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Marjana Johansson calls for greater responsibility from employers to crush glass ceilings and challenge inequality, instead of placing all responsibility on the individual. Foto: Zakariae Lahkim/Unsplash

Who’s allowed to be a professional?

“Picture a DJ, or a CEO. Who do you see in front of you?” Marjana Johansson studies gender, inclusion and inequality in organisations. In her work, she seeks to understand how standards related to gender or ethnicity influence the perception of professional roles and career paths.

“It’s very familiar, even if a lot is new, so it has been very easy and fun to come to Åbo Akademi,” says Marjana Johansson, sitting in a room booked from the corridor of the School of Business and Economics. Johansson is a former student of the School of Business and Economics at Åbo Akademi University, where she also returned for the spring as a visiting researcher. In her day-to-day, she is a senior lecturer and researcher in management and organisational behaviour at the University of Glasgow in Scotland.

At the moment, there is a study on the wellbeing among academics in the UK on her desk.

“Or the lack of wellbeing, I might say.”

Johansson tells us that there is a worrying trend of increased stress and worsened wellbeing in academia. The workload is often exhausting, and many researchers have short contracts, which creates uncertainty about the future.

Marjana Johansson
Marjana Johansson has also studied how linguistic backgrounds are perceived in the workplace. It is an aspect that is sometimes overlooked in equality efforts, but it is a fact that people who speak with an accent, for example, may face discrimination. It is also important to consider how a workplace can become more linguistically inclusive, she points out. Photo: Pamela Friström

At the same time, many universities are increasingly trying to offer various kinds of wellbeing services. They can include everything from discussion support or mindfulness and meditation exercises to bicycle purchase discounts to promote cycling to work.

“What I and my co-author, Professor Sarah Robinson found when we interviewed researchers from English and Scottish universities is a noticeable discrepancy between what academics say they need to be well, and what universities actually offer. A handful of people said they had accepted discussion support, but other services had not been used at all.”

Johansson remembers one person in particular who said that their university had introduced alpacas as a wellness activity. The idea was that petting alpacas would make people happier.

“But as the person said, ‘my problem is my workload, petting an alpaca won’t solve that problem.’”

New benchmark for success

According to Johansson, wellbeing is being brought up as an increasingly important indicator of societal development.

“We need more ways than just the GDP or other financial metrics to measure how successful a society is. Just take the UN’s annual happiness report, where Finland is number one for the seventh year in a row. It’s becoming more and more important to know if people are feeling well. At the same time, such metrics are also criticised for simplifying the phenomenon, or for measuring prosperity rather than happiness or wellbeing. In short, wellbeing is a complex issue,” she says.

Johansson’s and Robinson’s research reflects societal trends pointing to an increased lack of wellbeing in many sectors.

Their qualitative data shows that, although academics often feel stressed and overworked, it is not always easy to openly discuss this with managers or colleagues. There is a fear or concern of being seen as a failure if you start talking about fatigue.

Because, at the end of the day, it is about power and power relations. It is not only the female lecturers or the female DJs who should drive the work forward.

“Modern society supports the idea of the entrepreneurial, competitive individual who has control over their life. In such an environment, it is not easy to state that you’re unable to keep up with the pace, which may lead to people stretching themselves to an unsustainable limit. The decline in wellbeing reveals a lack of trust in employers.”

Academic career by chance

Marjana Johansson’s academic journey has brought her from studying economic sciences at the School of Business and Economics at Åbo Akademi University, via Hanken School of Economics in Helsinki, to Stockholm School of Economics, where she did her PhD.

Her doctoral dissertation focused on the organisation of festivals and cultural events.

“We were a few years into the 2000s, and everyone was talking about the concept of experience economy. I was curious to see how you can organise something that offers memorable and meaningful experiences, which, in, turn, create value and profitability for businesses.”

After earning her doctorate, Johansson was hired as a lecturer at the University of Essex in England, where she stayed for ten years. Since 2018, she has been a senior lecturer in Glasgow.

“My career, like many others’, is the sum of a series of coincidences. As an economics graduate fresh out of Åbo Akademi University, starting research didn’t even cross my mind. I wanted to work, and I did for a few years. By chance, my job then took me to a research institute in Hanken, Helsinki, where I had the opportunity to work in the space between research and business – that gave me an appetite for more.”

Culture and social structures maintain inequalities

Johansson has written a lot about equality in general and equality at work, how standards and stereotypes around factors such as gender, class, ethnicity or language influence people’s choices and opportunities, and how these can lead to inequality and exclusion.

“Inequality in the workplace rarely involves open or conscious discrimination, but rather invisible, implicit ways in which some people are not considered sufficiently professional or credible. It has been shown that this often correlates with factors such as gender, age or physical appearance.”

A professional group that Johansson has studied together with Professor Samantha Parsley is female DJs. In a highly male-dominated music industry, female DJs often face prejudice in the form of their musical knowledge and technical skills being questioned. They also risk being objectified and reduced to their appearance.

Kvinna vid dj-bord.
Marjana Johansson’s research explores the invisible barriers and prejudices that limit the opportunities for certain groups to advance and succeed in the workplace. Photo: Zakariae Lahkim/Unsplash

“They feel they have to continually prove their skills, and may find it difficult to get as much career opportunities as male colleagues due to a lack of representation in the industry.”

Another field of activity that Johansson has looked into is economics and business colleges in the UK. At lecturer level, the gender distribution is balanced between men and women, but at professor level, only 25% are women.

“It’s not that women don’t want to be professors, but that something happens along the way. We often have very deeply rooted organisational cultures and structures that affect the way individuals are assessed and valued.”

You can change things

“Sometimes women hear that they need to adapt their behaviour and learn to ‘play the game’,” says Johansson. There are leadership programmes for women that focus, for example, on developing self-confidence and dealing with self-doubts.

“Of course, it may be useful, but it becomes problematic if the premise is to ‘fix the women’ instead of dealing with the necessary cultural change.”

“Besides, research shows that women trying to adapt to a more traditional masculine behaviour pattern does not work, either. It is also perceived negatively. Individual adaptation is not enough.”

Besides, research shows that women trying to adapt to a more traditional masculine behaviour pattern does not work, either. It is also perceived negatively. Individual adaptation is not enough

Johansson calls for greater responsibility, courage and self-reflection from organisations. Why is the situation as it is? How can we promote more inclusive recruitment, taking into account not only gender but also race, ethnicity, nationality, linguistic background, religion, age and similar factors? How can we support employees in their career development once they are employed, rather than simply placing the responsibility on individuals?

“First of all, we need increased awareness. Next, we need to establish a common language to discuss, identify and define the problems, but, above all, we need concrete measures, education, strategies and initiatives. We can create a fairer and more inclusive working environment.”

It’s about power

When it comes to female DJs, Marjana Johansson points out, the creative sector in the UK is aware of the challenges surrounding diversity. Several initiatives have been taken to increase representation in the industry.

“There is talk, for example, of avoiding all-male lineups in shows. The crucial thing, however, is that men, who usually hold positions of power, also support these initiatives. Because, at the end of the day, it is about power and power relations. It is not only the female lecturers or the female DJs who should drive the work forward.”

Finally, do you have personal experiences of a concert or festival where the organisers did well?

“Here I will be happy to look at Finland again. The Faces festival that was held in Raseborg for a few years in a row worked on diversity and inclusion as an integral part of the festival’s ethos and concept, not just as an afterthought. They also worked on accessibility long before accessibility issues gained the attention and coverage they have today. Faces was groundbreaking in many ways.”