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Out with the trade union sauna – in with gender equality!

Out with the trade union sauna – in with gender equality!

| Text: Bengt Östling, photo: Cata Portin

Gender equality in Finnish trade unions might have been lagging behind other Nordic countries. But things are getting better.

 Finnish trade unions are opening up for women, also at the top level. There are still structures which lead to male dominance in Finnish politics and working life,” say gender equality experts Marianne Laxén and Päivi Niemi-Laine, President for the JHL trade union. But it should not be necessary to act like a man in order to get a top position.

Marianne Laxén is still a trailblazer in Finnish gender equality politics. We meet her on a snowy evening in central Helsinki at the Luckan cultural centre. She is there to address a meeting of the Finland-Swedish friends of peace. Around ten women want to listen to Marianne Laxén talk about the evening’s theme, feminist peace work.

Cold sauna, empty bottle

We sit that meeting out in order to get a quick résumé of Finnish gender equality in working life then and now. It starts with a surprise: There is no more male dominance.

“Before, the boys sat in the sauna debating. Alcohol also played an important role in the decision making,” Marianne Laxén reminds us.

But that culture is gone. The consumption of strong alcohol within trade unions has fallen considerably since the 1980s. This also makes it easier for women to take part; there is a more open culture. Decisions are made more out in the open.

There are other issues which, according to Marianne Laxén, make women shy away from top jobs in the trade unions. One might be the long training process which might feel a bit old fashioned because it demands so much time away from home and family. Men seem more prepared to sacrifice the family for the trade union.

Trade union bankruptcy scaring women away?

The three central Finnish trade unions – SAK, Akava and STTK – are all led by men and always have been.

There was a fourth one which was led by a woman. But the confederation of salaried employees TCO went bust during the 1990s casino economics in Finland. 

Marianne Laxén considers the bankruptcy as one of the reasons why no woman has wanted to apply for the top positions since. The women had to take responsibility and tidy up the mess caused by the men, it was said afterwards. Nobody wants that to happen again.

There is progress

Marianne Laxén has been a leading gender equality civil servant both in the Finnish and Swedish government offices, as well as with the Nordic Council of Ministers' secretariat in Copenhagen. 

She does see progress in Finland. But the situation centrally is not yet ideal. 

Men and women in central organisations, 2015



Akava 21 4 19 %
SAK 20 6 30 %
STTK 27 9 33 %
EK 19 4 21 %

The grid shows the difference in female and male boardroom representation in the three central trade unions and in the Confederation of Finnish Industries, EK.

What surprises Marianne Laxén the most is that the Confederation of Unions for Professional and Managerial Staff in Finland, Akava, with their well-educated members, has not reached more that a measly 19 percent female representation. 

The Central Organisation of Finnish Trade Unions (SAK in Finnish) is the largest, but not the best on gender equality. Female members are just shy of making up a majority. 

The Finnish Confederation of Professionals (STTK in Finnish) took over the women hit by the bankruptcy and is now the largest for female representation and has the most women in leading positions.

On the employers’ side, female boardroom representation stands at 21 percent, but in the executive committee it is zero.

Where femininity shines

At the modern offices of JHL, the Trade Union for the Public and Welfare Sectors, the leadership is gathering. Päivi Niemi-Laine is a modern leader, letting her feminine side show both through how she dresses and behaves, she says.

Photographer: Cata Portin

She is happy to tell us about her first important negotiations with the employer, when she rolled up in a miniskirt and high heals and was met with suspicion, as women so often experience. But if you know what you’re talking about, clothes don’t matter she says.

As late as in 2001 it was not uncommon for male trade union bosses to patronise her and women in general. Women were complimented on their hair colour, but nobody wanted serious negotiations with them, and certain jobs were considered to be reserved for men. 

But no longer. Päivi Niemi-Laine sees no oppression of women trade union leaders. But the female trades suffer.

Largest membership among female trades

The Social Democrat Päivi Niemi Laine became President of JHL a couple of years ago, replacing Jarkko Eloranta who became the SAK Chairman. A woman held the post before him, so here a female leader is nothing new.

Päivi Niemi-Laine is one of four women in the SAK leadership. Her union has more than 225,000 members, 70 percent of them are women. The Service Union United, PAM, is slightly larger, and is also led by a woman.

The largest trade unions have many things in common: A large majority of women members and in boardrooms. They often represent the cleaning, care, service and education sectors. Low salary trades exposed to a lot of competition, points out Päivi Niemi-Laine.

Care sector reform threatens women

The largest problem facing public sector trade unions is a care sector reform which Finland will introduce in a few years from now. Responsibility for the care and social sectors will move from the municipalities to a new regional structure.   

More than 200,000 employees will get new employers. People worry about of pay cuts, short term jobs, demands for flexibility and zero hours contracts, as their jobs are being unbundled and new care companies enter into the fray to secure a freedom of choice for clients.

Female leadership – different?

Many want more female leaders. But why? Just to balance the numbers, or because they are better leaders? There are at least differences in terms of which issues are being raised and in the type of leadership, thinks both Marianne Laxén and Päivi Niemi-Laine.

Photographer: Cata PortinWage politics seem to be male trade union bosses area of speciality, while female trade union leaders might talk more about family politics. From time to time they have also been able to win concessions to bridge the gender pay gap. But that was a long time ago. 

