Appalled by Sexism in the Valley? Meet the Tech Bros of Finland

 

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A job search ad by Vincit, a publicly listed tech company reads “A search for Vincit’s twenty-seventh Mikko. And hey: we’re not discriminatory”

 

While Silicon Valley labors to exorcise its bro culture–the widespread egregious behavior, sexist jokes, chauvinism, power plays, harassment and discrimination–you wouldn’t guess where sexism is business as usual. Yes! In the happiest country in the world.

Almost every year Finland wins the happiest country in the world award, and just this week Finland won again. Finland’s people have so much to be proud of: they’re the best educated people in the world, they have national childcare, healthcare and have almost eliminated poverty. Their laws guarantee equal opportunity for men and women. They house their homeless. Both mothers and fathers have equal parental leave and it’s the only country in the world where fathers spend more time with their children than mothers–it’s only 8 minutes, but still! It’s a start.

Nevertheless, their tech industry is full of sexism, bias and chauvinism, which I have experienced first hand. I’m both an outsider and an insider to Finland. I’ve spent the last decade going back and forth between Silicon Valley and Helsinki. Several years ago, I gave a talk at Aalto University for the technology students there, and after my talk I caught the beginning of the next talk by a very famous Finnish tech entrepreneur. “You too can reap the fruits of success as an entrepreneur,” he said. “Here’s some of the things you can get”. And he proceeded to show slides of a sports car, a private plane, and lastly, Netscape founder Jim Clark, in his 70s, in front of a boat, with his 25 year old wife. He pointed out their respective ages. He pointed at the wife.

Things you can get?! I was astonished and looked around so we could all share our outrage. No one met my eye. No one shared my outrage. This was my first experience of sexism as usual. But it was not an isolated case.

When some interns from Finland came to work at my company in the Valley, I was surprised to learn that in Finland it was OK to refer to women as “bitches” and “ho’s”–or maybe they just talked like that when they were in the U.S.? One passed around a magazine he’d worked on, which had quasi-pornographic pictures of more ho’s. Well, it was an internship program after all, there was a lot to learn.  

I noticed other things. I was invited to conferences explicitly because “they needed more women” not because I built great companies. Conference events centered around drinking and gambling, and when I pointed out that women may feel uncomfortable there, the conference organizers shrugged. Here in the Valley many companies have realized drinking is often correlated with harassment, and even assault, and no longer sponsor drinking events.

I found the incomprehension to be almost universal. Shut down, glossed over, and dismissed by Finns up and down the ladder, the conversation had been successfully smothered. When harassment was reported, the responses were oddly toothless. There was a sense of “Nothing to see here folks! Move along!” To my knowledge, no one has been fired, or suffered real consequences for their actions. Maybe everyone’s kept their pants on? The law of numbers says no. While there’s a lot of rah-rah for women, Happy International Women’s Day posts, and photos of the smiling minority of women at the tech companies on the front of every tech company’s web site, underneath it all, lies a strong bias. Finland is in denial.

Sexism reared its ugly head again this week with #ParempiMikko. A publicly traded company, Vincit, advertised that there were 26 men named Mikko working at their company, and they were looking for another Mikko. This is, mind you, a company which came in last in a survey of workplace diversity in Finnish Tech companies with only 11% women employees. So the young women working with the largest tech festival in the Nordics, Slush, spotted the bias and exclusion in the post, and they tweeted about it. The CEO of the company tweeted back at them that if they saw bias there it wasn’t his problem it was theirs–since they were the ones who saw bias there. And when a well-respected tech reporter, Senja Larsen, wrote about it in the business press, the CEO wrote her emails with a threatening tone.

It gets worse. Vincit is known for putting sexist jokes into their press releases, external communications–even in their financial statements. These have been reported by the pressTheir jokes are juvenile. ”Kympin pitäjä” which means “great village” turns into “pimpin kytäjä”  or “pussy place”. The Finnish Stock Exchange criticized them for this, but their response was to tell them to “lighten up a little”. On their quarterly results video they again made some appalling puns: ”surkea töihinottaja” became “obscene blowjob” and refers to the only woman on the management team–the head of HR!–as “cunt babbles”. People in Silicon Valley know that a CEO would be fired for that, but weirdly, nothing happened.

The Vincit CEO calls himself “the leading star of the future of leadership” on his Twitter profile. But he’s a leader who makes sexist jokes, who stands by them when called out, who doesn’t listen to women but dismisses them. The women at the company–which has paid to be entered into “Best Places to Work” type competitions–predictably leapt to its defense. Women have been complicit in maintaining the silence, heading up the HR departments, tweeting their support, covering up and ensuring that nothing is done. This also happens in the Valley and around the world.

So Finnish Tech Industry People, I know it’s tough, since some of your more admirable qualities are tolerance and agreeableness. I know you know that you’ll have to work with these people for the rest of your life in a country of 5.5 million people and an industry of thousands. But it’s important to do something. Treat women better, speak out, stand by and stand up for them. Because we look up to you. You know how to build a just society. You’re the secret leaders of the world.

Next up: Germany