Rebecca Piekkari.

The photo is from the inside of the School of Business and it has the white text "inclusive" in a black box in the middle.

‘Therefore, it would be really important that every talented applicant can feel that they are welcome to the School of Business and that they would be treated as equals by both their fellow students and school staff. Under no circumstances do we want to give a picture of us as a higher education institution where you may encounter discrimination or disdainful attitudes.’

We are aware of the problem, and much has already been done to address it. For example, in feedback collected at the end of each course, students are asked to assess how diverse and relatable did they find the case study and company examples teachers used in their teaching. It is clear, however, that we must continue this work consistently and over the long term. 

Rational arguments convince people

Sami Itani, who has promoted equality and diversity issues in many different organisations, has noticed that the debate on the importance of equality and diversity does not necessarily bring results.

‘Often, the most useful approach is to present rational arguments that clearly demonstrate that a diverse and inclusive organisation works better and more productively. And to show concrete examples that both women and men are suitable for all kinds of tasks,’ says Itani.

‘Stereotypes can be challenged, for example, by having unusual role models visit lectures, such as female leaders from the banking and financial world or men working as HR managers.’ 

The constructive discussion highlighted also many other practical ways by which the School of Business can promote EDI issues. It is important to include relevant measures throughout the studies in everything that happens at the university. But as one of the most important areas of influence, Siiri Varis and Topias Turppa brought up the beginning of the autumn semester, when new students, or walruses, start their studies.

‘The most important thing would be to make it perfectly clear to the walruses at the very beginning of their studies that the School of Business does not tolerate any inappropriate behaviour and that such behaviour will be addressed firmly. This is already done in KY, and if the school was also clearer in sending the same message, we could ensure that people really understand it.’

* The abbreviation EDI stands for equality, diversity and inclusion.
** Link to the column written by Siiri Varis in Kylteri magazine (the column is in Finnish):

The picture shows the ground floor of the School of Business and it has the white text "parity" in a black box in the middle.

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