Finland: Report Exposes Ethnic And Gender Inequality In Universities


Non-Finnish nationals account for 38.5% of doctoral students but only 9.4% of professorial staff and experience nearly twice the discrimination of their Finnish counterparts, according to a new report on the state of equality, non-discrimination and diversity among teaching and research staff at Finnish higher education institutions.

The report, based on the KOTAMO project (2021-22), focused on gender equality and ethnic diversity and comprised a literature review, a survey of 2,765 higher education personnel, interviews with personnel and workshops held with staff and funders.

It found that with only 10% of international staff in its higher education institutions, Finland lags significantly behind both Norway (with 30%) and Sweden (with 24%).

The project was funded by the Ministry of Education and Culture and implemented by Demos Helsinki; Oxford Research; Includia Leadership; Innolink, the knowledge management consultancy firm; Inkeri Tanhua (Equality Research Helsinki); Liisa Husu and Kaskas Communication Company.

Co-authored by Julia Jousilahti, Inkeri Tanhua, Juho-Matti Paavola, Leena Alanko, Amanda Kinnunen, Jonna Louvrier, Liisa Husu, Maria Levola and Jenni Kilpi, the report was published by the Ministry of Education and Culture in Helsinki on 7 November 2022.

It represents one of few official studies to be carried out on the realisation of equality in Finnish higher education institutions and one of hardly any on racial or ethnic equity.

Career advancement and discrimination

The report found that the most significant problems in ethnic equality are related to career advancement and discrimination. Respondents belonging to ethnic minorities experience their opportunities for career advancement as being much worse than their Finish counterparts.

More than one-third of respondents from ethnic minorities do not want to or do not believe they can pursue an academic career, compared to less than one-quarter of Finnish respondents, the report noted.

For tenure track positions, non-Finnish nationals accounted for 56.6% of the applicants but only 32.7% of those selected. Respondents from ethnic minorities said they found the processes to be opaque and had observed favouritism and outright discrimination more frequently than ethnic Finns in both universities of applied sciences and universities.

Nearly half of the ethnic minority respondents in both universities and universities of applied sciences reported having experienced discrimination. This is nearly twice that reported for ethnic Finnish respondents. The survey respondents indicated they had met with more discrimination, insults and threats within their higher education community than outside it.

Gender inequality

In respect of gender equity, the report found that proportionally fewer women than men reach the top of the career ladder in universities. In 2019, women accounted for more than half (57.3%) of the applicants for permanent professorial positions but only 35.3% of those selected.

Among key findings, the report found that women in both universities of applied sciences and universities reported having experienced discrimination slightly more often than men. Interestingly, women considered increasing the diversity of staff to be a considerably more important recruitment criterion than men.

Research groups led by women had a balanced gender distribution or were female-dominated significantly more often than groups led by men in all fields of science. This also applied to male-dominated fields such as engineering and science. In these fields, research groups also include more men. Likewise, research groups led by men often included more men as members.

In the KOTAMO project, a survey and research literature were used to study the higher education community’s experiences of the promotion of equality in higher education institutions and the measures used for this.

It found that despite the existence of systems to collect gender-focused statistics on higher education in Nordic countries, legislation requiring the promotion of gender equality, as well as higher education and science policies, higher education institutions still retained various practices that promote unequal treatment.

Inadequate action plans

Among the main challenges identified were: inadequate implementation of equality and non-discrimination plans, the relatively low number of women and ethnic minorities at the highest career stages in universities, non-transparent recruitment processes, poorer career development among ethnic minorities (when compared to the majority population), discrimination experienced by these minorities, and a non-inclusive working culture.

Commenting on the motivation behind the study, Atte Jääskeläinen, director general of the Ministry of Education and Culture in Finland, said: “Equality and non-discrimination … are important values that should be promoted, and they are also the way to healthy workplace communities and better research results and educational outcomes.

“That is why we wanted to produce research-based knowledge on experiences of discrimination. This gives higher education communities tools to tackle problems with determination.”

The report produced completely new information on experiences of discrimination based on ethnic background encountered in higher education institutions. “Research on ethnic equality in higher education institutions is scarce, and we do not know enough about it yet,” says Julia Jousilahti, director of the KOTAMO project consortium. “So far the debate has focused on gender equality in Finland,” she said.

“Finland and its higher education institutions are becoming increasingly international in scope. Finland desperately needs international talent, so we must be more mindful of ethnic equality in higher education institutions,” Jousilahti said.


Among the recommendations arising from the report was a call for better implementation and monitoring of equality and non-discrimination plans.

It was also recommended that there be greater national support for equality and non-discrimination efforts and that higher education institutions introduce mandatory gender equality and non-discrimination training for managers and staff members involved in recruitment.

The recommendations have been positively received by members of the academic community. Sari Lindblom, the first female rector of the University of Helsinki, told University World News she welcomed the ministry’s contribution in general.

“It is important for all universities to foster equality and inclusion in their activities and overall, in society,” she said.

Referring to her university, she said: “We are advanced inequality; 50% of our staff members are women and they are accordingly well represented in top leadership positions. In Helsinki, salaries do not depend on sex or gender.

“At the same time, there is still work to be done. In our university’s strategic plan for 2021-2030 … we are committed to promoting diversity and inclusion of all our community members with many new initiatives.

“The year 2021 was thematically devoted to antiracism, and year 2022 to disability inclusion.”

“We work together with our staff representatives, student union and associations called Students of Colour. We need to guarantee the safety and well-being of all of our community members and expect this report to be most helpful now as we are updating our strategy and defining implementation measures for the coming years,” Lindblom said.

University World News


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