Different Routes


Why is taking care of another person less valuable than taking care of a machine? Feminist researchers challenge the old ‘self-evident facts’ of economics


Different Routes


Why is taking care of another person less valuable than taking care of a machine? Feminist researchers challenge the old ‘self-evident facts’ of economics

Feminist research is often considered ideological and therefore unsuitable or wrong. In researcher Hanna Ylöstalo’s view, traditional economics, in which capitalism is taken for granted, is just as ideological; people just don’t say it out loud. In journalist Virpi Salmi’s article, Ylöstalo and other researchers in the Femtie project explain how they combine research and activism.

What exactly is feminist economics? Or, in a more populist Twitter style: do we have to talk about feminism in economics too?

Hanna Ylöstalo laughs. She is an experienced gender researcher, a senior lecturer in sociology at the University of Turku and the initiator and leader of the Femtie project. This year marks her 20th anniversary as a researcher.

She is used to the fact that the word feminist makes many people’s hackles rise in an instant. Once the f-word has been uttered, people no longer pay attention to what is being said, but instead seize on who is saying it.

“Especially in the early stages, we received a lot of suspicion, disrespect and comments that feminist economics is something akin to unicorn care,” says Ylöstalo.

Such suspicions stem from the fact that discourse about economics in society is reserved for a limited and specialised group of experts, even though in reality economics touches all aspects of everyone’s lives.

That is why we must talk about feminism in economics. In a democracy, money and power need to be critically examined.

It is often taken as a given that wealth accumulates for certain kinds of men, that wages in the care sector are lower and that women’s careers naturally suffer from starting a family, while men benefit from it. Feminist researchers question the ‘naturalness’ of such viewpoints.

They ask, why does it have to be like this and could it be different? Why are care and emotional labour, which are considered typical for women, less valuable than ‘taking care’ of a machine?

One of the best-known questions raised by researchers in the field is, why is unpaid care and domestic work that is carried out at home, usually by women, not included in the gross domestic product.

Feminist economists have argued that care should be seen in state budgets as an investment instead of an expense. They have also highlighted how much female-dominated care sectors actually support and prop up male-dominated industries. How societies actually rely on the assumption that care work is carried out with insufficient resources.

Ylöstalo has grown a rather thick skin when it comes to the feedback and trolling gender researchers receive, because there is no shortage of it on online platforms and social media.

In recent years, however, Ylöstalo has met ‘surprisingly little’ harassment.

“Not long ago, I received feedback, albeit in a matter-of-fact tone, asking why I don’t study men. I bet educational sociologists aren’t asked why they don’t study something else.”

According to the neoclassical economics prevailing today, human beings seek to maximise their own best interests through all their actions.

Passionate about research and feminism

The Femtie project brings together Ylöstalo’s research passions: economics, politics and feminism. Actually, it also includes a fourth passion of hers, namely social activism, which the researchers in the project both engage in and study.

“My work always involves the goal of promoting equality in society through my research.”

That is why Ylöstalo is also a feminist activist, which means that she actively takes a feminist stand on current affairs. She is not ‘neutral’, as some assume researchers to be.

Prejudice against feminist research probably also stems from the fact that it does not hide its values. While one of the tasks of feminist economics is to use knowledge to make the values of politics and economics visible, it also brings its own values to the fore. Nowadays, people tend to think that the economy is somehow value-free, whereas feminism represents an ideology. From the point of view of research, however, this is not the case.

“All research has a perspective. This is not a weakness of scientific knowledge, but one of its characteristics. Feminist economic and political research is not about a lack of objectivity, but about strong objectivity. This means that it highlights its perspective,” Ylöstalo explains.

Nor is economics free from ideologies and perspectives.

“Research critical of capitalism is considered ideological, but so is research that considers capitalism a self-evident fact. Economics always includes a view of humans, although it is not expressed out loud.”

According to the neoclassical economics prevailing today, human beings are rational pursuers of their own best interests, who, through all their actions, seek to maximise these interests. Many of the ideas familiar in modern society are based on this approach. Such as the idea that the unemployed have to be forced to look for work, because otherwise they will simply sit around enjoying their unemployment benefit. Or the idea that business managers have to be paid astronomical salaries, because otherwise they find work elsewhere.

The simple view of humans prevalent in economics has been increasingly criticised in recent years. Many people have pointed out that humans are not just interested in running after money. Economics has also completely ignored the environment.

At the same time, the economy has become the key element and content of politics. The Ministry of Finance is the most powerful of the ministries, and ‘what cuts are going to be made’ is the most common question that parties are asked in the run-up to elections.

“What is more central than economic policy, which brings all politics together?” Ylöstalo asks.

Politics affect different groups of people differently. That is why, in Ylöstalo’s opinion, the economy and economic policies should be studied from as diverse perspectives as possible.

