CSTT and Gender #4: Stories from Real Life

by Anneli Aejmelaeus

When I finished my doctorate 35 years ago, I was the ninth female doctor of theology in Finland ever, and the second in Biblical studies, the first one having been my colleague Raija Sollamo. You can imagine that the field was heavily male-dominated. Since then the situation has radically changed, the male doctors being already in the minority among the most recently finished doctorates in the field of theology.

My teacher Ilmari Soisalon-Soininen – whose memory and 100th birthday we just celebrated with an international symposium at the beginning of June – was the first professor in Biblical studies to supervise female doctoral students (first Raija and then me). The significance of this fact never occurred to me before, because I did not expect that there would be any difference between male and female students. My teacher certainly did not make any such difference. All that mattered for him was thorough knowledge of the Biblical languages and the quality of research done by his students. He was actually very strict and could be very straightforward in his comments, but he was never partial or unfair.

In fact, Finland is a pioneer in gender equality, opening to women the rights to vote and to stand for election already in 1906. The Constitution of Finland also includes the prohibition against discrimination based on gender, and specific legislation, the Act on Equality between Women and Men, was passed in 1987. When I entered my studies at the University of Helsinki, there were no longer any official barriers for women to proceed in academia. The final obstacle for female theologians was removed when female ordination was accepted in 1986, and the first ordinations took place in 1988, when I was also ordained among the first women in Finland.

So, I believed that we had perfect gender equality in Finland. I did not experience any problems and did not see that, in spite of the general progress in society, there was – and still is – what is called hidden discrimination. Hidden discrimination can be encountered in different areas: in social interaction in the working environment, in the relationship between superior and subordinate personnel, in the division of labour at work, in recruitment, and in academia especially in all kinds of assessment procedures connected with applications of research funding and positions. I will comment on the last-mentioned later in this paper. The problem with hidden discrimination is that it is hidden – it is hidden in motives behind decisions and in actions that on the surface appear to be totally appropriate.

I did not know anything about this, until around the time when I was applying for a docentship (comparable to Privatdozentur). This is the phase in which a woman in academia (or a young scholar in general) might become a threat to someone, when she is about to become a colleague. What happened was that some of the professors of the faculty wanted to limit my competence as docent (venia legendi) to Septuagint studies instead of Old Testament studies. It sounds like a small thing, but it was symptomatic. No fresh doctor or docent has a very wide competence, but it is easier to belittle the competence of a woman. Nevertheless, I was granted docentship in Old Testament studies, but the Faculty had to decide it by voting. This story had a happy end, but I soon had other experiences which did not always end happily.

I once exchanged with a prominent international female colleague about experiences with male colleagues, and it was our common experience that it was not so difficult to get along with the older generation of male colleagues. As many of them did not know how to deal with female colleagues, they just ignored us and let us mind our own business. When the old gentlemen retired, the next generation of male colleagues was more difficult, because they were already used to having women around and competing with them. They did not know what to do either with a female colleague who had opinions of her own, even different opinions from theirs, but they did not hesitate to show their superiority and to try to downplay the work of their female colleagues.

I have experienced many different generations of male colleagues, but I must say that I was able to work under fairly ideal circumstances, not only at the beginning, but also during the final phase of my career. I have had great cooperation with my colleagues in Helsinki and I have felt myself totally comfortable with them and respected by them.

However, I do not think that it is a question of a change that comes with time, so that gender equality gets more and more perfect with time. The working climate of a Faculty or a Department depends to a great deal on the kinds of individuals who work and especially have leading positions there. It is unfortunate that highly creative people – “geniuses” – are often difficult people, even with narcissistic personalities. If such persons are allowed to determine the working climate, both male and female colleagues suffer from it. Anything can happen to those who do not belong to the favourites of the narcissistic boss. But it seldom happens openly, which makes it difficult to cope with. The only thing you can do – is to run away!

A good working climate – including gender equality – does not come about by itself. It takes people who have become conscious of the problems, who have created a sensitivity to other people’s well-being, and find it important to nurture good practices and a healthy working climate. In the CSTT – thanks to Martti Nissinen – we have tried from the very beginning to create a tradition of good practices and we also want to be open to criticism in order to further develop this tradition.

Nevertheless, more or less hidden discrimination does exist in academia – out there in the wide world, but also in Finland. There is a book about it: Liisa Husu, Sexism, Support and Survival in Academia: Academic Women and Hidden Discrimination in Finland (Social Psychological Studies 6, Helsinki 2001). As I said, hidden discrimination is difficult to deal with, because it is difficult to pinpoint it. This is especially the case when it is a question of applying for academic positions or research grants when the decision is based on expert statements. The reasons given are always those acceptable in academia, and it may be extremely difficult or impossible to show that some other motives played a role in the decision.

I have been assessed numerous times during my academic life and would like to tell a few instructive stories that might work as warning examples to those of us who write or read expert assessments, and for those who will be again and again assessed in the future, it is good to be prepared for the worst! We would like to think that expert assessments are perfectly correct and truthful. But even experts are only human beings – sometimes extremely human.

