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Finland's Tuula Haatainen sees positive gender signals in EU

Finland's Tuula Haatainen sees positive gender signals in EU

| Text Carl-Gustav Lindén, Photo: Cata Potin

The European Union is seriously looking at the challenges of gender equality, while many member states have no option but to address the problem of how work and family life can be combined.

When it comes to economic decision-making within the EU, women are still in a weak position. It's a big problem, yet the Finnish minister for gender equality Tuula Haatainen says she has more than one reason to be optimistic about equality between the sexes. She leads the debate this autumn, while Finland chairs the EU presidency.

"If Europe is to be competent and powerful in the economic and social arenas, we must make the most of all resources. We have to try to benefit from women", says Haatainen, who is responsible for equality issues at the Ministry of Social Affairs and Health in Helsinki.

A real result is that the EU has agreed to establish a bureau of equality, responsible for information and creating debates about the share of responsibility and power between men and women in European countries.

New EU members Slovenia, Slovakia and Lithuania are fighting to be host country for the bureau when it opens at the beginning of next year.

Long Tradition

EU gender equality ministers, i.e. social and health ministers or labour ministers with responsibility for questions concerning equality, met in Helsinki at the beginning of October. Haatainen points out

that the debate on gender equality within the EU has a long history, resulting in directives on equal pay and gender equality programs.

"But not all agree on everything. We in the Nordic countries mustn't forget that there are political movements elsewhere in Europe which think women should stay at home and look after children, and be stripped of their sexual rights - like free choice in terminating pregnancies."

At the same time, the development in Southern Europe has been positive from a Nordic perspective. Women there have gained access to the labour market. The downside is that fewer children are born. The problem which remains is how to combine children and work. Day care has become an important issue on the agenda of social ministers.

"This we have understood in the Nordic countries, where birth rates are good. In Finland for example, 1.8 children are born per woman. It's important that we have long parental leave, that pay compensation is good and that the day care and care for the elderly works well."

The interest for gender equality has increased also where decisions are made, because equality is now being defined in economic terms within the Lisbon process, which aims to increase the EU's competitiveness.

"This is the time to move forwards on a national level."

Gender quotas?

One of the questions which demands decisions on a national level is whether to impose quotas for women in leading positions and in board rooms. Right now Spain is debating a proposed law which would impose quotas like those which exist in Norway. Haatainen is disappointed that development in Finland has been slow.

"Some women have told me they don't want to be quota women, and if you're alone that is understandable. But if forty of fifty per cent must be women, there are no quota women or quota men."

Earlier this year she and Prime Minister Matti Vanhanen wrote a letter to listed companies and the Confederation of Finnish Industries, EK, asking what the companies' plans were to increase female representation.

The debate has begun, and in January she will host an economy forum to take things one step further.

"I would like to discuss whether there is something in between quotas and doing things voluntarily - a different system."

But she does not believe those who argue there simply aren't enough competent women for the listed companies. The main problem is today's selection structure, which is strong and male dominated.

"The same goes for public services. Local councils claimed there was no way of finding women with city planning or technical skills. But there are very qualified women who can be in charge of these things. Women are well educated."

The family decides

Throughout this year, Tuula Haatainen has focused her work on highlighting gender equality in Finland's domestic debate, and she has developed a check list on how the government's equality program is put into practice within government ministries. The government and the partners in the labour market have also negotiated a deal on how to reduce inequality in pay between men and women - a programme of equal pay which Haatainen calls "historical". And in August, the government presented its proposal on how to share the costs for parental leave in a way which doesn't penalise women's employers.

"We must move forward and make sure families can decide over their own lives."

Tuulas hour

On her first job as a young nurse in the early 1980s, Tuula Haatainen experienced first hand what discrimination of women meant.

"I felt there was an old-fashioned hierarchy, just like in the army, and today I can still see that it is lingering in the background. It opened my eyes."

Her work in psychiatric hospitals, in criminal care and in accident and emergency rooms also gave her an insight into the darker sides of life.

“I was young then, and I was forced to think things through which young people normally don't have to think about. Not only how they influence on an individual level, but also in society as a whole."

She put aside plans to travel the world to help poor people. It was also the beginning of her involvement in women liberation work. She combined political science studies with a life as an active feminist, as general secretary of the social democratic women's movement, and a deputy leadership at the Socialist Women's International.

But to influence society you need a political platform, and Tuula Haatainen gained a parliamentary seat in 1995. Today the 46 year-old mother of two is into her second government period. She sees politics as a collective effort, not a game for individualists. Personally she does not mind appearing in public, staging "Tuula's hour" where people can approach her to talk about life's highs and lows. Three weeks ago she visited a hospital, before that she's been to old people's homes, schools, day schools. "This is the way I do things, and I want to do it outside of the political sphere, and not restrict my visits to social democratic clubs. I follow the programme set out by the party and government, but feel politics is an area where you use your heart, brains and creativity."

Tuula Haatainens experience is that people will happily talk about what they want to achieve, how they think about changing their lives, and what they think should be better. She wants to be there to listen and to talk herself.

"I want to meet people out and about, on foot, not just go to meetings and read reports."



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