Retreat in a red timber house

The timber house in Tampere is red. There is an apple tree in the garden that has dropped its leaves, but a few apples are still hanging on.

In this Airbnb apartment in Nekala, a team of researchers from the Femtie project have gathered for a half-yearly writing retreat. There are three researchers in addition to Ylöstalo: Emma Lamberg from the University of Turku and Heini Kinnunen and  Inna Perheentupa from the University of Helsinki.

This is not the first time the researchers have gathered for a similar purpose for a period of almost a week, most recently at a rental cottage in Lempäälä.

“It was mushroom season, and we picked mushrooms while working and fried them for dinner until the cottage windows were foggy. When I went home, my husband said I smelled like mushrooms,” Ylöstalo laughs.

This time, their intention is, among other things, to start writing a book.

Ylöstalo became interested in earnest about feminist economic influencing in 2015, when the government programme of Juha Sipilä’s (Centre Party) government was published. It was called ‘Finland, a land of solutions’ and was the first government programme in 20 years in which the government made no commitment to promoting equality. It merely stated that ‘women and men are equal’.

“There were many expenditure cuts, but no equality goals at all. It looked quite dramatic to a researcher of gender equality policy,” Ylöstalo recalls.

At the same time, Europe was going through worrying times in terms of equality. In Eastern Europe, the anti-gender movement – which involves groups often classified as ultra-conservative seeking to undermine the rights of women and sexual minorities – was gaining popularity. Xenophobia and racism were also evident in Finland. Ylöstalo decided to take action. Together with her colleague Anna Elomäki, she carried out a preliminary gender impact assessment of the government programme which received a lot of publicity. On its basis, a petition was created, which was signed by the cream of the country’s academic world: 85 professors, rectors and research directors. The newspaper Helsingin Sanomat, among others, reported the following: “Dozens of professors are fiercely critical of the government: Women end up paying for the savings.”

The petition brought a feminist perspective to the Finnish economic debate, and it has remained there ever since, sometimes more and sometimes less prominent.

In 2017, Ylöstalo and her colleagues Anna Elomäki, Johanna Kantola and Anu Koivunen brought the well-known British representatives of feminist economics, Diane Elson and Jerome de Henau, to Finland in connection with the Tasa-arvovaje (Gender Gap) project. Elson and de Henau spoke, for example, at a seminar organised by the VATT Institute for Economic Research. They also explained the fundamentals of feminist economics in various media.

According to Ylöstalo, this is exactly how science and research should be.

“As a researcher, I don’t just want to produce solutions to problems defined by others. I think a researcher should also be able to ask questions without necessarily offering answers.”

Such a question might be, for example, what kind of gender impact does the state budget have. 

Besides economic wizards, others must be able to participate in discussions about the economy, Ylöstalo says.

Economic debate for everyone, not just the elite      

The writing retreat was Ylöstalo’s idea. When researchers from two different universities and three cities come together, they generate thoughts and create texts in a completely different way, because they can bounce ideas off each other.

“I also believe in the power of a change of scenery for writing,” Emma Lamberg says.

She met Hanna Ylöstalo when the latter came to work at the University of Turku three years ago. Heini Kinnunen, on the other hand, was writing her dissertation at the University of Helsinki, with Ylöstalo’s friend and colleague Anna Elomäki as her supervisor.

“I took it as a huge sign of trust that you included me in this project,” Kinnunen tells Ylöstalo.

This is one way a group of researchers can come together. Each also has their own specialisation, which adds new perspectives to the project.

“Heini and Emma bring the approach of cultural studies and the study of public discourse to the project, while Inna has studied feminist activism. I myself am interested in the economy as a system,” says Ylöstalo.

None of them has a background in economics, but Ylöstalo emphasises that it is not just economists who can study economics.

“You can read about it and delve deep into it. The economy is such a central issue that it must be possible for others too, besides economic wizards, to participate in discussion about it.”

By economic wizards, she means ‘gatekeepers of the economy’. People who are invited to public economic debates.

“Gatekeepers are mainly people who swear by neoclassical economics.”

That is not to say that feminist researchers are looking to march into the economic arena, scrap old models and rethink everything. The aim is to bring more perspectives to economics alongside the prevailing one and to demonstrate that economics is connected to people’s lives and affects the world in many ways other than those proposed by neoclassical economics.

“This is done by broadening the definition of the economy from monetary economy to unpaid work as well, and by studying the power relations in the economy, as well as looking at the economy as a social and cultural system. Neoclassical economics is an important perspective, but understanding the economy also requires perspectives from other disciplines,” says Ylöstalo.

One of the goals of the Femtie project is to consider how to think about the economy in a different way. In other words, not just in the way the majority of economists and the state officials of the Ministry of Finance do, but in a broader and more creative way.

The market economy likes to make the most of feminism when it is a popular topic and peddle goods with feminist slogans.

