Is constitutional law for men only? Interviewing docent, university lecturer Liisa Nieminen

Constitutional law docent and lecturer Liisa Nieminen has been a long-standing and influential researcher and member of the faculty of law, who teaches constitutional law, health and biomedical law as well as social welfare law at the moment. Furthermore, she is the recipient of the 2020 Maikki Friberg Equality Award.

1. Were you the first woman defending her doctoral thesis in constitutional law in Finland? How did you commence your career?

I defended my PhD thesis in 1990 on the ‘emancipatory possibilities of fundamental rights?’. It was the first research project, which pointed out the strongly gendered dimensions of fundamental rights. At the time, there was very little supervision provided and a researcher was largely left alone with her work. Yet, I was always used to managing on my own. Though I was not the first high school graduate or even doctor in my family, coming from a small country school, it was not common to continue in a faculty of law, medicine or at a university of technology. Resilience and being used to hard work helped me. Though many structural changes have been made, many doctoral candidates are still largely left alone with their research.

In the same year that I defended, I published a book on children’s fundamental rights. Critics held that I had completely misunderstood everything and argued that children could not have fundamental rights. They were influenced by professor Ilmari Melander’s PhD entitled ‘On Children’s care’, according to which children were to be placed on the same level as objects. For its time, my book thus was very radical, but today everyone is ready to endorse my book’s arguments.

Afterwards, I went on to publish more than ten book on different topics, mostly touching on fundamental and human rights. Aside from the University of Helsinki, I have also worked at the University of Lapland. I was an Academy of Finland researcher/academy researcher for eight years. In addition, I have worked for three years as an ombudsman for the Finnish Parliament and for two years as the secretary general of the research ethics advisory board appointed by the Ministry of Justice.

During my time as a student, constitutional law was the most male dominated field of legal studies, which was predominantly of interest to politically active students. Some well-known public figures who did their thesis on constitutional law were for example Ben Zyskowicz, Anneli Jäätteenmäki, Johannes Koskinen and a little later Tuija Brax and Antti Rinne among others.

Liisa Nieminen at her promotion ceremony

When I was a student, there were hardly any female teachers. I cannot recall attending a female teacher’s lecture with the exception of Irma Lager’s course on distraint law. Virpi Tiili was one of the teachers giving the private law basic course and Pirkko-Liisa Arolta (later Haarmann) approved my commercial law exam. Then, only few lectures were given. The only excellent lecturer I can recall is Pekka Koskinen.

2. Which other women have defended their PhD’s at the University of Helsinki in constitutional law?

In constitutional law there are only very few. Follwing me, the first female PhD was Any Mutanen, who transferred from the University of Eastern Finland to Helsinki to work as an assistant in constitutional law. She defended in 2015. In addition, Satu Heikkilä in 2016 (”From Final Judgement to Final Resolution, Effectiveness of the Execution of the European Court of Human Rights in Finland”) and Lia Heasman in 2018 (”The Corporate Responsibility to Protect Human Rights) defended their Phds, though their work is more human rights rather than constitutional law oriented. Drawing the line is difficult and for example, Minna Hanninen’s Phd on patenting of inventions based on human originating material from a fundamental and human rights’ perspective (2020) could be seen as a constitutional law work as it conducts an in-depth fundamental and human rights analysis. Yet, it was considered as health and biomedical law research.

3. What kind of a field of law has constitutional law been for female researchers in Finland? Has the situation changed during your career?

I was the first female assistant. The former professor Paavor Kastari is well known for having publicly recommended to women to content themselves with a Bachelor of Laws. In the 1960s, he had for example the possibility to employ Riitta-Leena Paunio (nee Heiskanen) as an assistant, who later became the first female ombudsman. However, Kastari could not hire her ‘because of her gender’ but chose a male assistant. I have heard this story both from Paunio as well as the hired male candidate. Neither of them defended.

Generally, few have defended in constitutional law. Prior to my defence the previous defence in constitutional law was Ilkka Saraviita’s in 1971. In Turku, the first PhD in the field of constitutional law was completed only in 2000. In the University of Lapland, the faculty was founded only in 1979, and in the University of Eastern Finland, the right to complete a Master of Laws degree was only granted in the early 2000s.

Later in the 1990s, when there were more doctoral candidates in the field, I noticed the field’s male dominance and inward focus. Even men, who don’t belong to the same friend’s group have trouble accessing the inner circle. These same people also choose the field’s professors. There has been talk of the bias of experts, but little discussion on the biases in law. The recommendations written into the equality plan regarding the gender division of experts have also not been implemented.

4. In the discussions of late, critical comments have been made from different perspectives regarding the power of constitutional law experts in the (Finnish Parliament’s) constitutional law committee. According to this Helsingin Sanomat newspaper article of 8 December 2020, the constitutional law committee’s perspective on expertise is simplified in gender terms:

“The constitutional law committee has heard the leading experts in Finland. The committee has heard among others the former attorney general Jaakko Jonkaa, criminal law professor emeritus Pekka Viljanen as well as constitutional emeritus professor Mikael Hidén, criminal law professors Sakari Melander and Kimmo Nuotio as well as constitutional law professors Veli-Pekka Viljanen and Tuomas Ojanen. In addition, the committee has heard assistant attorney general Jukka Rappe and received a statement from the Parliament’s ombudsman Petri Jääskeläinen.”

