Life-work balance in academia: Minna Nikunen

About one year ago I attended an interesting event in Aalto University: “The Value of Diversity in Physics and Mathematics”. Among the speakers was Minna Nikunen, an affirmed senior researcher of gender studies and sociology now at University of Tampere. Minna, could you introduce yourself?

I am a senior researcher at the University of Tampere, School of Social Sciences and humanities, in gender studies. I am currently working in a project in which we study young adults and how they define successfulness and social exclusion and how they strive towards adulthood and working life.

I know there’s still some confusion about the definition of gender studies. Can you explain in simple words what they are about?

In gender studies we inspect the social aspects of sex and sexuality. Gender (roughly said social sex role) is not same in cultures, or in every phase in history. In some cultures there are three genders, and in some cultures those defined as physically women can be social men, and so on. People often think that features and typical ways to behave for women and me are universal and have always been that way, but if you think further, you know this is not the truth. For instance, in 80’s and 90’s people though that girls are naturally better in languages than boys and boys better in math than girls: Pisa research has actually shown that this is not the case anymore. So, in gender studies we are interested how people conceive differences between women and men, and how these interpretations affect many aspects of our social life, for instance working life roles and career advancement.

In particular, what is your area of research?

I am interested in gendered aspect of work and employment. Currently I am studying young adults and gendered and classed aspects of their future plans and definitions on being successful and being marginalized.

You published several papers [paper 1, paper 2, …] on the relation between work flexibility in academia and family duties in Finland. Can you highlight some of your findings?

I think it is interesting that even though academics think that university is a good workplace for parents because of this flexibility, still many thinks that having children affects women’s careers. Take for example international mobility. Actually, it is both fathers and mothers who report that they have difficulties in organizing this mobility. Additionally, according to the statistics, Finnish women researchers are as mobile as men. However, academics can perceive the mobility demand as harming women’s careers. There are actually vast differences between the EU countries considering gender and international mobility: for instance in Latvia it is quite uncommon for women to be mobile.

Flexibility can be also demanding on the part of an employee. One has to be quite active in organizing things, for instance if the child is sick. If one is employee in a firm that is not flexible, one can according the law stay at home if his/her child is sick, and there might be a substitute. At the university there are no substitutes, so you do your work at home or after you come back.

Still on family-work balance of researchers, how is the situation different in private research?

I have not studied this but I assume it is about the same. Do you mean by private research firms and industry? They have the same laws considering family leaves but I do not know if they are as flexible.

Does mobility in academia affect participation of women?

I not quite sure if I got this one. But I think it is not usually hindrance for women. Though there might be situations when travels and being mobile in impossible, for both men and women. It is not always possible to arrange things for mobility, even though there is support for taking your family with you.

Do you advocate for any policy change in academia in connection with your topics of research?

Gender and family responsibilities should be taken into account when rules and demands for tenure track and other positions are made. The academia should become more aware of gendered expectations and stereotypes.

Do you have any advice or message for girls and women who want to work in science?

I think that a woman or a girl in science does not have to be one of the boys. Being professional does not mean being masculine. Some disciplines can be more masculine than others, and then it is harder to break the norms. But making a norm visible is a good start.

Thank you, Minna!

Seminar: The Brilliance of Science – the Role of Women in International Science

The role of women in the international research was discussed on the October 6th during the seminar organised by the embassy of Italy in Finland and Finnish Academy of Science and Letters in the University of Helsinki. Three top female researchers from Italy and Finland have been invited to give lectures on the role of women in the modern scientific community.

The event was opened by the welcoming words from the Ambassador of Italy, Mr. Giorgio Visetti, and the Permanent Secretary Anita Lehikoinen who emphasised the importance of gender diversity in science. Ms. Lehikoinen stated that the best approach to increase the number of women in science is to encourage young girls to study the most difficult scientific discipline. This could be done by both making female researchers visible as a role model for future scientists and improving the teachers education in a sense of gender equality.

Professor Angela Bracco from the  University of Milan and INFN Milano revealed the statistics of gender distribution in her research institution in the talk “The Approach and Contribution of Women to Push for Progress in Science”. 25% of the personnel of the INFN Milano are women including mainly the research, administration, engineering and technician staff. In the university of Milan 35% of students are women, including 28% in physics, 31% in Chemistry, 35% in mathematics, 68% in Biology and 32% in geology. The European Physics Society (EPS) made a survey aimed to find the reasons why only a few women choose science as their profession. The majority of women says that science is very demanding field to combine with the family life. The EPS takes a lot of action on promoting the gender equality in science and improving the social conditions to help women to overcome the barriers between their social life and the career in science.

Irma Thesleff is an academician and the professor of the Institute of Biotechnology at the University of Helsinki. Her talk “Towards Gender Equality in Finnish Top Science” was a great overview of the role of women in Finnish academia. The representation of women in academic top positions in Finland is pretty good comparing to other countries. The reasons for this goes deeply to the history of the Finnish society: traditionally women were working outside of homes; women have been equal to men politically since 1906 when Finland was first in Europe to grant women suffrage and the first in the world where women were able to stand as candidates at elections. Finnish academic society has examples of  brilliant Finnish female researches since 1901. Nowadays 28% of the professors and 24% of the academy professors in Finland are women. These fraction of women in science has been increasing through recent years and the Academy of Finland is aiming to keep this trend going.

