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The Nordic women – leaders in gender equality

The Nordic women – leaders in gender equality

| Text: Tapio Vestinen

The Nordic countries are leaders when it comes to equality between men and women. Nowhere else do women have such good opportunities to participate in working life and build careers. Finland recently set a new world record in the number of women in government, with 12 women cabinet members.

Giving birth, in other words motherhood, should not be allowed to become a barrier to a woman’s career. At least that is what Finland’s new government, headed by Prime Minister Matti Vanhanen, says. It has 12 women ministers and eight men. Minister of the Environment in Vanhanen’s second cabinet is Paula Lehtomäki, a member of parliament who was Minister of Foreign Trade in Vanhanen’s first government (2003-2007). Lehtomäki put her ministerial duties aside to have a child and took maternity leave from September 2005 to March 2006. And now her next child is expected in October, and she will again quit office to take mother’s leave.

The new Finnish government faces a positive challenge as babies are on the way or have arrived for at least three other cabinet members. Minister of Communications Suvi Lindén and Interior Minister Anne Holmlund are both awaiting word on adoptions in China, and Minister of Health and Social Services Paula Risikko has already enjoyed a similar happy event. 

Paternity leave – Good start for an adopted child 

Risikko’s adopted Chinese daughter Aino gets tender care from the minister’s husband, Heikki Risikko.

”I want Aino to be close to me despite my hectic life in government. A small child grows right before your very eyes, and as a mother I want to be there to see it,” Paula Risikko said at the government’s first news conference.

She openly praises her husband, Heikki, whose flexibility made it possible to meet the challenge of combining motherhood and membership of the cabinet. He has given up his job as an editor in chief and moved for several weeks from their home in Seinäjoki to Helsinki to care for their two-year old adopted daughter.

”It’s usually the woman who has to bend in career choices. I have a good husband,” the minister says with two-year-old Aino in her arms.

Members of the current government already have about a dozen small children. Prime Minister Vanhanen has promised his team that most cabinet meetings will be held during normal office hours. One-year-old Saara’s dad, Finance Minister Jyrki Katainen, regards it as a positive challenge for ministers to have families. ”It has to be recognised in practice that a child has only one set of parents. You can’t outsource that responsibility even if help is available from people nearby,” Katainen says. 

Fisher(wo)man Helga Pedersen of Norway

But Finland is not alone in the political arena showing that women are as good at ”men’s work” as men themselves. Helga PedersenNorway’s Minister of Fisheries Helga Pedersen, the leader of a masculine branch of government, gave recently birth to a baby girl and soon after that was elected deputy leader of the Labour Party. Pedersen, who is nicknamed ”the new Gro” after former Prime Minister Gro Harlem Brundtland, took her mandatory maternity leave after the birth of her girl, but care for the child in the future will be given as much by Pedersen’s Norwegian husband as by she herself.

But what do Finland’s and Norway’s examples mean in practice for equality between men and women? I posed that question to Solveig Bergman who heads the Nordic Institute for Women’s Studies and Gender Research in Oslo.

”Of course it shows on a symbolic level that we have crossed a threshold. Finland now has its first woman president, the country had a woman prime minister several years ago and also the first woman leader of one of the big political parties, and 50 percent or more of the members of government or parliament are women. All this shows that a lot has happened in the political sphere in Finland and certainly in the other Nordic countries too,” Bergman says.

But have changes only taken place in politics?

A lot of research has been done on this over the past 10 years, and it clearly shows that politics is quantitatively the most egalitarian area while business is certainly the most difficult arena,” she says. 

A Nordic women’s paradise? 

Women’s position in economic life is the most problematic. Although Finland’s forest industry federation is led by a woman, Anne Brunila, the Bank of Finland had a woman Governor, Sirkka Hämäläinen, and Nokia’s No. 2 boss alongside Jorma Ollila was for years a woman named Sari Baldauf,  women have still not conquered as much from men in business as they have won representation in politics. Business is still often characterised by ”old boys’ clubs” which are very hard for women to join.

Efforts have been made in Norway to help women to the top of the corporate ladder and into the boardroom by adopting a quota system. A new law introduced in 2006 requires that both sexes should have at least 40 percent representation at the board of 500 public companies. In Sweden, the Social Democratic government of Prime Minister Göran Persson which was defeated last autumn, tried for a 25 percent quota for women, but the centre-right coalition government now in power has decided not to adopt the quota system. In Finland and Denmark, there has been no talk of quotas.