However, the researchers in the Femtie project also want to consider who research and science serve. According to Ylöstalo, universities have traditionally held the view that they produce information for the elite of society. She believes, however, that it is important to produce information also for others, not just political decision-makers and those in power. That is why Ylöstalo and her colleagues participate in public debate and are more than happy to give interviews, and that is why the Femtie project also has an Instagram account.

Another practical example are the Feminist Economic Lessons, which are organised by Femtie and the Feminist Association Unioni and which anyone can sign up to attend. They teach ‘critical feminist financial literacy’. From a feminist point of view, the problem is that gender and equality perspectives are conspicuous by their absence from economic debate. Similarly, feminist debate rarely touches on the subject of the economy.

“I have noticed that feminists hesitate to take part in economic debate. By providing these lessons in economics, we want to increase people’s knowledge to make it easier for them to discuss the economy.”

Knowledge is undoubtedly also added by the as yet untitled book produced within the Femtie project. Its synopsis is being drawn up at the writing retreat in the red timber house.

The book seeks, among other things, to discuss the relationship between politics, feminism and economics, to envision feminist economic thinking in Finland, to offer alternatives to current economic policy, to provide tools for critical feminist economic thinking, and to discuss the relationship between the market economy and feminism. This relationship is traditionally quite critical – that is, feminism takes a critical view of the market economy. The market economy, on the other hand, likes to make the most of feminism when it is a popular topic and peddle goods with feminist slogans.

“For example, T-shirts with a feminist slogan made at low cost in the Global South,” Ylöstalo says.

Emma Lamberg and Heini Kinnunen join the conversation by discussing whether a feminist view of the market economy should only be negative. Lamberg points out that nowadays many, often fairly small, women-led companies genuinely strive to implement and promote feminist values in their activities. Kinnunen adds that many countries are in a position where it is simply not possible to promote feminism through state routes.

Women’s studies, the ‘insatiable cuckoo in the nest’

Hanna Ylöstalo has been involved in many projects during her research career.

“I have always applied for every possible job and grant, anything I can! Because of that, I have also received an awful lot of rejections, but bit by bit things have started to work out so that when one project ends, another one is waiting.”

Today, she holds a permanent position as a senior lecturer in sociology at the University of Turku.

“I don’t really want to complain about academic short-term employment or competition. Academia has its own freedom, and I think we are actually privileged in many ways.”

Ylöstalo began her studies in the late 1990s at the University of Lapland in Rovaniemi, where she grew up. She chose sociology as her major because she was interested in social issues and sociology seemed like a sufficiently broad field.

“At university, I came across women’s studies which I had never heard of before!”

University of Lapland did not offer women’s studies as a major, which is why Ylöstalo switched to Tampere. It was not possible to study it as an actual major there either, but you could include it in a new kind of combined degree. When Ylöstalo started her postgraduate studies, the opportunity to defend her doctoral dissertation on women’s studies became available.

“This means that I am one of the first graduates of women’s studies in Finland and have been involved in the doctoral programme from the very beginning.”

In a panel discussion in the newspaper Helsingin Sanomat in 2009, the then panel answered the question, ‘is women’s studies a serious subject for research’. The panel consisted of public figures and experts, and three-quarters of them agreed that, yes, women’s studies is a serious subject for research.

11 per cent of them argued that it is not. For example, the then editor-in-chief of Aamulehti, Matti Apunen, commented that “women’s studies takes itself extremely seriously, but in terms of methods, it belongs to the Faculty of Chatter.” According to Matti Wiberg, professor of political science at the University of Turku, women’s studies was “an insatiable cuckoo in the nest that drains an inordinate amount of resources from proper research.”

Ylöstalo defended her doctoral dissertation in 2012, and the following year women’s studies became known as gender studies. It was important for her to graduate and defend her dissertation specifically on women’s studies.

“Many gender researchers have defended their doctoral dissertations in other fields. I wanted to write mine on women’s studies, because I wanted to support its establishment in Finland as a discipline in its own right.”

Hanna Ylöstalo, Docent in Gender Studies and Political Sociology, works as a senior lecturer in sociology at the University of Turku and leads the Femtie project. In several of her research projects, she has studied issues related to knowledge, the economy, equality and politics.

Emma Lamberg works as a researcher in the project and focuses especially on examining the tensions between care and the economy. Lamberg works at the University of Turku and defended her doctoral dissertation in sociology in January 2023.

Doctor of Philosophy Heini Kinnunen’s special areas of expertise in the project are feminist democratic theory and political economy, as well as issues related to political publicity. Among other things, she studies the accessibility of economic debate and its role in politics.

Inna Perheentupa is a senior researcher at the University of Turku. In her research, she is interested in issues related to equality, democracy and inclusion. She has previously studied, among other things, feminist activism and politics in modern Russia.