“Women’s issues aren’t just women’s issues.” This quote from Minna Canth is the empowering force of Jaana Hirsikangas. She has dedicated her career to promoting the equality and entrepreneurship of women. Hirsikangas is the executive director of the United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women, Finland and a socially influential person. She graduated from the University of Jyväskylä with a degree in social and public policy in 2010.
Jaana Hirsikangas was born in Vaasa. After upper secondary school, she didn’t know what she wanted to study so she decided to have a few intervening years while pondering her career choice. She spent these years studying at a folk high school, touring with the Up with People musical group and working in a pizzeria.
Hirsikangas gradually developed an interest in organisations. She found her way to the field of social science via an Interpedia job notice for an executive director for an organisation. So Hirsikangas looked into the educational background required for this interesting job.
“The job required education in social sciences so I purposefully began to find out what in that field interested me most. Social and public policy struck me at once and I immediately knew what I wanted to study.”
Hirsikangas was admitted to study at the University of Jyväskylä as well as the University of Umeå. Both of them were just four hours away from Vaasa, her hometown – one by boat, the other by train. It was a tough choice.
“I ended up choosing Jyväskylä because I had passed the challenging entrance exam. Applying for Umeå was all about school records so it didn’t feel as meaningful.”
I started studying at the University of Jyväskylä in 2001. In addition to social and public policy, she minored in women’s studies and gender research along with European integration. In the beginning, her studies were very independent, with a lot of books exams. “We just read a lot and then had exams,” Hirsikangas says.
“We only had a little group work back then, which was a pity, but I think I really learned a lot. I recall being moved in the Library when I read about the political and social development of Finland. Great books!”
The thirst to learn was huge. She did extra studies in, for example, anthropology, ethnology and cultural policy. She was active in AIESEC, which offered international on-the-job training for young people, as well as in the local students union’s development cooperation committee. She arranged events and led the students union development cooperation project, funded by the Ministry for Foreign Affairs. “All this gave me indispensable education, apart from my academic studies,” Hirsikangas says.
“I recall my university days warmly and I think they provided me with very strong working skills. My first job was in Plan International Finland, so I practically got my dream job right after leaving school. I’m pretty sure that I would not have got it unless I had been so active in both my studies and voluntary work.”
When the University of Jyväskylä started a new master’s programme in international development cooperation, Hirsikangas immediately decided to apply for it, and was admitted. She had done some on-the-job training in Uganda, where she had the chance to put into practice what she had learned at the University. Her second on-the-job training period was in India in an organisation called Women’s
Right and Girls’ Right. The master’s programme also included a six-month training period in Costa Rica, featuring the sustainable development programme in the UN University. She was offered a permanent job after three months of training and so she stayed in Costa Rica for three years.
After returning to Finland, Hirsikangas continued her work on strengthening women’s rights and incomes as a liaison officer at Women’s Bank. From there she moved on to start as the executive director of UN Women Finland in autumn 2019. She feels that her drive to work for equality stems from her strong family. She grew up in a safe and trusting environment, which encouraged her and believed in her abilities. Her role models were strong, energetic and outspoken women.
Therefore, Hirsikangas has always known that she wants to work in support of strengthening the position of women. This choice has been reinforced by her international experience, and the need to work has increased year after year. Succeeding in this work has required staying true to her own values as well as advocating for them determinedly.
“Gender equality is the prerequisite for societies to have a chance of living sustainably and peacefully. Without gender equality, this is not possible.”
UN Women is the world’s leading defender of women’s and girls’ rights and it functions in more than 90 countries. UN Women Finland specializes in communications and advocacy work and also funds the international activities of UN Women. “We support global efforts for equality and cooperate with decision-makers,” Hirsikangas says.
Over the last 25 years, work for equality has achieved a lot. At the moment, more girls go to school than ever before, and maternal mortality and child marriages have decreased. Also, the number of female decision-makers is bigger than ever. At the same time, however, we have countries trying to diminish women’s position through political manoeuvring and changing laws. A good example of this is, for example, the abortion rights discussion in Poland. Crises decrease equality, as has been seen during the coronavirus pandemic – therefore, we must focus on these aspects, she emphasises.
“We Finns have a lot of privileges. For that reason, we are on the front line, showing others that this kind of world is possible.”
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