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Sexuality in Focus at Gender Conference in Rovaniemi

Over 300 visitors from 34 countries participated in the 9th European Feminist Research Conference in Rovaniemi, Finland, held 3–6 June. NIKK talked to Liisa Husu, Örebro University, who attended the event.

Liisa Husu. Press photo.
 Liisa Husu. Press photo.

The large European conference on gender and feminist research was arranged by ATGENDER at the University of Lapland – the farthest north university in the entire EU zone. This was the third time the European Feminist Research Conference was held at a Nordic higher education institution since the beginning in 1991.

‘European gender research is clearly full of life,’ says Liisa Husu, professor of gender studies at Örebro University.

‘There’s great diversity among the participants, both geographically and in age. Besides researchers and professors, there are a lot of young PhD and other students here, which bodes well for the future.’

However, the economic situation in Europe did not pass unnoticed.

‘Travelling to Rovaniemi is expensive for a lot of Europeans. The previous conference was held in Budapest, which made it easier for representatives from Eastern Europe to attend,’ says Husu.

‘Sex & Capital’

The theme of the conference was ‘Sex & Capital’ and the topics included the role of feminism in the economic crisis. The word ’sex’ can have several meanings, adding breadth to the theme, says Husu.

‘So far there has been a lot of focus on sexuality, or sex trade. I would have liked to see more keynotes on the societal and economic macro issues. That’s a focus I’d like to see more of.’

On the second day of the conference, Husu presented her own research on gender inequality in academia. Even though the Nordic countries are world leaders in both gender equality and research, Nordic academic institutions are full of weaknesses when it comes to gender equality and diversity, Husu tells us.

‘The Nordic countries have worked actively with these issues for several decades but still haven’t come much further than the rest of Europe, especially if you look at the share of female professors. The resistance against gender equality in academia is very strong.’

Husu also sees a precarisation of academic positions. For example, the number of temporary and more insecure jobs has increased, and a disproportionate share of them are held by women. This reinforces the gender-biased structures, she says.

‘When I entered this research field in the 1980s, I really didn’t think these issues would last this long. It’s 2015 and I’m still talking about basically the same things. We feminists need to take action, and feminist researchers need to keep questioning the gender patterns in academia. But what’s even more important is that the unions and politicians work actively to put these issues on the political agenda.’

The political situation in Finland

Another, perhaps more unexpected, issue discussed at the conference is the current political situation in Finland. The Centre Party won the parliamentary election in April, and the centre-right government programme was presented last week.

‘Unfortunately, the Finnish government is the opposite of the Swedish, which calls itself a feminist government. In contrast, the new Finnish government’s programme holds that Finland is a gender-equal country – an attitude my colleagues and I are very critical of. The only other references to gender equality in the programme concern the integration of immigrant women in Finnish society and a focus on women and girls in development aid policy. This is very problematic and has given us good reason to discuss with foreign colleagues where Finland is headed.

The participants’ engagement in society was a common thread through the conference, according to Husu. Gender research is sometimes criticised for being too introverted, but the event showed strong evidence of widespread social engagement and that many researchers want to use their work as a driver of change. Husu feels that conferences like the one in Rovaniemi are of great value to European gender research.

‘We’re witnessing major cutbacks across European universities, and gender research is a fairly new academic discipline across the board. Institutionally, this implies a vulnerability. Because of this, European forums of this type are important, since they allow us to compare experiences, create alliances and networks as well as discuss new survival strategies.’

Updated 2 May 2020