Interview by Montana Cantagalli
Meet Maija Corinti Salvén, Head of Government Affairs Nordic, Baltic and Alpine Region at Apple, with experience in Digital Policy, Public Affairs and EU Relations. In this interview she talks about finding your own path, fighting for gender equality in tech and the opportunities offered by the digital transformation.
To begin, can you tell us a little bit about your professional career leading up to your current role at Apple? What inspired you to pursue this path and what advice would you give to a woman navigating the pursuit of a high-level career in tech, which remains a male-dominated industry?
When you look at CVs and LinkedIn profiles it always looks like a straightforward career path but actually, it is often a path full of detours and deviations. I never knew exactly what I wanted to do, but I was politically interested and wanted to have an impact. So, as you do in Germany, I started studying law and engaged within a political party. But I hated it, so I dropped it, realising that this was not my thing.
Instead, I had always been interested in philosophy, but the challenge was that I never knew how this could transform into a job afterwards. Nevertheless, my experience with trying out the standard combination of law and politics showed me that the path to success is not via suffering, it can only go via something that you have passion for and that you also enjoy.
That is when I moved to London to study political philosophy within a degree course called European Studies, in a context of European history and EU integration. I did a year abroad in Stockholm, then went back to London and did an MSc in the same field. I enjoyed my studies greatly though I still had no idea what I was going to do with it. I wanted to do “something with Europe” because of my personal background and I wanted to do something that was politically relevant, something that would have an impact. Then, by chance, the Association of British insurance companies was looking for someone to join their European affairs team who was non-British, a job starter, and who came from a European Studies background.
My experience with trying out the standard combination of law and politics showed me that the path to success is not via suffering, it can only go via something that you have passion for and that you also enjoy.
So, I entered a world that I did not know existed before and discovered it step by step. It was interesting: you deal with a lot of different policy topics, you engage in lobbying campaigns, you get to understand how politics is really made in the EU. I then moved to the Deutsche Bank EU Affairs team in Brussels because I wanted to experience life and work in the heart of Europe. Next, I joined PayPal, which connected me from financial services to digital technology which I found very interesting because digital policy was still a totally new area. Then – having moved to Berlin in the meantime – I joined Apple, so remaining deeply involved with digital technology and tech, always in a Public Affairs role.
So this is how I ended up in the digital economy and spent virtually my whole career so far in public affairs and as a lobbyist. And it is still interesting: two days are never the same! And I have the feeling that I can really contribute to shaping our society, our economy and the framework conditions in which we all operate.
I have the feeling that in public affairs jobs I can contribute to shaping our society, our economy and the framework conditions in which we all operate.
What inspired you to pursue this path and what advice would you give to a woman navigating the pursuit of a high-level career in tech, which remains a very male dominated industry? What is the advice you would give to a woman who wants to pursue a similar career path to you?
I would say, "Follow your interest". If something interests you, that is where you should go. Do not stop to ask yourself "Do I know it?", "Do I know anybody?", "Do I look similar to the people who are already there?". Interest and the desire to learn and develop are what drive you forward. Even if you do not know anything about the area or topic yet, it might end up being the most fascinating discovery that you will make.
In my kind of work - public affairs, communications, even management roles in tech - there are actually a lot of women. I would encourage all women to consider a career in tech, because many of these companies are international, really dynamic and very modern.
I am not a fan of saying “women have to do this, or women have to do that” because it is not women who have to change but the system around us. If we do not want to just copy the current male patterns but create new ones, we need to define a new middle ground and move into it. And I think part of it is being confident and assertive, not waiting in the shadow until you’re asked to step out; be on the playground and play it our way, thereby changing the rules. It is about attitude and mixing up the patterns with different approaches.
Have you witnessed or been a part of a significant movements of institutional change towards gender equality in your sector? And what is a significant change you would like to see personally?
There is now EU legislation on quotas in management positions: I am a supporter of quotas, even though it is a difficult philosophical argument. Practically though quotas speed up the necessary progress; organic growth towards gender equality is not sufficient, and we have seen that now for centuries. So, we need quotas as a catalyst and to increase the pool of competence. In my view, EU legislation and the corresponding domestic and national legislation on this issue are a sign of progress.
The challenges we face in my sector are the same as in other sectors. But one sign of progress that I see is the many women leadership networks in all kinds of careers and professional areas. I am the co-founder of a female lobbyist network in Germany, and I am a board member of WIL Europe. We women need to pool our resources, to share experiences, and come together in strength and solidarity.
What do you think are the primary challenges facing women in the professional sphere today? And how did you yourself approach these challenges in your own professional journey?
The fact that all women are seen as potential mothers is a big challenge. If we think of women as potential mothers but not equally of men as potential fathers, then we make an unjustified differentiation, leading to different treatment and inequality of opportunity. Your competence is not defined by being a man or a woman, so the chances you will have in life should not be defined by it either.
The other fundamental flaw that I within our society is that we are made to believe that the burden of change lies on our individual shoulders. We are supposed to tackle structural discrimination with individual effort; while the underlying inequality is systemic. There are many brave but very exhausted women, while the patriarchal system is very resilient. What is needed is political will to change the structures of power, how labour division is organised, how companies are organised, how families are organised. how our entire day-to-day is organised. And that includes men. Gender equality and fair chances through democracy is not a matter of looking at women: it is a matter of looking at a just society.
Gender equality and fair chances through democracy is not a matter of looking at women; it is a matter of looking at a just society.
For the last few years, you have been a mentor to emerging female leaders on WIL's leadership programme, The Women Talent Pool, why?
Along most my own path of development, I was usually alone and an outsider; I never had access to the kind of guidance, mentoring and resources that WIL offers. I know how much I would have liked to have that and how valuable this would have been. I might have been faster or less exhausted or more resourceful. I am driven by motivation and development and by opportunity. If I can help others in their development and motivation, that’s just great! I am a fully trained and certified systemic coach alongside my corporate career, by the way. So mentoring and coaching have become part of my DNA.
You are passionate about the potential of digital transformation; how do you think the digital revolution can impact social movements like gender equality? Is there not a risk of the move to digital undermining the push for greater social inclusion?
Yes. I love to hate the overused dichotomy between “risk and opportunity”. Everything is risk AND opportunity; it just depends on how you look at the world. Digital technology is a new technology which means that it is new for everybody. If something is new for everybody it is true opportunity for change, a reset to zero, because the old privileges do not necessarily hold and the conditions for learning are different. There is a sense of novelty which creates curiosity and innovation by default, which we can be tap into.
We see that digital transformation can reinforce social, gender and other divides. But this is because we allow it to replicate the already existing non-resolved flaws. If we are smart with it, we will use digital technology in a very inclusive sense. Digital technology can allow people to grow and progress, to work in politics or economics, to do everything that they want to do whether they are at a specific location, whether they are men or women. It does not take physical strength, it does not take a specific kind of education, it applies to all kind of use cases. It creates connections and impact across the world, something that was possible only locally before. Digital technology holds real transformative potential as a political, social and economic catalyst, and as an ethical catalyst. In a sense, the digital transformation forces us toward progress; yet digital anarchy or digital oligarchy are not particularly helpful if we really want to progress in a sustainable way. We need a true digital democracy and that means including everybody. Philosophically this is a very clear imperative path. It is a huge opportunity, but we need to step up intellectually to understand that and then make smart politics to use as an opportunity. So, I fully believe that digital transformation is what could save humanity. I am just not sure if humanity is smart enough to realise it and do it.
So, I fully believe that digital transformation is what could save humanity. I'm not sure if humanity is smart enough to realise it and do it.
Video edited by Juliette Travaillé