“Otherwise it is a question of personality rather than gender. Female and male trade union bosses have been through pretty much the same education and selection processes,” underlines Marianne Laxén. Their policies are fairly similar, shaped together. 

Tarja Halonen a role model

Päivi Niemi-Laine talks about emotional leadership, the empathy which allegedly is more prevalent among women. Men lead on issues, they focus on achieving results, but have less empathy and feelings (which is also perceived to be the typical Finnish leadership style).

In many ways Tarja Halonen is a role model who reached the republic’s top position, the presidency, after having served both as foreign minister and an MP. She showed that female leadership also could introduce soft values, human rights.

Marianne Laxén agrees. If you can reach a balance in gender representation in politics, both on a municipal and national level, why should it be so difficult in the trade unions?

Female flexibility and insecure jobs

The new care sector reform puts the public sector with many women employees in a difficult position, points out Päivi Niemi-Laine. Many jobs are under threat, they need understanding employers who can emphasise with other people’s emotions. The decisions made might be the same regardless of the boss’ gender. But the goals will be achieved in a softer way with female bosses, she believes 

The government cuts amount to three billion euro. This has drawn a lot of criticism from the trade unions.   

“When the cuts have all been carried out within the service and care sectors, male trades will be hit too,” warns Päivi Niemi-Laine. She is hoping for male solidarity now. Men might need female solidarity later on.

”Different during Lipponen”

Both Marianne Laxén and Päivi Niemi-Laine know that there are far more women trade unions leaders in the other Nordic countries. Perhaps that is why everyday problems get less attention in Finland. And the economy, for instance equal pay, gets a lot more attention in Norway, for instance. 

That has been a nearly dormant issue for a long time in Finland. It is not part of the latest Finnish government programme. Under Social Democrat prime ministers like Paavo Lipponen, equal pay was an issue. Now people have become used to the pay gap. 

The gap has grown particular for the younger generation. For every euro a man earns, women get 83 cents. Or: For each euro a woman earns, men take home €1.20.

Wage gap to the grave

The wage gap matters for the duration of people’s lives, the inequality is evident also in the pensions people draw. Marianne Laxén knows, as she is a member of one of Finland’s large pension unions.

Finnish women’s shorter careers have an impact on their pension. They are almost dependent on their husband’s pension. Yet Finland does not face the same problem as Sweden, where many women work part time and take a cut to their pension as a result. 

Cutting men’s wages?

“You cannot see everything in terms of cost efficiency, competition and unbundling. You have to remember that the public sector also supports the traditionally male trades, the export industry and economic growth.” 

Both Päivi Niemi-Laine and Marianne Laxén agree. 

Laxén is even willing to cut men’s salaries if women’s wages can not be increased. For real?

“Yes, all of our economic policy is based on increasing consumption. But I am not sure everybody becomes happy by consuming more. We should put the brakes on. But right now things are moving in the opposite direction, towards the right and more injustice,” says Marianne Laxén.

Gender equality benefits employers too

There is also a lack of women in employer’s leadership positions, just like within the trade unions. But that might not matter. Päivi Niemi-Laine’s opposite during municipal negotiations is the municipal employers’ organisation, where she has been met with understanding for women’s demands. It is a different story with the export industry and big industry.

Marianne Laxén says employers benefit from gender equality too, for instance when it comes to family policies. With the current system, women’s employers pay a lot more parental benefits, because women are the ones claiming it. 

But here change seems to be afoot. All organisations are now updating their family policies. There seems to be changes coming to parental leave rules. 

Quotas in trade unions and companies?

Female boardroom quotas are often discussed in Finland. But it does not exist in companies nor in trade unions. 

JHL’s President is principally in favour of female boardroom quotas. It would set an example for all of society. We have seen an improvement, but we need a quota, at least until the imbalance has been addressed, says Päivi Niemi-Laine.

But in trade unions? Should there be quotas there? Marianne Laxén is doubtful.

“I have been pro quotas for companies, but I am not sure whether it has much effect. It is mainly a question of democracy.” 

A quota would still change the unions. Without it it will take longer to achieve a balance, but Laxén believes it will even itself out anyway.

Female quotas are not a goal, but a tool to reach equality faster. The important thing is to not turn the women into men in order to be good at leadership and get chosen.

Perhaps we don’t need more tough bosses, even if they are women, suggests Marianne Laxén.

Changing attitudes takes time

The Finnish government should of course promote gender equality. But the current centre-right government only states as a fact that Finnish men and women are equal. Päivi Niemi-Laine and Marianne Laxén, Social Democrats both, are critical to this.

It is evident both in the trade unions and in the private sector. Yet it is still difficult to get a woman to the top. Not because women do not want the top jobs. For some reason they have pulled back in the last minute. 

The service sector union leader Ann Selin has left the race to get the job as chairperson at the SAK, with vague explanations about not wanting to create a split in the organisation. But while Päivi Niemi-Laine believes in gender equality in trade union leaderships, Marianne Laxén is more pessimistic.

The health sector union today has a male leader, despite the female dominated membership.

And it will probably be many years before The Finnish Metalworkers’ Union gets a female leader, like what seems to be happening i Sweden right now, says Marianne Laxén.

The male drunken sauna sessions might be gone from Finnish trade union life. But the attitude that there are male and female jobs is harder to shake off. Both Marianne Laxén and Päivi Niemi-Laine put their hopes in the next generation of trade union members.


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