Portrait: Pioneer who knows resistance

2017-04-12 12:26

She sees it as important to share the research on the gender power structure also outside the academic world. To her, knowledge is power and something that needs to spread to the masses. At the present, she is a professor of gender, organisation and management at the Royal Institute of Technology’s Department of Industrial Economics and Manage-ment, and on 1 January 2017 she became one of the Institute’s four vice presidents. Meet Anna Wahl, a pioneer in Swedish gender research.

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– The challenge of doing gender equality work in organisations tends to be that men and women react differently. Women do not want to be associated with weakness and are assigned traits, while men feel accused. But it’s about structures and not what goes on at the individual level. If I meet a female boss who says she has never been discriminated, I tell her it’s about what it looks like in her environment and ask, “What do your female staff say, what do the salary statistics look like?”, says Anna Wahl.

Since the early 1980s, Anna Wahl has been a forerunner in the Swedish gender research. Her doctoral thesis Könsstrukturer i organisationer [gender structures in organisations] was published in 1992 and dealt with power and structures in various areas. It was the first Swedish doctoral thesis with a gender theory perspective ever presented in the area of business administration. Research topics that revolve around gender, power, leadership and change processes in organisations continue to be her main areas of interest.

– By pointing out that the problem lies in the structures and not with individuals, I usually get most people on board, both men and women. Then further down the road, there is hopefully a chance to look at how the individual can act to contribute to the change, she says.

Important that women work together

Anna Wahl sees cooperation and finding points of contact as important strategy for feminisms. Despite their many differences, sometimes feminists should join forces around certain issues. There are some universal conditions that all women share and can agree on, she says.

– The fact that women’s power positions in society are increasing indicate that there is room for heterogeneity among them. As a feminist scholar, being taken seriously, being respected and having an influence are fundamental conditions that conditions benefit all women regardless of what they stand for.

Anna Wahl often raises the allocation of time from a gender perspective as an important issue. Today, women are pressured to be equal at the same time as they have the primary responsibility for their home and children.

Gender equality becomes an additional goal to chase since society considers it important to be gender equal both at home and in the workplace.

– Traditionally, and unfortunately to this day, women carry a greater responsibility than men for household work. This puts them under tight schedule. Many young women feel pressured to be perfect and achieve a great deal before they turn 30. Gender equality becomes an additional goal to chase since society considers it important to be gender equal both at home and in the workplace. I think many women feel ashamed about not being gender equal, but being gender equal is not an individual trait but is rather related to the structures we are entangled in.

Anna Wahl is a professor and a vice president, but her path hasn’t been perfectly straight as she has faced a fair share of adversity. She also sees it as important to build networks with other feminist scholars as a way to continue the fight, as well as to set boundaries for her availability and private time.

– I have made sure not to be alone. It’s difficult to work with these issues without a network that enables me to talk to others about the resistance that exists and that must be overcome. I have also tried to distance myself and set boundaries, physically and in time, by not being available all the time. The gender equality problems seem endless and I cannot solve everything, she says.

However, there is something shameful about turning things down, especially as a woman.

– It’s a good idea to think in sustainability terms, to think about what you need to do in order to last for a long time. But it is also important to create fun and enjoyable projects so that not everything takes a lot out of you. Two things motivate me and keep me going. First, I lecture a lot, which enables me to test my research and my ideas, how they are received and whether anyone sees any value in them. It gives me a lot of energy when people say my work has changed their lives and that I have helped them think in a different way. The second thing is to ensure that I evolve together with other feminist scholars, who have thought a lot about the same things I have.

Uniform School of Economics

When Anna Wahl began studying business administration and economics in the late 1970s at Stockholm School of Economics, she felt like a guest in a male-dominated environment. She spent some time in New York, and something happened there.

The alienation made me understand the importance of being able to recognise the worldview conveyed to you when you’re in school.

– I had gotten into the Stockholm School of Economics and could look at the others from an outsider’s perspective, but wasn’t one of them. It was like living in a world in which there were no women. The alienation made me understand the importance of being able to recognise the worldview conveyed to you when you’re in school. I understood this when I found all the feminist literature in New York, that it is important to feel included in the description of the world. I realised it wasn’t me who was wrong. It was at the same time a bit difficult because the gender research still hadn’t really taken off in Sweden. It was tiring to see how much remained to be done. But it was also a great feeling to know that this will grow and become something big.

Overall, she found the Stockholm School of Economics to be very uniform, not only in terms of gender but also with respect to class and ethnicity.

