Student Snapshot: Emma Kjellstadli
Emma Kjellstadli is 22 and just started her 3rd semester in Medicine at Rīga Stradiņš University (RSU). She has been politically active since high school, and was even on her local municipality council Færder municipality, close to the city of Tønsberg - for a few years on behalf of her political party. To keep her political interest alive alongside her studies Emma joined the society Feminists in Riga, and is now its President.
How did you get involved in politics?
Representatives from all the political parties came to my high school every year. I really identified with one of them, and started showing up to their meetings. I joined their youth organisation and then started actively showing up to meetings and ended up on the board. The main party reached out to us and asked if anyone was interested in working with the local municipality. I ended up being in a really high position, because I showed a lot of interest. I was voted into the council that year and ended up working there for two years.
The banner behind Emma says "Don't touch the abortion law". Photo from private archive.
Did you ever consider pursuing politics instead of medicine?
I didn't plan on becoming a politician and definitely always had medicine at the back of my mind. I just thought it would be a fun thing to do. If I didn't have a passion for medicine, I would have probably done something more political.
How did you get involved with Feminists in Riga?
I got a message from someone I knew in a higher semester who is from the same place in Norway as me so she knew about my political involvement. She said that Feminists in Riga needed board members. I started studying at RSU literally a month before the pandemic, so I didn't have much experience of student life yet and hadn't yet heard of the society. I decided to run and ended up becoming President.
What plans do you have for Feminists in Riga? What are your overarching objectives?
One of our main goals is to reach out to more people to let them know who we are and what we do. Another goal is to work on a safety guide. It's a new project aimed at helping new students. All new students get a welcome guide during orientation week and we want to include points about rape, sexual assault, homophobia, racism, sexism and information on where to go and what to do if you experience any discrimination. We're working with ISA to create a separate guide because it's too comprehensive to include in the one that is used now.
What do you have planned socially?
We try to have a couple of events every semester. Our main goal is to attract people in order to have discussions and to raise awareness about issues that probably aren't visible to everyone. We really just want to spread the word about feminism and make people less scared of the word. People have a stereotypic imagine in mind that feminists are man-hating and crazy, but we want to show people that feminists are normal people.
Most people are feminists if you look at their views and opinions. We want to encourage people to define the word for themselves, and apply it in a way that makes sense to them. You aren't automatically radical, but can choose yourself what kind of feminist you are.
Tell me about your event on 8 March.
We have taken inspiration from the international theme, which this year is “choose to challenge”. We are interpreting this theme to make it relevant to us, and our main focus will therefore be on medical bias.
We want to challenge medical bias towards women, which can be deadly!
Women are frequently diagnosed with mental disorders far too quickly and women are actually more likely to die from heart attacks than men. The reason for this is that it takes doctors longer to diagnose women who show up to hospital with a heart attack, because their symptoms present differently than men's and these can therefore go unnoticed.
Up until the 1990s, women were often excluded from clinical trials, which has resulted in female symptoms not being as widely known or recognised among medical professionals! We want to challenge stereotypes and the thoughts that we have for our own sake as medical students. We even have examples of our lecturers being biased and wrong sometimes. We just want to highlight this and make people aware of the situation, and give them the ability to question what they're being taught.
It's common for people to think that science is not about opinions and feelings, but about facts. Everyone bases their facts and research on choices they make as flawed, biased individuals, however, so everyone's biases and environment obviously colours the science they produce.
What are some biases you or your fellow students have encountered?
Some students have said that in their genetics class, they have been presented with weird examples saying that black women experience pain differently than white women, for example. This prejudice is very harmful. By bringing this up we just want to create a discussion about what stereotypes we encounter in our everyday lives, how we can challenge them and promote activism in our daily lives. We have stereotypes ourselves so we just want to encourage everyone to reflect on their own stereotypes and how to change them.
What will this day look like in practice?
We will organise workshops to present the issue and then start a discussion. We want people to be able to engage, share their experiences and brainstorm ideas.
Everybody was telling me there was nothing wrong (BBC, 29 May 2018)
A take on medical bias regarding gender and race and how it influences mortality in women. The article also takes a short look at the history of discounting women in healthcare (e.g. by diagnosing them with hysteria).
Video: Bias In Medicine (Last Week Tonight with John Oliver, 19 Aug 2019)
John Oliver discusses the roles that gender and racial bias can play in medical treatment, with comedic elements.
Heart attack gender gap is costing women's lives (British Heart Foundation, 30 September 2019)
The British Heart Foundation on how the gender gap in knowledge about heart attacks costs lives.
The female problem: how male bias in medical trials ruined women's health (The Guardian, 13 Nov 2019)
The article discusses the effects on women's health from being excluded from clinical trials throughout history.