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OVERVIEW OF GENDER EQUALITY ISSUES IN FINLAND

 Prepared by the Finnish Institute of Occupation Health, Finland

INTRODUCTION

 Equality between women and men is a crucial part of the Finnish welfare state model. The objective is that women and men should have equal rights, obligations and opportunities in all fields of life. It is widely acknowledged that society can progress in a more positive and democratic direction when the competence, knowledge, experience and values of both women and men are allowed to influence and enrich the development.

The Act on Equality between Women and Men (609/86) in force since 1987 has three major goals:

  • The prevention of sex discrimination
  • The promotion of equality between women and men
  • The improvement of women’s status, especially in working life

The Act places a duty for promoting equality purposefully and systematically on all authorities and employers as well as in education, teaching and research. In 1992, discrimination on grounds of pregnancy and family care responsibilities was prohibited. Since 1995, employers with 30 or more regular workers have been obliged to include measures to promote equality in annual staff and training programmes or in labour protection programmes. The Amendment of 1995 includes a quota system; in official committees and councils the proportion of representatives of either sex should not be below 40%.

The ban on discrimination in employment covers hiring, wages, other working conditions, including sexual harassment, supervision and termination of employment. The Ombudsman for Equality monitors the observance of the Equality Act and particularly the observance of the prohibition on discrimination and discriminatory job and training advertising.

The Equality Act does not apply to:

  • Activities connected with the religious practices of religious communities, or
  • Families’ internal affairs or in people’s private life

 In 2004, a new Act on Equality between Women and Men has been in the process of preparation. The new Act is based on the old legislation supplemented by the EU legislation and directives.

GENDER EQUALITY MACHINERY

The gender equality structure (limiting it to the institutions, which are specifically dealing with gender issues) is provided in Picture 4.

In the Finnish Parliament, there is an Employment and Equality Committee. The Committee has regular meetings four times a week during the parliamentary session. All of the Committee members are MPs representing different political parties. The Committee has a chair, a vice chair and 15 regular members. In addition, there are nine deputy members as well as a Committee Council Clerk and an administrative assistant.

The Employment and Equality Committee is responsible for handling matters related to:

  • The work environment (including measures pertaining to radiation control and chemicals)
  • The labour force
  • Employment issues (including employment training for the adults)
  • Participation systems
  • Gender equality
  • Non-military service

 Among the female parliamentarians, there is a Network of Women Parliamentarians, which deals as an informal network of women crossing the strict party political lines and formalities and acts as a forum for open discussions on issues that are important for women. Sometimes the women’s issues unite the women parliamentarians, but often there are political disagreements according to established party political lines and loyalties. The chair of the network rotates among the political parties.

At governmental level, the Minister for Social Affairs and Health is responsible for equality matters. Equality issues fall within the scope of the Ministry of Social Affairs and Health in Finland. The Ministry has three independent bodies working for the promotion of equality between women and men, the Gender Equality Unit, the Ombudsman for Equality and the Council of Equality. The Equality Board acts as an independent body within the structure.

The Gender Equality Unit in the Ministry of Social Affairs and Health prepares the government’s gender equality policy. The Unit also co-ordinates international issues related to the European Union, the United Nations, the Council of Europe, and the Nordic Council of Ministers. The specific duties of the unit include:

  • Drafting and developing the Government’s gender equality policy in collaboration with other ministries;
  • Tasks related to the mainstreaming of gender equality;
  • Tasks related to the EU’s equality law and policy;
  • Tasks related to international affairs.

The duties of the Ombudsman for Equality are laid down in the Act of Equality Women and Men.

The Office of the Equality Ombudsman is a unit within the Ministry of Social Affairs and Health. The Ombudsman operates in conjunction with the Ministry of Social Affairs and Health as an independent authority supervising the implementation of the relevant legislation and attending to the tasks assigned to the Ombudsman by the law.

The Ombudsman for Equality:

  • Supervises compliance with the Act on Equality between Women and Men, in particular the prohibition on discrimination and discriminatory job advertising;
  • Promotes the purposes of the Equality Act by means of initiatives, advice and counsellin
  • Gives information about the Equality Act and its application;
  • Monitors the implementation of equality between women and men in various sectors of society.

The Ombudsman for Equality may assist persons discriminated against in safeguarding their rights. The Ombudsman can be requested to issue an opinion on whether discrimination has occurred in a given case or give advice regarding equality planning and application of the quota provision. The Ombudsman, with the assistance from his/her Office, can initiate action and give advice, instructions and prepare statements for cases in contravention of the Equality Act. The Ombudsman has a wide authority to gain information both from authorities and employers and private people, along with the additional right to inspect workplaces if the employer appears to have acted against the Act on Equality or its obligations.

 The Ombudsman may assist a person who has been subjected to discrimination in the protection of his/her rights, if necessary, to assist the said person in judicial proceedings relating to indemnification or compensation, if the Ombudsman considers the matter to be of considerable importance with regard to the application of the Equality. The decisions of the Ombudsman are legally binding.

The Ombudsman handles about 200 written discrimination cases annually. Half of the cases concern working life issues, the other half – other areas of life. Men bring up around 30 percent of the cases, while women bring up 70 percent of the cases. Advice and statements are free of charge. In addition to private citizens, the County Administrative Courts, trade unions and various associations can ask for statements and advice.