I have a long history of applying for professorships: I have applied seven times and been the second choice every time but once. I also applied for an Academy professorship (which is a research professorship granted by the Academy of Finland) a dozen times, ending up on the short list about five times but never reaching the goal. As a result, I have a career of 25 years as a professor behind me, so that I don’t actually have anything to complain about. But that is not the point.

The first time, in the 1980’s, when I applied for a professorship and ended up the second choice, that was a great success. I was a fresh docent, the youngest of the five applicants, and the two international experts placed me second after Timo Veijola, who was self-evidently the one to be chosen, because he was so much ahead of us all. You can imagine that I was happy with the second position, but of course the other applicants were not.

The second time I applied for a professorship, I ended up the second after my husband. I could not complain this time either. We kept it in the family!

The third time I ended up the second choice on the list of the Faculty, I nevertheless got the job: that was in Göttingen in 1990. The reason why I am sharing this is the interesting fact that one of the experts for Göttingen was the same reviewer who had written the assessment for Helsinki. This particular expert wrote very nicely about me for Helsinki; he wrote that if it were in his power, he would give me a Septuagint professorship. A few years later, when I had applied for a Septuagint professorship in Göttingen, the same expert placed before me another person who was actually no Septuagint scholar at all. This time he did not write nicely about me. He wrote that I had done no independent scholarly work at all; my doctoral thesis had been so closely supervised by my teacher that I could not be regarded as an independent scholar.

Obviously, something had happened between the two assessments. No doubt, the expert had received some disinformation. The phenomenon is not new! I have also heard the same allegation from other directions. Of course, I followed in the footsteps of my teacher – in the sense that all doctoral students do – but I applied his methodology independently to new areas of study. In fact, most of the time when I prepared my dissertation I lived far from Helsinki, so that the opportunities to discuss my work with my supervisor were few.

Another thing that happened is that the Faculty had obviously made their choice before asking for the expert reviews, and the reviews were supposed to support the decision of the Faculty. As far as I know, this is normal practice in Germany. All in all, I do not know why I was placed second and I do not know why I was appointed by the ministry. Was the reason for both that I was a woman or that I was a foreigner or something else? Equally difficult to understand is that this appointment from the second position was used against me later. Nevertheless, since I had been serious about my application (and at that time did not know about the assessments), I accepted the call and spent in Göttingen – teaching and doing Septuagint research – all together twelve years that were not easy but most significant for my career.

The general understanding is that decisions about academic recruitments are made based on academic merits alone. Nevertheless, there are situations where a Faculty definitely wants to have a certain person, whatever their merits. The regulations are different in different countries, so that the freedom of the Faculty to recruit whom they want may be legitimate in some places. Anyhow, the decisions are officially backed up by corresponding assessments. It happened to me again later a couple of times in a few other universities that I was placed second after a clearly younger male colleague whom the Faculty obviously wanted to have, and the reviews were written – or at least interpreted – correspondingly.

In most cases the assessments are written in a favourable tone, the difference being seen just in the degree of praise or in the emphasis on certain aspects of competence. It has however happened to me a few times that the so-called expert assessment has been totally polemical, destructive and evil. In Finland, the candidates have in some cases a chance to disqualify an expert in advance, however it is difficult to anticipate a polemical assessment. The reviewers are also expected to disqualify themselves, but this mostly happens in cases in which the review could be expected to be too favourable and not if the opposite is the case. When you get a polemical assessment about yourself, there is not much you can do. It is hard to prove that the assessment is wrong. Complaining about the decision normally does not help. The female candidate just spoils her reputation by complaining.

As for the Academy professorship, I kept applying in a time when it was often said that there were not enough women among the Academy professors. Most of the time, there was even a woman representing theology on the committee. I was shortlisted four or five times, and had some great reviews by world-famous scholars – although also a polemical one. Twice there was a male colleague from the Faculty of Theology applying simultaneously for the third term, and both times they were granted the third terms (adding up to 15 years in Academy professorship). During those years, I was granted project funding by the same committee twice, so that I could build my research team, which was great, but I suffered from lack of time for my own research. It would have been much more effective to be able to work full-time with the research group. Was there discrimination, and if so, for what reason? Hard to say.

With these stories, I do not want to discourage, but rather wish to encourage those among us who will be writing many applications and getting assessments about themselves in the near future. It is not a catastrophe if you need to apply a few times more. And you should not despair if you get bad reviews – although it does hurt. All unfairness, bullying, and discrimination hurts. What you should do, if anything of that sort happens to you, is that you should find a person with whom you can talk about it confidentially, someone who can go through the assessments with you, or whatever is the problem, and tell you what is right and what is wrong and what you can learn about it.

But before anything happens, there are certain prophylactic measures that you can take. The first thing to prevent bad reviews is to do good work. Do not let half-finished work out of your hands. It also helps to keep up the motivation if you find pleasure in your research and do it because you have great interest in it.  Another thing to do is that you should network, so that your future reviewers know you and the good work you do. But this is something the young people today know a great deal better than I did when I was at the beginning.

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