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Lipsticks or bulls? Finland has changed after women came to power

Lipsticks or bulls? Finland has changed after women came to power

| Text: Bengt Östling, foto: Cata Portin

There are great expectations linked to the new Finnish government. International media have celebrated Finland, the land of gender equality. Women lead the government and they are also younger than ever. Many also believe the content of politics and its execution change when women are “allowed to participate”.

Finnish politics has long been perceived to be dominated by older men. But many felt something very special happened on election night in April 2019 – both party members, voters and candidates.

The parliamentary election led to a rejuvenation and more women MPs. The Green League had the youngest candidates and the highest number of women.

Government negotiations led to a new coalition. The Social Democratic Party took over the Prime Minister’s office after the Center Party, which carried on in government despite losing in the election. The National Coalition Party and the Finns Party had to leave, and the Left Alliance, the Green Alliance and the Swedish People’s Party joined. 

Over the summer, more young women were elected to party leadership posts, and they also became government ministers. Katri Kulmuni heads the Centre Party, Maria Ohisalo is the new Green Alliance leader. 

Sanna Marin new Prime Minister

The government stepped down in the autumn, and Antti Rinne had to go. The Social Democratic party elected Minister of Communication Sanna Marin as its new Prime Minister, with a small margin. She is 34 years old. This summer she is also expected to be officially elected party leader for SDP after Antti Rinne. In reality she already leads the party. 

Now the whole world is talking about the world’s youngest Prime Minister Sanna Marin, even though someone even younger has emerged since her appointment. 

Sweden has traditionally been seen as the trailblazer when it comes to gender equality and a leader in the Nordic region. Now, Finland is taking up position as the new country of gender equality. There was great interest last autumn when Finland held the EU Presidency.

Thomas Blomqvist

Thomas Blomqvist is the Finnish Minister for Equality. It feels really good to be the Minister for Equality, he says. He sounds proud of all the attention and is happy with the government’s program for gender equality.

“We have the same government programme as the Rinne government. There is a lot about equality there. As the Minister for Equality, it is a good starting point when the whole government is interested and committed to promote equality and introduce new measures,” says Thomas Blomqvist.

Things did not get worse when Finland got a new, female Prime Minister and women as party leaders. Things are clearer for people and for the media, more interesting when all five government parties are women, says Thomas Blomqvist.

This strengthens the equality aspect, or at least it seems like that. What Finland does when it comes to equality is gaining a lot of interest.

Risking a backlash

“The Finnish example is also important because of what we can see in many other places around the world. During the EU Presidency, we noticed a certain backlash for women’s rights and equality in some areas,” says Thomas Blomqvist. That makes it even more important to highlight such issues on an international and European level. Sadly the coronavirus has now put a stop to some important events which were meant to look at these issues.

The government programme is good, says Thomas Blomqvist. So is the response from all stakeholders. That is a good start. But Blomqvist underlines that the work has only just begun.

The government's equality programme has been out on its first consultation, and a report on equality policies is due to be presented to parliament during this parliamentary term. 

Many concrete programmes are lined up for implementation, also for things other than equality.

Family reform

The family reform has a large equality aspect to it, says Thomas Blomqvist. There is also focus on equality when working with the budget. Equality should be a natural part of all major structural reforms, and it is necessary to take into account gender-related consequences. All policy areas should have a gender perspective, just like in the EU.

Blomqvist is also preparing to cooperate with the social partners on an equal pay programme aimed at bridging the pay gap. The government wants more wage transparency, less segregation in the labour market and improved equality overall. An action programme to combat violence against women is in the works, and is currently with the Minister of Justice.

Measures for increased employment rates also have a gender aspect. The aim is an employment rate which is higher than 75%. 

In addition to being Minister for Equality, Thomas Blomqvist is also responsible for Nordic cooperation. The Nordics have long excelled when it comes to equality, so there are good examples to be found. There is much to learn from the other Nordic countries, the minister says.

It is not possible to implement everything in Finland right away. But other countries have done better in many areas, and it is important to study how they have gone about this. There are also differences between the countries which means you need different kinds of measures, says Thomas Blomqvist.

Female dominance in the Nordic region too

It is the Prime Ministers who run the Nordic cooperation and agree on reforms. The fact that four out of the five Prime Ministers are now women might give things an extra dimension? Thomas Blomqvist says he has not even reacted to the fact that Sweden now is the only country with a male Prime Minister.

