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The salary gap: a stain on Finland’s reputation

The salary gap: a stain on Finland’s reputation

| Text: Carl-Gustav Lindén

When it comes to female representation in business and politics, Finland is a leader in the EU in a range of fields. The Ombudsman for Equality, Pirkko Mäkinen, is particularly pleased with the fact that Finland has better female representation in boardrooms than any other EU country - 27 percent - without having to use gender quotas.

Compared to its Nordic neighbours, Finland even has a high proportion of women in political positions of power. But apart from that, she finds little cause for celebration.

“When it comes to salary gaps, we are in the middle, or even a bit below,” Pirkko Mäkinen tells the NLJ.

She also feels Finns have become gender blind: people seem to think that gender equality has been achieved and that is time to move on and deal with other difficult issues. This is one of the reasons why immigration issues are being debated much more than women’s problems in working life.

“It is disconcerting. Young people are very equal and they encounter the problems only when they enter into the labour market, like when women return to work after maternal leave and their work tasks no longer exist.”

There is also an ongoing debate about men’s position in Finnish society. There is a large group of men who for various reasons - low education, illness, social exclusion - have become outsiders and there is increasing talk about men having a much shorter lifespan than women.

Her own driving force is the chance to work on a daily basis with human rights, to identify problems and to fix them within the confines of the law.

Work is now going on to extend gender equality legislation to include sexual minorities. Mäkinen says efforts to fight discrimination improve the situation for everyone in a workplace, not only for those who have been facing problems. She also takes a particular interest in immigrant women, because they risk falling in between the Ombudsman for Equality and the Ombudsman for Minorities’ areas of responsibilities. 

“At school Somali girls are advised to become nurses instead of being informed of all their opportunities. This is common but very hidden.”  

Proud tradition

In 1906 Finland became the world’s first country to give women the right to vote and to run for office. The country has also become known for its female government ministers and one president, but the country did not get a law securing gender equality until 1987. That is also when the Ombudsman for Equality position was established. Mäkinen, a trained lawyer, has held the position the longest and is now in her third period, which will end in 2017. Her first period began on the same day as Finland became an EU member.

The Ombudsman for Equality has from the very start been involved in working life issues. Mostly she deals with discrimination in the recruitment process or wages, temporary job contracts or problems linked to pregnancy or parental leave.

Finland is unique in that nearly as many women as men are in work. It is easier to achieve a good work/life balance in Finland compared to for instance in the south of Europe.

“Having a child does not mean you have to go part-time.”

The government is trying to reduce the pay gap between women and men from 20 percent in 2006 to no more than 15 percent by 2015, but right now Finnish women earn 83 percent out of each euro men get paid, so it doesn’t look good. Finnish law says all workplaces with more than 30 employees must have a gender equality plan which registers salaries, but in reality the Ombudsman for Equality’s office has not got the necessary resources to follow this up.

The public sector

Although pay gaps have been debated for decades, the gender equality work is slow. One contributing factor to the pay gap is that women are more likely to work in the public sector where wages are are on average lower than in the private sector.

Women are best represented as leaders in the public sector where the government and parliament has decided they should hold at least 40 percent of the top positions.

“On the other hand, the municipal sector is very male dominated,” says Mäkinen.

Many municipal jobs are female dominated, however - mainly within the healthcare sector and in education. Finland might time and again top the Pisa tables which measure what 15 year olds have learned, but this is not reflected in salaries, despite the fact that Finnish teachers must have a university education in order to get the formal skills they need. The same goes for other female dominated occupations.    

“A librarian once said the man driving the library bus was better paid than her despite her university degree,” says Pirkko Mäkinen.

Conditions are not great for gender equality in private business: a survey commissioned by the Pro trade union showed 36 percent of men had leadership positions compared to only 6 percent of women. Men also get higher bonuses and are offered more training than women in the same positions. 

“We consider engineers to be leaders, and that training is completely male dominated. There are women within HR and communication, but not in the hardcore business areas.”

Listed companies’ leadership groups consisted of 19.2 percent women towards the end of last year, which is only a little bit behind Sweden but clearly better than Denmark. Yet there was only one female CEO.

The Nordic region and the EU are important reference groups for Pirkko Mäkinen. She finds effective solutions and models through discussions with her colleagues. All countries are facing the same problems, from discrimination to media stereotypes, strange views on women and men.

“The economic situation is depressing and it is easy to dismiss these issues as “luxury worries."

1 minute interview

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