Thoughts on safe student culture and technical students

Milja Leinonen, Vice Chair of the Aalto University Student Union Board and Chair of the Board 2021 wrote a blog post about her thoughts regarding the current debate and her own experiences as a technical student. Misogyny in student culture has been widely discussed in the past few days, and many have shared discriminatory and sexist experiences from their study years.
Kuvassa Milja Leinonen teekkarilakki päässä, ilme on totinen

There are two technical students in my family: we are the first technical students in my family and we both are women. As technical students, we have grown and been encouraged to try something new. For us, the spirit of technical students means a great sense of community, larger-than-life friendships and memorable moments. We have been lucky and privileged, as harassment, belittling, discrimination and misogyny are still a part of many students’ lives. As an academic community, we have the responsibility to build an equal and safe student culture for all. No one should have to face situations that have come to public attention in the recent debate on student culture and the culture of technical students, in particular. AYY and Aalto University have published a joint statement on the topic, which can be read here.

All student unions have their pros and cons, and this is also the case with Aalto University Student Union. I have studied for six years and during this time I have felt safe, accepted and welcome almost without exception. I have been treated as an equal, but I have also experienced and witnessed sexual harassment. Only when becoming older, I have learned how to intervene verbally in these situations, become aware of problems in our culture and realised that Otaniemi has not been as safe for all. I have certainly made mistakes, and for my part, participated in the maintaining of practices that allow misogyny. However, this does not mean that studentship in itself is the core of the problem, regardless of the field. We live and study in society with internalised discrimination and sexism. Student cultures replicate the same phenomena that we have witnessed in recent years in culture and sports, for example.

Discrimination in technical student culture has been regularly discussed already before I began my studies in 2014. During this time, an atmosphere for discussion in society has also become more open. In my own field of bioinformation technology, women are more highly represented than in most other technical fields, but the number of women among technical students is also increasing in general. Student culture in AYY is constantly changing into a more equal direction and we work on this issue from one year to the next. As a community, we struggle between traditions and reforms – we discuss, act, learn something new and, at the same time, we also develop, and we women are part of it all.

Great strides have been made in both student associations and student unions to promote equality, and I can ensure that the current debate is also closely followed in the Otaniemi student community. We cannot change the past, but we can influence the present and the future, and to support a cultural change for the better. Women are, and have been, active members in the Aalto student culture for a long time. In recent years, we have been an important part of many changes in our community towards a more equal direction.

All these improvements should not be annulled by the idea that we are not yet ready and therefore the entire technical student culture should be wiped out. We are doing our best to change the structures from day to day. In this process, technical students need support more than ever. However, this issue primarily concerns those who experience discrimination. We must be able to increase the representation of student culture in terms of different genders, ethnic backgrounds and disability, for example. This can only happen by considering the different backgrounds of people.

No one should drop out of the community. That is why we must be able to discontinue not only internalised misogyny, but also racism and other forms of discrimination. The next steps towards a more equal student community are to better identify the problematic structures and activities in the Aalto community, to develop ways to intervene in detected problems and to commit to change these structures.

Milja Leinonen

Vice Chair of the AYY Board

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