What does the new Finnish government say about the country’s commitment to equality?

What does the new Finnish government say about the country's commitment to equality?

Finland’s Prime Minister Sanna Marin (centre right) pictured with the Education Minister Li Andersson, Finance Minister Katri Kulmuni and Interior Minister Maria Ohisalo after the first meeting of the new government in Helsinki, Finland on 10 December 2019.

(Reuters/Lehtikuva Lehtikuva)

In December 2019, 34-year-old Sanna Marin from Finland’s Social Democratic Party became the world’s youngest head of state. Her centre-left government consists of five parties, all led by women, four of them 35 or under. The cabinet has a female majority, and even the parliament has near gender parity with 93 women MPs out of a total of 200.

Marin’s government has made Finland a poster child for gender equality worldwide, although it has long been considered one of the most gender equal countries in the world, with women acquiring the right to both vote and stand in elections as early as 1906.

Women comprise half of all university graduates in Finland and the female-to-male labour participation rate is 88.5 per cent, compared with a world average of 65.8 per cent and an EU average of 81 per cent. Anu-Tuija Lehto, a legal adviser at the Central Organisation of Finnish Trade Unions (SAK) says that a key contributor to gender equality in Finland is that fact that the state has enabled women to fully participate in the workforce. For example, parents are offered affordable public childcare in addition to generous parental leave. “Also, we have free school meals,” says Lehto, “while southern and central European countries still do not have that. This means that someone has to be at home, cooking for the children.”

However, Finland is not a utopia for equality. On average women are paid 83 cents on every euro that a man earns. There is a high level of gender segregation in the Finnish labour market, with women comprising 90 per cent of workers in fields such as childcare, healthcare and cleaning, while men dominate fields such as construction and road haulage by a similar percentage.

Violence against women remains a major societal issue. In 2016, two-thirds of people living with disabilities reported experiencing discrimination. And a 2019 report from the European Commission against Racism and Intolerance found that: “Racist and intolerant hate speech in public discourse is escalating; the main targets are asylum-seekers and Muslims”.

“We need circumstances where women are not discriminated against in their careers or in redundancies or anything else. Changing attitudes means practical things in the workplace,” says Lehto, suggesting that an informal chat between colleagues during coffee breaks is a good place to start dismantling sexist or racist attitudes. And even though Finland’s law on gender equality is more than three decades old, other forms of equality have only been enshrined in law since the 2000s, when EU directives brought them in.

While the Finnish state guarantees every child the right to day care, the previous centre-right coalition government restricted the number of weekly hours the children of unemployed parents were entitled to. Although in practical terms this was a relatively small change it was a significant shift away from the principle of all children being treated equally, and the policy was quickly reversed last year.

Iiris Suomela, a Green League (also known as the Greens) MP tells Equal Times: “The child homecare allowance, which is the smallest parental benefit, is mainly used by women – and especially those who are less educated and on lower incomes. So, in intersectional terms, the situation is feeble.”

Ninety-seven percent of those using the child homecare allowance are women. A fifth of fathers do not use any parental benefits, which puts Finland behind other Nordic countries. The government has promised to improve the quality of daycare by reducing group sizes and introducing quality standards, and to reform the parental leave system to incentivise more fathers to stay at home by giving both parents a quota of leave that cannot be used by the other parent.

Women rise to political power

How do Finland’s attempts to achieve gender equality translate to the highest positions of power?

Theodora Järvi, who is studying for a PhD in political, societal and regional change at Helsinki University, sees proportional representation as one of the key factors behind the rise of women in Finnish politics.

“The Finnish electoral system enables the rise of individuals better than systems where votes just go to the party. In a closed list the party decides who gets to Parliament, whereas Finland’s open list system makes it possible for voters to affect this, as long as the party gets enough support,” she explains.