The Ombudsman’s Office publishes reports, research findings, brochures and bulletins. It has a wide reference and press library.

The Government nominates the Equality Board members who serve for a period of three years. The Equality Board consists of a chairperson and four members. The Board has the right to handle and decide on issues, for which it has responsibility under the Equality Act. The Ombudsman presents the cases to the Board. The Equality board can give comments to the courts, which can request a comment from the Board in cases related to gender discrimination and demand compensation. The board can use administrative coercive means. The Ombudsman, the Central Organisation of the Employers’ Association, or the Central Organisation of the Trade Unions can separately bring an issue violating the Act on Equality between Women and Men to the Equality Board. The Equality Board can impose a fine and thus deny the continued or renewed neglect against the Equality Act.

At the local level, some municipalities and big cities, among them Helsinki, have established special committees or ad hoc-working groups to advance equality issues in their regions. Some of the committees, which are established for special questions and purposes, have produced equality plans for the community. A good example is the Helsinki City Equality Plan (www.hel.fi).

 The tasks of the Council of Equality focus on the overall promotion of gender equality in the Finnish society. The Council serves as an active societal discussion forum in the field of equality policy and promotes gender equality, i.e., by taking initiatives and issuing opinions. It engages in equality discussions with authorities, public and municipal institutions, labour market organisations and other partners.

The General Secretary of the Council for Equality works at the Gender Equality Unit of the Ministry of Social Affairs and Health. The Council has a chairperson and a vice-chairperson and, in addition, eleven other members, each with a personal deputy. Representatives of the National Council of Women in Finland and the Coalition of Finnish Women’s Association for Joint Action (NYTKIS) take part in the Council’s activities as permanent expert members.

The Council for Equality:

  •  Monitors and promotes the implementation of equality between women and men in society;
  • Takes initiatives and makes proposals as well as issues opinions to develop legislation and other measures affecting gender equality;
  • Encourages co-operation between various authorities, social partners and other organisations and interest groups;
  • Follows international development in the field of gender equality.

The Council of Equality may set up subcommittees and working groups. Examples of such subcommittees include: a Subcommittee on Men’s Issues, a Subcommittee for Women’s Studies, and a Subcommittee on Women’s and Men’s Image in the Media.

The subcommittee on Men’s Issues has investigated ways of raising men’s interest in gender equality, looked at men’s particular problems from an equality perspective, and promoted men’s studies. The Council for Equality encourages men to participate in childcare. Topics include new fatherhood, violence, crises and new gender roles. Earlier the Council had a subcommittee against Violence that discussed violence against women and tried to find ways of removing and preventing violence.

Picture 4. Gender equality machinery of Finland

Seminars and publications are prepared on the initiative of the subcommittees. The Council for Equality produces background information for discussions and evaluations that further mainstream the equality objectives throughout the welfare state, especially in income transfers and employment policies.

The Council for Equality has supported women’s studies since the 1980s. Today, women’s studies have become well established within the Finnish universities and research institutes.

Social partners and NGOs. Women’s non-governmental organisations, labour market organisations, trade unions and a number of NGOs and smaller organisations are active partners in promoting gender equality in Finland. The umbrella organisation called NYTKIS (Coalition of Finnish Women’s Association for Joint Action) includes 54 organisations with about half a million members (www.naisjarjestojenkeskusliitto.fi). There are also some men’s organisations, particularly those devoted to violence prevention and men’s studies (www.uta.fi). Co-operation between the government and the NGOs has been close.

Most labour market organisations have special bodies and secretaries specialized in equality matters. There is an established tradition for asking the opinion of relevant NGOs and associations, including social partners, when new legislation is being prepared. The participation of various associations and organisations has been seen as an important aspect of democracy in Finland.

Even the minority women have started to organise themselves. One example are the Sami women. There is a special women’s committee in the Sami Council. “Sarahkka” is a Sami women’s organisations represented in the four Northern countries: Norway, Sweden, Finland, and Russia. There are a number of immigrant women’s associations working to improve understanding and to support women in a society and a culture different from their own. Some groups of immigrant women come from countries and cultures to which the Finnish debate on gender equality is unknown. Also several disabled women’s groups are organised in different ways. In Finland, issues concerning gender equality and the situation and rights of disabled women were not seriously put on the agenda until the beginning of the 1990s. Today, major disability organisations in Finland have active women’s committees and groups.

Statistics Finland has a unit for Population and Gender Statistics. The Gender Barometer is being published since 1998 in collaboration with the Council of Equality. The new Gender Barometer will be published in 2004.

CHALLENGES TO GENDER EQUALITY

Following parliamentary elections in Finland, a new government was formed in April 2002.

Gender equality is included in the official Government Programme, both as one of the general objectives and as the objective of several sectors. The Government is committed to promoting equality in working life and family life. The focus is on the reconciliation of work and family life, more flexible use of family leave, introduction of a one-month paternity leave, changes affecting working life, improvement of women’s employment, and reducing the wage differential between women and men.

In addition, obstacles to women’s entrepreneurship will be removed. In 2004 a work group was established to gather information and statistics about women’s entrepreneurship in order to encourage women in this field. A more general approach is to make authorities better aware of equality issues in their own administrative sector, i.e., by promoting gender mainstreaming. One of the tasks of the Gender Equality Unit at the Ministry of Social Affairs and Health is to draft and develop the Government’s gender equality policy.

2003-2006