– There was a strong culture of middle and upper class and it was very ethnically Swedish. However, I believe that the School has been working actively to widen the access and participation, and that it looks different today.

Campaign against feminism

In the early 2000s, the Social-Democratic Swedish government asked Anna Wahl to lead an inquiry about women in senior positions in the private sector. The mission was to explore the gender balance in large companies and the ways in which change was carried out. The investigation resulted in an official report titled Male Dominance in Transition. On Management Teams and Boards (SOU 2003:16). The report was interpreted as a step in preparing a gender quota proposal, and the Deputy Prime Minister and former Minister of Gender Equality Margareta Winberg declared it as a feasible idea. Although the inquiry was not about gender quotas, Anna Wahl faced some major opposition. For instance, iand Susanna Popova wrote the book Elitfeministerna [elite feminists] with funding from the Axel and Margaret Ax:son Johnson Foundation. In the book, Anna Wahl’s research was described as unreliable, and feminism was compared to Nazism. The School of Economics gave in to the campaign instead of supporting its researchers.

It was almost unbearable in 2003–2004.

– It was almost unbearable in 2003–2004. Yet, being a researcher, who has lectured in all sorts of organisations, has greatly benefitted me . It has given me the confidence that the things I say are not totally crazy since I have exposed my ideas to people in all kinds of contexts. I have received a lot of feedback from people who have said they recognise themselves in my research and find it useful. I didn’t perceive that the journalists were after me, though. Rather, the pressure came from somewhere else. That helped. I knew I had been thorough in my research, both in academia, where you are scrutinised through seminars and in other ways, but also in all kinds of educational contexts.

Despite all, Anna Wahl does not consider her time at the Stockholm School of Economics as a dark chapter in her life, although she sees many relative advantages in working for her current employer, the Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm (KTH).

– I had many good years at the School but I think it’s a good idea to move around. Here at KTH, I like that so many people have been interested in my knowledge. I have also been used internally in various courses and programmes.

Vice President responsible for equality and values

Since the beginning of January, she has also served as the vice president responsible for equality and values at KTH. This implies an intensification of the already initiated work related to the Gender Mainstreaming in Academia (GMA) project, commissioned by the Swedish government, which is coordinated by the Swedish Secretariat for Gender Research. In this role, her main responsibility is to ensure effective gender mainstreaming at KTH.

– Gender mainstreaming is the tool I use in my role as vice president. A plan needs to be implemented, and that’s a task that everybody in the organisation must be involved in.

Anna Wahl believes that the view of gender research has partly changed since she entered the field, but that it also depends on the area of specialisation, institution and people’s private intentions.

–I think it matters what area people study and how closely connected the subject is to society, policy and practical issues. But gender research is more established at universities today. The knowledge is needed in a variety of areas, like in government agencies and at universities.

Anna Wahl is currently working on two new books. First, an update of the book Det ordnar sig [It’ll work out], which is an introduction to the field of organisation and gender. The book was first published in 2001, was revised in 2011, and is now being updated again in order to remain relevant for another 5–10 years. It is an important work since the book is used in many gender courses across the country and in management trainings. The second book describes three change projects that she has co-headed at KTH.

– It’s very much a book about methods for change. We have worked in many different ways, and nothing is right or wrong. However, it is important to be aware of why you do something in a certain way. You could say it’s a method book that focuses on the steps after the gender equality plans. I’m writing it with Charlotte Holgersson and really want to finish it before the end of the year.

Important to have a life

Before we finish, I ask her if she ever feels weak and what she does to keep going.

– I think it’s important to have a life. I have a family, a house on the island of Gotland and like to hike and listen to music. I dance, go to the theatre and often try to watch films. Nothing unusual about that, but it’s important to keep a distance to my work so that I don’t get stuck in my bubble. Although I work a lot, it is important not to work at all sometimes and be able to do other things.

Author Sara Abdollahi, translated by Debbie Axlid
Photo KTH
Anna Wahl chooses:

Three favourite authors: Kerstin Ekman, Inger Alfvén and Kristina Sandberg

Three important full theorists: Rosabeth Moss Kantr, Harriet Holter and Gerd Lindgren

Three favourite films: Sheer Madness (Margarete Von Trotta), Hotell (Lisa Langseth), The Big Lebowski (Joel and Ethan Coen)

Related material

GMA: Gender Mainstreaming in Academia

The Swedish Secretariat for Gender Research has been commissioned by the Swedish government to support higher education institutions in their gender mainstreaming efforts.

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