Suomela says parties benefit from setting a diverse list of candidates. “The electoral system requires that we have different people as candidates. For example, in [my constituency] we had 19 people standing. There have to be people from different backgrounds, because you have to get votes from different kinds of people.”

Järvi points out that the leaders of the parties in government got most votes in their own parties or constituencies, with the exception of the Greens whose leader Maria Ohisalo came second in vote share after long-time minister and ex-party leader Pekka Haavisto. “It is important to note that these positions of power reflect voters’ choices, not just the parties’ internal preferences for leadership,” Järvi explains.

At 25, first-term MP Suomela is the youngest in the current parliament. She says there are many challenges for women in politics.

“Behavioural norms for young women are very strict. When a female minister swears on TV, there is a massive uproar, but when a middle-aged man from the other side of the political spectrum uses abusive language, or is even suspected to have committed a crime, it does not cause a similar reaction,” she says, referring to a recent incident where the education minister and leader of the Left Alliance Li Andersson described an opposition politician as talking “bullshit”. On the other hand, several MPs with the far-right Finns Party (the largest opposition party) are under investigation or have been convicted for ‘incitement against an ethnic group’.

Suomela also points out that political crises often provide fertile ground for sexism. Finland’s first female prime minister Anneli Jäätteenmäki only held the position for two months in 2003 before being forced to step down, and the 2000s have seen three other female ministers across parties resign due to public pressure in a country where political scandals are rare.

“When women have encountered crises in ministerial positions, situations that men would have survived have often proved fateful for women,” says the MP, adding that “sexism makes it easier to scapegoat women”.

But Suomela sees equal treatment as a question of democracy. “If voters choose people for positions of power and then they get treated differently, that’s disrespectful towards thousands of voters.”

Prime Minister Marin grew up in a low-income family with her mother and her mother’s female partner. She was also the first person in her family to attend university. Greens leader Maria Ohisalo has spoken out about her experience of childhood poverty and growing up in the shadow of her father’s alcoholism, in a contrast to the middle-class image usually associated with politicians in Finland and elsewhere.

A fragile coalition with an ambitious programme

After elections in April 2019, Finland’s five coalition parties negotiated an ambitious programme that aims to make Finland carbon-neutral by 2035, amongst other measures to improve equality and boost investment in the welfare state. Lehto of SAK says the trade unions are content with the government programme and its many references to equality. “It is clear that women have participated in writing it,” she says.

Many Finns seem to agree: in February, a poll showed that 64 percent of the population are satisfied with Marin’s government. But that does not mean it is without its internal tensions. The coalition government had only been in power for six months when the prime minister who had formed it, Antti Rinne, had to step down when the Centre Party withdrew its confidence in him following a long and fraught postal workers’ strike. Marin – who was the first deputy leader at the time – received praise for her performance during the election campaign when she stood in during a period when Rinne was on sick leave, and was quickly lifted up to lead the government when he stepped down.

The wide coalition was pieced together from parties with differing priorities. They coalesced around social democratic and human rights values after the far-right Finns Party came a close second – only 0.2 per cent away from the winning Social Democrats – in the election.

The Centre Party in particular, which draws its support from the rural areas and is losing votes to the right-wing populists, is often seen at odds with the Greens who would like to see more ambitious climate targets.

Since the election, the Finns Party has continued its ascendancy in the polls. It leads in popularity with over 20 percent support and dominates media attention with a constant flow of racist and offensive remarks such as celebrating an arson attack on a house that was due to house asylum seekers and the Ebola epidemic in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Suomela comments: “Popularity matters when you can use it for making policies that you agree with. If that support gets too much emphasis, it can lead to other parties starting to follow the policies that increase inequality and fuel prejudice, which can further those aims even more than the party could do in power. We should have the courage to stick to what the majority of the people want, which is politics that furthers human rights, equality, and is climate friendly. We need to have the courage to show that politics works, and it can improve people’s lives. It is not a zero-sum game where we need to stamp on other people’s rights to get something better.”