WP_20151006_19_16_23_ProThe key speaker of the event, Dr. Fabiola Gianotti, an Italian physicist and Director-General of the largest particle physics laboratory in the world, gave an inspirational talk named “CERN: Much More than Fundamental Research ”. After she gave an overview of the discoveries made in CERN, in particularly capturing of the Higgs Boson by the ATLAS detector, which Dr. Gianotti was project leader of, she changed the subject from science to people who made these discoveries possible. In her speech Dr.Gianotti stressed the importance of the diversity by any means: gender, age, nationalities, traditions etc. Nowadays, 11500 scientists of 113 nationalities are doing world leading science in CERN despite of the politics. As the scientifical center with the majority of people being less than 30 years old, CERN puts a lot of effort on education in general and the attraction of school kids to choose science as their future profession regardless of their gender. During the last 15 years the amount of female researchers in CERN has increased from 5% in 2000 to 20% in 2010 and counting. The positive thing here is that this proportion remains true for the scientist in a higher level of the CERN’s hierarchy as well. And CERN is highly interested in continuing the effort on increasing the fraction of women in the research centre.

“The diversity is our strength,” said Dr. Gianotti.

For more details, the summary in Finnish and the full video of the event please visit Finnish Academy of Science and Letters 

Recycling manifolds: Kirsi Peltonen

I am proud to present another fellow mathematician, now working as a Senior Lecturer at Aalto University and as Docent at University of Helsinki, Kirsi Peltonen. Kirsi will also be the speaker at the seminar Women in Mathematics in Finland on November 9th at 4 p.m. in Exactum CK112 (info to come soon).

Please, tell me briefly about yourself…

I am currently working at Aalto University Science School Mathematics department as a Senior Lecturer. I am also docent in Mathematics at Helsinki University. I do research in geometric analysis in pure mathematics. At Aalto I am responsible on activities related to differential geometry and applications. This is a broad field with exciting connections not only to research inside mathematics but also physics, computer science, engineering and arts. At the moment I live in Järvenpää together with my husband and two cats. Our 3 children have already moved away from home and started their own careers and live together with their spouses.

When did you start getting interested about mathematics?

It is hard to pinpoint any particular time or event for a start of getting interested in mathematics. I found natural sciences in general the most interesting subjects at school. I also enjoyed all sorts of handcrafts at the same time. The passion for mathematics is difficult to explain, but it has been a crucial part of all my activities as far as I remember.

In simple words, what is your research about?

In the heart of my research are mapping problems between abstract shapes with certain geometric constraints. The principles of this process could be compared to recycling textiles. You take for example men’s shirt and would like to change it to women’s skirt. If the material, size and other properties are appropriate, you cut and sew to perform the needed changes according to your plan. In my research I take different types of manifolds instead of shirts and skirts which I suppose they could be transformed to each other and try to prove it by making use of the properties they have. I use techniques like cutting and sewing for abstract entities. Sometimes the outcome is a beautiful example but more often the constructions fail. This does not mean failure, but like often happens in sewing, you get something completely different as planned but still something useful. You also learn why certain things do not work and this is important as well.

Up to now, what do you regard as your most satisfying professional achievement?

I think it is the fact that I have been able to find the joy of doing mathematics over and over again. I am privileged to have so many talented collaborators and colleagues that have inspired and encouraged me over the years.

What was your hardest professional period and how did you overcome it?

Without no doubt it was almost 10 years ago when I found myself in the middle of hostile bureaucrat acts and almost lost my health. Thanks to my family, Finnish healthcare and great colleagues in Finland and abroad, I am now completely recovered. I am also happy that this process did not make me a bit bitter or cynical but made me more aware of unconscious bias and the fact that your true friends are those who also tolerate your success.

Did you face any obstacles – direct or indirect – in your work because of your being a woman?

This is a tough question as being a mathematician is equally hard to everybody working in the field. Good collaboration is an essential ingredient of this profession and   I think this has been most challenging to me, especially when I was younger.

Your ideal day outside work…

Crisp sunny day in the forests together with my husband to pick up some mushrooms.

What is your piece of advice to young mathematicians?

Be active, go to seminars, listen broadly what other people are doing and share your problems and ideas with others. Do not take it personally if you do not get the grant you applied. It is not all about you, but most often about politics and circumstances. Just make the next application and continue working persistently.

What would you tell to girls who are thinking to study or work in mathematics?

Just go ahead! Math is fun and always useful ! And when you get the grant you applied be happy and continue working persistently no matter other people might say.

(Picture: Eeva Lehtinen)

Girls can code: Linda Liukas and Hello Ruby

Last week a live streaming of a TEDx CERN event titled “Breaking the Rules” was held in Physicum. Among the speakers stood out a Finnish contributor, well-known Linda Liukas. Linda is a programmer, a startupper and a champion of women in computer science. In 2010 she co-founded Rails Girls, an ongoing project to involve women with little to no experience in programming.

Listen to her talk at Slush 2014:

In 2012 she was named Digital Champion of Finland for her efforts of promoting digital culture:

In 2014, Linda successfully (over)funded a project through Kickstarter: Hello Ruby. It’s a nicely illustrated book, a “coding fairytale” (for kids aged 4-8), available in several languages. I bought my copy in Finnish last week!

Are you curious to take part in the Rails Girls bootcamps? There are plenty in Finland this fall.

(Featured image is from

Gender Summit 2015

The Gender Summit is a joint meeting of researchers, gender scientists and policy makers from all over the world, aimed at analysing how gender bias or discrimination affect the quality of research and at unifying forces to end gender inequality in innovation.

The 7th edition of the Summit will be held in Berlin, Germany, on November 7th-8th. Among the illustrious speakers, the Vice-President of Academy of Finland Prof. Marja Makarow was invited to give a plenary talk.

Find one of the her previous speeches here:

The deadline for registration to the Gender Summit is on October 25th. Find more information on the official website.