Photography by Bolzoni
When you’re young and at school, it can be easy to internalise ideas about what girls and boys are “supposed” to do based on their gender. The older you get, the more you realise that this is actually bullshit, and maybe you should have taken up skateboarding or coding or playing drums or whatever you decided you definitely couldn’t do once you passed puberty, and the world starting placing more value on your body over your brains.
In essence, this is what Tekla festival is all about. Started by electro-pop supernova Robyn and Stockholm’s KTH Royal Institute of Technology, the one-day festival is aimed squarely at young women between the ages of 11 and 18, and it’s entirely focused on STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics), all areas that have historically (and absurdly) been viewed as being best suited to men, which has obviously put off many women from getting involved.
Robyn, who has been in the music industry for well over two decades, knows first hand the skewed expectations (or lack of) placed on women in relation to their tech abilities, and believes this is not only detrimental for women, but also for society in general. As in, how are we supposed to develop as a species if only half the population are given the confidence to head-up new inventions or discover new cures? And in music, how are women supposed to become more autonomous in the industry if it’s wrongly implied that women can’t produce their own material?
To celebrate the second year of Tekla Festival, and to celebrate the unsung power of teenage girls, we spoke to Robyn and Eva Jonsson (the deputy president at KTH Royal Institute of Technology) about how we can move forward, and give young women the opportunity to get nerdy with tech.
Hey both! So, tell me a bit about Tekla festival and how it came about?
Robyn: Well, last year I was awarded a prize from KTH Royal Institute of Technology (for “artistic contributions and embrace of technology”). When you get this prize you are asked to do a seminar for the students, and I didn’t really know what to do. I mentioned this to Lina Thomsgård, who works with me at Konichiwa sometimes, and she said the Swedish government have been saying for ages that we need more girls to get into technology, so we thought instead of doing a seminar, we should do something more practical to sort out this problem. I came to the conclusion that a festival where you could invite girls to come to the school and try things out could be fun and interesting, and we could mix that up with music and lectures and stuff. So we did that last year and it went really well, and we’re doing it again.
Why is the gender imbalance in technology something that is particularly close to your heart?
Eva: From a university point of view, the answer is two-fold. Firstly, it’s about equal rights. It’s important to give young girls the guts to choose a future in engineering. Secondly, it’s from a practical point of view. We need all the resources in society to stand up for all the challenges in the future, and we need women to be involved in this too in order to develop for the benefit of everybody.
Robyn: Technology is something that inspires me. I read a lot about technology. I read about human beings, and the interaction between tech and humans is so revealing about how we are developing. There are so many challenges that come along with the new discoveries that are made all the time, and what we decide to do with that technology is so telling about what kind of animal we are. I find it so interesting, and I use that a lot when I make music. So my interest comes from a more social and philosophical standpoint.
Totally. If we’re reliant on technology is has to be in the hands of women as well.
Robyn: Yeah, and there are so many areas in which technology is a crucial part – I think many people don’t realise this. It’s not just being in a lab with a white coat. There are so many things that girls in particular can discover in different ways. I think girls might not even consider the possibility of getting nerdy with technology, which is interesting. There are different reasons about why that might be, but I think it has a lot to do with role models and actually seeing other women doing it.
Eva: There are so many old perceptions and cultural issues that govern the decisions of young girls in relation to their future. So coming to the workshop is hopefully beneficial for them when they become older.
Did either of you have many female role models in tech when you were younger?
Eva: I’m a chemist by training and I had a really great female chemistry teacher, so I was lucky in that way. For all these girls coming to the festival, they will be seeing Robyn who is a fantastic role model – she will be such a source of inspiration for them.
Robyn: For me, it was Kate Bush. From when I was kid, I knew that she wrote her own songs and that she produced and played the instruments herself. It’s weird, but sometimes you have to see someone else do something before you realise that it’s possible. Whether it’s someone in your family, or somebody you don’t even know, you have that concept in your brain about whether something is possible.
A lot of female musicians – Grimes, for instance – have spoken about the frustrations of producing their own music and not getting recognition or credit for it. Is this something you (Robyn) have experienced also?
Robyn: Yeah, when two boys make music together there is an aura of mysticism around it, like they probably did loads of drugs and got into each other’s brains and made something amazing happen. And when girls make music together or with other people, people are like, “Yeah, but who wrote the song?” There’s always this critical view about what women bring to the table.
There are a lot of areas in which women are really successful but they don’t have the typical education, or they are internalising certain things that are hard to define. I always wrote my own songs, but it’s taken me a while to find the courage to develop my own production skills. I’ve always been a producer of my music, and I'm always trying to learn more about music programmes and be more hands on. That’s something that came along at the same time as this Tekla thing. It’s become really interesting to me that we should break down this mysticism around computers and technology. There’s research that says that a lot of kids, but mostly girls, give up their hobbies around the age of 13. If they play an instrument or do a sport, usually around 13 they just stop. It’s very interesting why that happens.
So do you think education is a way we can navigate that?
Robyn: Yes, but also creating a safe environment for girls so we can relax. You don’t learn when you’re nervous, you learn when it’s playful and safe. That’s why Tekla is a separatist festival and it’s only for girls.
Eva: Research shows that if you have a mixed group of boys and girls, the girls are often left aside and the boys do the workshop by themselves. So it’s good to give the girls a chance in a separate group, otherwise they wouldn’t be exploring in the same way. Like Robyn says, girls often lose interest with STEM around 13, so we have to build in enthusiasm and curiosity within the education system, so that we keep their interest rather than kill their interest. They need the skills so that they can tackle the future.
Robyn: If you don’t have the expectation that you are going to do well in a subject, you naturally don’t do it. As a teenager, you don’t do stuff that’s out of the ordinary – you just want to fit in. So with Tekla, we’re saying that we’re expecting girls to come and be interested.
And what do you think men can do to contribute?
Robyn: Interest, to start off with. They need to show interest in the development of women’s education and the female race. That would be good in all areas.
Eva: They need to be more inclusive and recognise that there is no big difference between boys and girls. There are so many predetermined rules about what to do and what not to do.
Robyn, you’ve been making music for two decades now. Have you seen attitudes towards women change around you, particularly in terms of electronic music? Has anything shifted?
Robyn: There has been very little change, to be honest. It’s quite tiring. But I feel like in the last two or three years things have started to really switch. Now in America, people are becoming unafraid to say they are feminist when that wasn’t the case even a year ago. The dialogue from minorities or repressed sections of society are also becoming more empowered and people aren’t afraid to stand up and say “this is not cool.”
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Applications for Tekla festival are open between March 1-18 and are available here.