”Denmark is the most difficult of the Nordic countries. For instance, at the universities, Denmark is way below the European Union average, and in Finland only 80 percent of professors are men,” Bergman says with tongue in cheek. 

And why is that? 

”There is no single clear reason, but in Denmark women remained outside of social structures in the 1970s. They fought in organisations outside parliament and did not want to join social structures. And it shows in the position of Danish women today,” Bergman says.

”Whereas in Finland and Norway women joined institutions as a result of their struggle for equality and also got positions there, in Denmark they remained outside,” Bergman says.

Bergman knows what she is talking about since she took her doctorate in Finland on the strategies of the women’s movement. In Denmark, according to many women’s rights activists, the situation is also difficult because Denmark has a conservative government, and so equality and feminism are not the flavour of the day in Danish public discourse.

”Many think that we have been gradually shifting to the right, while others say that it is not that simple. It has not been a linear development, because there have been setbacks along the way. There is also a debate about which factors come from education and socialisation and which are structural. This is the core and the reason women’s studies exist,” Bergman says.

”If we look at the 27 EU member countries, then of course the Nordic countries stand out to their advantage in terms of women’s opportunities to have families and to take part in working life, politics and the whole structure of the welfare state. But it would be a bit naive to say that the Nordic countries are paradises and that all the others are far behind. For instance, the situation in Germany is very interesting right now. They are developing day care, and women’s position in politics is quite different from that of women in Anglo-American culture.”

Labour or religion

It is hard to find simple explanations for why women’s status is better in the Nordic countries than in southern Europe if one looks at social influence. On the one hand it is a question of the workforce, but for instance religion also plays a big role.

”It is partly a question of the supply of labour. As a researcher of the women’s movement I want to see which factors have affected the outcome, and not just look at macro level structures. But of course such social factors as the need for labour affect the outcome. If one looks at the EU’s demographic structure, it is worrisome, as was noted in the declaration of the Lisbon summit.

If we look at the need for day care across the EU, then more women are wanted in the workforce to promote economic growth.”

And what kind of influence does religion have?

“It is certainly very important because it shapes traditions and of course culture. If we look at Catholic countries and the situation in Germany, for instance, then the development is, of course, different in

Catholic southern Germany than in Lutheran northern Germany. Religion is one factor, but certainly not the only one.”

”But my main point is that the perception that the Nordic countries are some kind of paradise is too simplistic. Here too there is a sharp divide in the labour market and in wage levels between the sexes, and family violence is also a serious problem in the Nordic countries.”

Where are the men?

Consider the Nordic male, and one cannot avoid the question, as shown by the examples of Minister Risikko in Finland and Minister Pedersen in Norway, of who takes care of the children once they are born into this world?

”By housework I don’t mean who washes the dishes and vacuums, but rather who stays home to take care of the small children. The systems in Norway, Sweden and especially the Icelandic fathers’ quota have produced very good results. In Iceland, the situation is quite revolutionary in an international perspective, and now also in Finland people have grown interested in the Icelandic model.”

In the Icelandic model, both the mother and father get three months parental leave, which is mandatory, and three months shared leave with which the parents decide who stays at home. This has changed the whole attitude in Iceland towards young fathers at the workplace. In Finland, paternity leave was made a topic of conversation by Prime Minister Paavo Lipponen who took a week-long father’s leave when a child was born to he and his wife. It was an eye-opener and a significant act in itself, but...

”He stayed home for one week, and that is not going to change the world. In Norway, the father’s quota is now six weeks, and Equality Minister Karita Bekkemellem has held out the idea of a three-month paternity leave for Norway too, and the issue is now being discussed within political parties.”

Since the Second World War, the Nordic countries have not had a housewife culture in the same way as in other parts of Europe. Women have always been partners in working life and have toiled alongside men. For that reason it has been easier to implant the idea of equality in Nordic culture than in southern Europe and the United States, which have strong housewife cultures.

”After the war there emerged the so-called Nordic social model, combining equality with the welfare society, which emphasises equality as part of the down-to-earth Nordic character and respect for politics, and it has perhaps been decisive in establishing the Nordic woman’s position in politics, business and society.

These Nordic characteristics have given political legitimacy to demands for equality between the sexes in the labour market, in family life and in politics,” Bergman says.


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