“Yes, this is an important sign of how equality has improved. It is historically unusual to have a female Prime Minister. Yet Finland has had three women in that job. We have also had a female President and female parliament speakers. So it is not entirely uncommon to have women in the most important jobs in Finland or in other Nordic countries.”

Right now it so happens that there are many women Prime Ministers in the whole of the Nordic region.

“I hope, and do believe, that this will not be so unusual in the future. But the Prime Minister post is also symbolically important. You should have the same opportunities regardless of your gender when it comes to top posts," says Thomas Blomqvist. 

“The fact that there are so many women in that job now, is a sign that we have got many things right when it comes to equality.

Gender equality if all leaders are women?

But back to Finland and the women’s government. Is everything really A OK? Thomas Blomqvist has not been directly presented with criticism or opposition against the large number of women in the government's leadership.

He has, however, read about an opinion which is sometimes expressed in Finland, that equality does not work if all party leaders are women. Where are the men, some equality supporters now ask.

“This is no collective decision, each party has decided for itself to elect a woman. It has turned out like this by chance.”

Thomas Blomqvist reminds us that Finland has had innumerable governments with men leading all the political parties. Now there is a situation where all are women, and he does not see that as a problem. But it is interesting, since we have a long history with men dominating, he points out.

“I want our work with equality to lead to a situation where men and women enjoy the same opportunities,” says Thomas Blomqvist.

Although women are leading the parties in government, it is important to remember that the governed is quite close to having an equal quota, says Thomas Blomqvist. There are men in the government too after all, even though there is more focus on the five female party leaders. There are seven men and twelve women government ministers. 

Sewing circle and lipstick government

The Finnish government has come in for some tough criticism from former government parties the National Coalition Party and the Finns Party however – and from the evening papers. 

The Iltalehti tabloid recently criticised the government for focusing too much on refugees and climate change, and not enough on the economy. The newspaper compared the government's top ministers to a sewing circle and said they should look up from their handiwork. But the government is asleep like Sleeping Beauty, wrote Iltalehti’s political correspondent Mika Koskinen.

Opposition politicians have called the government a Spice Girls government and a lipstick government. That term was made “word of the month” by the Institute for the Languages of Finland in December.

It could be a positive or negative term, depending on whether or not you consider lipstick to be an appropriate feminist symbol, writes the Institute on their website. One person’s shallowness, another person’s courage. And red lipsticks can also symbolise the new government’s main political colour.

The term was launched by the Ostrobothnia regional board of the National Coalition Party’s women’s association in a critique of the new government. The old government was described as a flock of bulls, while the new one got the lipstick tag. 

Female politicians must defend themselves

Women who are active in politics know they will always be asked who is looking after their children. This question is rarely put to male politicians. Women who have experienced motherhood are often considered to be better at organisation and taking leadership of complicated situations. 

Looks and clothes also get a lot of attention. Anyone opening up their wardrobe to the press has to get used to ending up in the entertainment section rather than the politics section, a female politician points out.

Conflicts between female politicians are often described as catfights, while male politicians are often admired for being principled and ideological. The new Finnish government has already experienced all this.

Is there a small difference?

There has been very little research into whether there really is a difference between female and male politicians. Is there such a thing as a female political perspective? Does this government work in a different manner than earlier ones, which had more men? Thomas Blomqvist does dare say in what ways the new government's working methods or rules differ from previous governments. It is his first year in government. But he is happy with how this government works.

It has been pointed out that participation, inclusion and discussion is more visible in the new Finnish government. Past governments were characterised as efficient and technocratic.

Personalities do matter of course, people are different and each politician or leader is a human being, says Thomas Blomqvist. What matters is individual abilities. That is why you cannot say something general about female or male politicians, he reasons. 

The way government works and politics in general have also changed because social media now play such an important role. The good thing is that this makes decisionmaking more transparent. It has, however, also sometimes made the internal decision process unnecessarily complicated, says Thomas Blomqvist. 

Social media, however, have made it much easier to spread hate online. Female politicians say hate messages are now part of everyday life. Both male and female Finnish politicians are condemning the increasingly coarse tone. Proposed legislation aims to deal with targeted online attacks. These are considered to be a democratic problem because they aim to silence the women.



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