How would you comment on the discussion of the hearings?

Traditionally constitutional law professors and possibly other experts go to the constitutional law committee as experts. Previously, it was still in reasonable proportions, but nowadays it can be up to a hundred times during a parliament’s period. Is this the central role of a university teacher? Though interactions with society are emphasised, this is not enough. Few manage to research and teach full time in addition to such a secondary occupation. Personally, I focus on research and teaching and do not use a tally sheet to keep track of hearings (compare to Portinvartija, Suomen Kuvalehti 32/2018).

Hearings are not completely male-dominated anymore as for example in EU-law hearings female experts are also heard. Yet, in order for an expert’s word to count, the expert needs to be heard often. Otherwise, one notices that one speaks to empty rooms as most committee members focus on completely different things or even leave the room.

Interview conducted by Immi Tallgren.

How has the staff and student composition of the Faculty of Law changed in the last 45 years professor Heikki Halila?

Professor (emeritus) Heikki Halila, you have had a long career in the Faculty of Law (employed 15.9.1975-31.5.2020), first as a student advisor and project planner for study programme reforms as well as in different teaching positions, and lastly as a professor of private law. You are interested in the history of the Finnish bar and law, and have published many articles on these topics in the Lakimies- and Lakimiesuutiset-journals.

How has the staff composition of the Faculty changed during your career?

In 1975, six women completed their doctorate in law and the only female professor of law in Finland was employed in our Faculty. Now, out of 31 professors in the Faculty nine are women, and the share of women in other teaching positions is even higher. Of the new doctoral candidates the majority is already female. In 1975, on the fifth floor of Porthania, close to my office, was the office of American professor Wheeler. She was a visiting researcher at the Faculty for a few months. Nigerian Maurice Andem, whom I met during my studies, was at the time completing his doctorate and defended in 1979. They were the only foreigners at the time and few of the Faculty staff had spent long periods abroad. Many had of course contacts abroad. Today, particularly on the 6th floor you can often hear more English conversations than Finnish. Furthermore, the majority of researchers is interested in more than just law studies.

Have you followed the changes in the numbers of completed Phds and their publication language?

In the Lakimies journal, we have since 1946 reported on the major changes of every decade in terms of Finnish doctors of law, who are alive. Since 1986, the publication of this report has been my responsibility. The last one was completed with Ville Pönkä. These reports are a fascinating read. In the years 2006-2015 225 persons completed their doctorates, on average 22,5 per year. In the period 1966-1975 only 32 doctorates were completed, 3,2 per year. The numbers of persons alive with a doctorate degree has risen significantly from 90 in 1975 to 495 in 2015. At present the number is close to 600. Many factors contribute to this major increase. The conditions for research have improved and the requirement for a completed licenciate degree has been removed. More and more continue to work on the same topic as in their master thesis and the best master degrees are of a very high quality – much better than in the past, when there were no advanced special project courses available. At the same time, the requirements for a doctoral degree have decreased as part of the performance based management system. Moreover, also the language of doctorates has changed. Today, approximately half of all doctoral thesis are written in another language than Finnish or Swedish. Partially this is due to the increase in foreign students. To compare, in 1966-1975 only two doctorates were not written in Finnish or Swedish, but in German.

How has the profile of doctoral candidates and teaching staff changed in the Faculty, particularly from a gender perspective?

The biggest change has certainly been that women have increasingly applied for doctoral studies despite the gender prejudices that were prevalent in the legal profession in the last decades. As a consequence, women have started to fill a wide variety of roles within the legal profession. For a long time, there had been no women’s or men’s legal tasks.
Subsequently, women have also pursued doctoral studies and different tasks within the Faculty. Slowly, also the gender difference within the research communities has slowly faded. Yet, in 2016, in the board meeting of the Lakimies-journal we noticed that corporate law was a discipline that was still mainly in the hands of male doctoral researchers, whereas law and gender research was female dominated. A female researcher commented during the faculty days at the beginning of the last decade that women were well suited for lecturer positions; therefore, the amount of lecturer positions should be increased at the expense of professorial positions. I disagree with this statement. Women are equally well-suited for all of the teaching positions in the Faculty.

Lastly, I’d like to ask, who were the most influential law teachers and role models during your studies?

The Faculty has always had excellent teaching staff – though not necessarily known for their pedagogical abilities. The educational technology has of course developed significantly, however, the most influential factor is what a researcher can pass on to her students and post-grads from their personal experiences particular in seminars.

From the beginning of my studies, I can still remember Paavo Kastari’s compelling constitutional law lectures, where he always told many stories about things that you could not learn from a book, such as his interactions with (former Finnish president) Urho Kekkonen. For me, an important figure was Matti Ylöstalo, whose bright personality, knowledgeability, and depth of mind made a long-lasting impression. He supervised my theses from the master’s level on. If I have to mention a role model, he certainly was one (for a more detailed analysis of Ylöstalo see DL 2017, pp.152-163). I completed a minor with Simo Zittling, whom I knew since my childhood as a good friend of my father’s. As an adult, it was interesting to familiarise myself with his writings, teaching and get to know him as a well-informed person. There were of course many impressive professors around. Professor of jurisprudence Kaarle Makkonen nurtured our minds. His PhD thesis was a must-read for post-graduate students and he guided us with a socratic method whenever engaging with us in the corridors of Porthania.

Interview conducted by Immi Tallgren