I’ve read a lot about people who don’t realise that they belong to a privileged group. Well, one can only wonder at such an attitude.
The possibility that I might have a blind spot first came to my mind when I attended a statutory non-discrimination plan session in the organisation where I was on my teacher work rotation period. The working language of the Helsinki-based workplace is English. It was mentioned that speaking Finnish can feel like an unpleasant exclusion of non-Finnish-speakers in a work community where English is the common working language.
Until then, I had always expressed myself in Finnish, for example in the break room, if the nearest people were Finnish-speaking – without paying any attention if there was someone who did not speak Finnish. The same happened when discussing work-related issues in the shared office space.
Changing the working language from Finnish to English was a tough challenge for my brain during the first weeks in the new workplace. Breaks and break rooms were definitely needed! I felt envious of those members of the work community who spoke English as their mother tongue. As a speaker of a language that is rare in the world, I have always felt I am in an everlasting catch-up position.
Is the workplace same for everybody
The real enlightenment happened when I read a recent report on equality, diversity and non-discrimination in Finnish higher education. Reading the report made me realise that the same workplace can feel very different depending on whether you belong to a language minority or not.
Researchers of the Kotamo project, studying ethnic equality, among other things, had been told about a clever solution to the problem of multilingualism in a Finnish university. The only non-Finnish speaker in the workplace had once been left uninvited to a meeting because it was “easier for everyone”.
Obviously, there should be more awareness of language practices in multilingual workplaces. A non-Finnish colleague in the English-speaking workplace consoled me that I should feel free to speak Finnish with another Finn while making coffee during a break. However, the study based on researchers’ questionnaires and interviews shows that if someone is repeatedly left out of different situations in everyday working life, this amounts to hidden discrimination over time.
The lack of everyday encounters may well be linked to other findings of the report regarding the situation in higher education institutions. Foreigners or members of ethnic minorities in Finland were less likely to report that they had been involved in the development of teaching or in joint funding applications.
The research project concluded by recommending that higher education institutions should draw up ground rules for an inclusive work culture. There is also a need to learn to recognise hidden discrimination. Personally, I would also add to the list the fact that multilingual work communities do need resources allocated to translating and producing texts equally in all languages as well as to giving support that helps the work community chat, negotiate and organise meetings in relevant languages.
Jousilahti, J., Tanhua, I., Paavola, J.-M., Alanko, L., Kinnunen, A., Louvrier, J., Husu, L., Levola, M. & Kilpi, J. 2022. KOTAMO: Report on the state of equality and diversity in Finnish higher Education institutions. Ministry of Education and Culture.