Gender equality in Finland – what they are doing right

So with an extensive history of successes concerning gender issues, what is it exactly that Finland is doing so right?

Finland’s Prime Minister, Juha Sipilä, highlights his country’s pioneering stance on gender parity in his speech at the International Gender Equality Prize ceremony in Tampere earlier this month:

“For me personally equality between men and women has always been an important value and self-evident, in business life and also in politics.”

For a long time Finland has been at the forefront of advancing gender equality. A recent study by the World Economic Forum (WEF) ranked Finland third out of 150 countries for the smallest gender gap, closely behind Iceland and Norway. But it’s not just recently that Finland has been held up as a leading example in the sphere.

Finland was the first country in Europe to grant full equal rights to women in 1907, which saw the world’s first 19 female MPs elected to the Finnish parliament. Since then there has been continuous work to fight for women’s equality. The 60s and 70s saw reforms to the parental care system, providing daycare by law and developing a more equal parental leave system. In 1980 Finland introduced its first Government Action Plan for Gender Equality which would look at improving gender issues across various areas of society. The most recent plan (2016-19) consists of thirty different measures including those concerning education, sports, immigration, violence against women, and men’s health.

Gender equality in Finland

So with an extensive history of successes concerning gender issues, what is it exactly that Finland is doing so right?

Including females in decision and policy making at a high level seems to be one of the most important factors that has allowed Finland to progress regarding gender equality. Finland has one of the smallest gender gaps within politics, female MPs making up 41.5% of parliament. This figure has been fairly consistent throughout the 2000s (around 40% ) showing that females have helped shape the nation’s core values for a long time and been able to open political discussion on a variety of different issues.

The millennium saw the election of the first female president in Finland, Tarja Halonen, who served for 12 years and is still known for her political commitment to human rights, gender equality and social justice. Halonen called for boys and men to get involved in the fight reminding us that “50% +50% makes 100%”, emphasising the power of the genders working together. In his speech, Sipilä underlined this as hugely important in building an equal society,

“Providing women and girls with equal opportunities and access to decision-making is a way to build an innovative and active society. Working together, equally, is the only way to make societies successful.”

Finland’s welfare state model is also something that has had a big impact on creating an equal society. Providing extensive social and healthcare services has allowed women to access the paid workforce and be able to share domestic duties more freely. All children under seven are entitled to full time, high quality daycare that is both heavily subsidised and income assessed. The maximum monthly fee for one child is €290, compared with the US where the average monthly cost of daycare is $972 and in the UK where a full time day nursery averages £931.36 per month.

Education is key

Finnish education is another area in which equality has long been a principle tenet. The country’s education system is often is often held up as one of the best in the world with few exams, respected and qualified teaching staff, and consistently high rankings in national league tables.

However subject choice is still one area which remains very gender-segregated amongst Finland’s students and can significantly impact girl’s and boy’s career choices and earnings in later life. Girls continue to study more languages in basic education for example, while boys study more natural sciences and maths. At secondary vocational level women also dominate the healthcare and social welfare sectors, while men dominate transport and technical fields.

The Gender Equality Paradox

In fact a recent study revealed that Finland, along with other countries that generally enjoy high levels of equality, tend to have fewer numbers of STEM graduates. The researchers call this the “gender equality paradox” and put it down to people in countries with stronger economies feeling more of a freedom of choice regarding career path. In places with less stable economies and perhaps more of a need for the financial benefits offered by STEM jobs, more females are choosing to study STEM subjects. Countries like Algeria and Tunisia actually produce the highest numbers of female STEM graduates.

In Finland however, along with others such as Norway and Belgium, females still seem to heavily gravitate towards more traditional gender spheres. The country has found this difficult to tackle. As described by the Finnish National Institute for Health and Welfare

“even though education is considered gender-neutral, its practices impose different demands and expectations on boys and girls, coupled with different assumptions about genders – often unwittingly or unconsciously.”

Actions speak louder than words

Finland, however, is making marked efforts to make things gender neutral in schools. In 2015 the Finnish National Board of Education published a practical guide for schools on gender equality measures (tasa-arvotyö on taitolaji). It includes various examples and pragmatic ways to implement these initiatives. Mother Päivi Valtonen describes how her children’s school has created its own gender equality plan with active involvement from both parents and children through discussion and answering questionnaires.

“There were issues about safety, teachers and teaching, textbooks and other materials, harassment etc. (…) Answers of parents and students will partly help to make schools equality plan.”

These could be some good steps to start counteracting the gender subject divide.

So again it seems listening to one another and working together could be the answer to achieving full gender equality in Finland, and has been the key to the country’s success until now. With gender equality as a high priority on the country’s political agenda, the inclusion of women in policy making, an open mind and open discussions, Finland is definitely on the way there. We could definitely all take a leaf out of their book.



Hanna Greeman Contributor
Hanna is a languages and logistics specialist. She is currently living in Barcelona working as a Creative Copywriter.
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