Finland – Feminism Comes of Age as a Female Coalition Takes the Reins
Date: December 31, 2019
For more than a century, the Nordic country has blazed a trail for women in politics.
By Emma Graham-Harrison in Helsinki
14 Dec 2019 – ‘There’s no trick’: Finland’s Sanna Marin youngest Prime Minister in the world.
Just off Helsinki’s main shopping drag, toddlers in glitter paint whirl round their mothers, who are somehow managing to listen intently to a lecture on how to boost their careers with LinkedIn. No one bats an eye at the intermittent shrieks.
It’s business as usual at this Christmas networking meeting in the country that has come closer than perhaps anywhere else to making “having it all” a feminist reality, rather than an impossible goal to torment exhausted, overstretched women.
Finland is so proud of its commitment to gender equality, and its achievements, that it has even made a quirky international campaign out of its gender-neutral pronoun “hän” – trying to export its linguistic commitment to a world where no one is defined as “he” or “she”.
But last week the Nordic nation found a far more potent ambassador for gender equality, when 34-year-old Social Democrat Sanna Marin was sworn in as prime minister, heading a coalition and a cabinet dominated by women.
She is the youngest serving premier in the world, mother to a toddler, and heads a coalition of four other parties that are all led by women. Three of them, like her, are under 40.
“It’s great we have these young women taking leadership roles. Sanna Marin is the same age as me, and she is a really big role model for all of us working mothers,” said Susanna Mikkonen, vice-chair of the Mothers in Business group that organised the networking event.
Finland has always been a pioneer in political gender equality, the first country in Europe to give women the vote in 1906, and the first in the world to allow them to stand as candidates in elections that same year. Since the start of this century it has had two female prime ministers – though both served only brief terms – and a widely liked female president who served for 12 years.
But this government feels to some in Finland and beyond like a new landmark; the coming of age of a generation that grew up with gender equality as a reality rather than an ideal.
“If I look at how it has been for me growing up, it was the time when Finland had Tarja Halonen as female president, she was quite an important icon, at least in terms of people doing politics,” said Li Andersson, who at 32 heads the Left Alliance in the coalition and serves as education minister.
“There are all these stories in Finland about children who were asking their parents if a man can be president because they were so used to seeing the female president.”
Generous parental leave policies, subsidised childcare and a commitment to work-life balance mean young working mothers are the norm here rather than the exception. Men are as likely as women to be chasing young children through Helsinki’s vast new central library, or walking them home beside the city’s lakes.
Statistics from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development show it is the only country where fathers spend more time with school-age children than mothers, said Mikko Koivumaa, who as a diplomat in Japan became an unofficial ambassador for his country’s family-friendly way of life.
He sees the national commitment to family life – ensuring that work stays within limits, and families can afford childcare – as one of Finland’s greatest strengths, and the reason it comes near the top of a wide range of global social rankings.
“That’s what I like about this country and this system, and I think this is a big source of happiness,” he said. He sees the new government as a natural consequence of that. “It looks eye-catching, but I don’t think about it too much; they are just bright people in the right position.”
Marin has also dismissed questions about her age and gender as irrelevant. Most Finns apparently agree; so far she has not had to face the questions about balancing parenthood and power that dog most female politicians – but vanishingly few men – elsewhere.
“The man who was running against her [as prime minister], he already declined a ministerial post during the last negotiations, saying he wanted to focus on his family. So that idea of family commitments was already there from a man,” said Tanja Auvinen, head of the gender equality unit at the ministry of health and social affairs.
For me it feels like I won the lottery when I was born as a girl in Finland. – Tanja Auvinen, gender equality unit
Like most people working on equality issues in Finland, she is extremely proud of Marin’s government and the country’s broader achievements in women’s rights, but also wary of painting their society as a utopian ideal.
“For me it feels like I won the lottery when I was born as a girl in Finland,” she said. “Our history has shown we can be proud of our achievements, but I also think we have to be vocal and always strive for better. We still have lots of work to do.”
Among the most serious concerns is domestic violence, with rates for abuse and intimate partner killings among the highest in Europe. “This is a paradox: a high level of gender equality also produces an illusion of full equality already existing, and of further policies being unnecessary or excessive,” said Kevät Nousiainen of the University of Turku, an activist lawyer.
Nousiainen has a case pending against the state, claiming an infringement of duty to protect women from violence, and says current legislation is not strong enough to safeguard women.
“It has taken decades to turn all forms of assault into crimes under public prosecution, and legislation making lack of consent rather than violence a decisive factor in rape is only now under preparation,” she said. “Historically, feminist movements concentrated on economic independence rather than the personal integrity of women.”
The labour market has been at the heart of women’s political progress in Finland, said Johanna Kantola, professor of gender studies at Tampere University. “Finnish women’s participation in the labour market has always been high,” she said. “The country industrialised quite late, in the 1960s, and until then women and men were together working in farms and agriculture.”
But there are problems. While men are entitled to parental leave, they account for only about 10% of the total, leaving mostly women caring for young children in their first year of life, with knock-on effects for careers, earnings and pensions.
Mothers in Business, with more than 4,000 members, tries to counter some of these inequalities, said the organiser of the Christmas event, Huong Huynh, a mother of two young boys: “A lot of information is about how positive things are, and it’s still not all easy for women here.”
The country has a 16% gender pay gap, gig economy work is on the rise, and it has one of the more gender-segregated labour markets in Europe, with men and women clustered in different professions. “I’d say half of the inquiries we receive from people are about working life, and half of those are pregnancy and family leave,” said Jukka Maarianvaara, the ombudsman for gender equality. “This has been a similar proportion year after year, not the nicest thing in a country where you think there are no equality problems any more.”
Maarianvaara said he also got complaints from men apparently unhappy about the progress of women’s equality. When Marin’s female-dominated cabinet was named, he got three written complaints and one phone call about the gender balance. “In the last government the cabinet was only 26% women and no one contacted us,” he said wryly.
That resentment often manifests in online abuse. Most of the new government are on Instagram and other social media platforms, making it easier for them to connect with voters, but also easier for them to be targeted.
Andersson said the backlash could be hard to manage, but had tapered off as she rose up the ranks – another reminder that political equality can help women combat other forms of abuse and attack. “Positions of power expose you in some ways, but also protect you in ways that perhaps young women who are just starting out in politics don’t have,” she said. “It seems like the more power you get, the more careful people have become.”