Is gender equality encountering a backlash?

Submitted on Wed, 02/08/2017 - 13:52

Tytöt ja pojat/ Photo: Jonne Renvall

Post-feminism and local agreements on wages and salaries may threaten gender equality in the Finnish working life. However, there are also some positive signs.

Research suggests that wage equality should be approached as a human rights issue, not only as an employment issue.

Recent results from a survey on the dream jobs of primary school pupils commissioned by the Finnish Aku Ankka (Donald Duck) magazine showed that primary school boys want to become police officers or fire fighters whereas girls want to become teachers, veterinarians or doctors when they grow up. According to the survey results, girls’ future employment should include helping people and animals while boys wish to earn a lot of money.

The gendered practices of adult working life are astonishingly well reflected in the results of this survey which was conducted with four hundred pupils. Women engage in caring tasks, men rescue people and enforce the law. Finnish men still also earn more than women even though several working groups have embarked on a mission to narrow down the wage differentials.

Does this mean that the cards you play in working life always remain unchanged and that they are dealt out and absorbed in the first or second grade? How does that happen?

According to Päivi Korvajärvi, professor emerita of social scientific women’s studies at the University of Tampere, children start to adopt gendered attitudes from a very young age.

“Such opinions stem from small things: from what is expected and hoped of the child, and how he or she is talked to, rewarded and chastised. There is a plethora of mechanisms,” Korvajärvi says.

The mechanisms are so plentiful that even children whose parents want to raise their children in a gender neutral manner notice that their children inadvertently learn the traditional gender roles as well as any other children.

“These attitudes just come from somewhere and they originate in other environments if not in the home. It is a question of habits and the cultural deep structures. Even small children amass influences from many different people and things, such as their peers, children’s television and hobbies. Of course, there are always some exceptions to these norms, but they are usually just curiosities,” Korvajärvi explains.

At the same time as the Aku Ankka magazine’s favourite job survey was published, another debate on girls and boys also emerged. The biggest Finnish daily newspaper Helsingin Sanomat wrote about the equality plan of the Finnish National Agency for Education by giving the story the headline “Schools should no longer address pupils as girls and boys” (Helsingin Sanomat Nyt on 18 October 2016).

The article resulted in a social media uproar because the story was interpreted as a wish to deny the existence of female and male pupils at school. The sensational headline may have played a part, but Korvajärvi says that it is likely there would have been an outrage in any case.

“Problematising the existence of only two sexes always seems to arouse intense feelings. When we examine inequalities, we are always talking about emotions. Similarly, any talk about gender sensitivity is likely to give rise to a counter-reaction and attempts to ridicule such talk,” Korvajärvi says.

This is probably due to the fact that when we talk about gender, we are talking about such a personal and sensitive area of people’s lives that it is very hard to talk about it in a neutral manner. The debate concerns a fundamental part of our identities which we all must examine in one way or another at some point of our lives.

“Perhaps the easiest way to deal with the issue of gender is to take it for granted and as a sure thing in the same way as we think about sexual identity,” Korvajärvi adds.

However, in the 2010s, gender seems to be considerably more rigid than sexual identity. Where understanding sexual identities has shifted from penalising homosexual acts to acceptance and carnivalism, smaller steps have been taken in gender issues.

According to Korvajärvi, the problems in working life continue to be the same from the point of gender: wages and salaries, the appreciation of work, combining work and family, and gendered hierarchies.

“These issues were already mentioned in the 19th century. There have been no extensive changes in this matter even in the last few decades,” Korvajärvi says.

She says that steps might even be taken backwards in the near future.

“Until now, wages and salaries have largely been determined by collective agreements in whose negotiations trade unions have played a central role. Research shows that women may have benefitted from the comprehensive national agreements,” Korvajärvi says.

If the employing organisations start to determine wages and salaries locally on a larger scale, it will make wage comparisons between men and women more complicated. Such practices may further increase the gendered wage gap.

According to Milja Saari, who defended her doctoral dissertation at the University of Helsinki in Finland in the autumn of 2016, what is needed is a more unambiguous Act on Equality between Women and Men and concrete goals for equality planning. Saari’s most important conclusion was that equal pay should be seen as a human rights issue and that the government should assume stronger responsibility for the realisation of the equal pay for equal work principle.

Korvajärvi says that the human rights angle is welcome because the question of pay is also associated with other vital questions on gender which are regarded as self-evident and often thought about superficially without stopping to think about the underlying social processes.

“For example, customer service skills are thought to be necessary in nearly all work. People often think that women automatically have such skills whereas men must learn them separately. Men are also paid more because of this assumed need for achieving additional qualifications,” Korvajärvi says.

In the recent years, there has been a lot of debate in the European Union on women’s membership in the boards of listed companies. According to the Finland Chamber of Commerce, five listed companies had female CEOs in 2016.

“Women still have a hard time gaining entry into the core of the companies’ strategic decision-making,” Korvajärvi says.

According to Korvajärvi, leadership questions are a grey area. There are perhaps no clear and visible obstacles to women’s advancement, but many issues are at play in the background. One such issue is the masculine culture which does not encourage attempts to find and recruit women for top positions or by startups.

“The world of the startup event Slush, which is annually organised in Helsinki, is quite masculine. What was interesting about Slush last autumn was that President Niinistö said in an interview on Independence Day that Slush is one of the prominent strengths of Finland. However, the interview took place just days after reports about sexual harassment in the event were published. Such issues are somehow always bypassed,” Korvajärvi says.

Bypassing and downplaying the issues are some of the problems that occur when gender equality in the Finnish working life is talked about. Lately, people have also started to talk about the so called post-feminist era in which feminism is no longer thought to be necessary because gender equality has already been reached. The message is that all complaining is futile. The same is true of the current Government Programme which laconically states that “women and men are equal”.

“According to the Government Programme, no debate or specific equality measures are needed. At the same time, research is showing that the career choices currently made by young adults seem to strengthen rather than abolish the gender segregation of working life,” Korvajärvi says.

The individual is made responsible for achieving equal treatment.

“Developing one’s self-confidence has become a new technology of self that is offered especially to girls. For example, women’s magazines are full of stories about women who have changed their lives because of improved self-confidence. However, such thinking makes structural inequality a private question which the individual should solve on her own,” Korvajärvi explains.

Very few people are individually so strong that they are able to fight for an equal position even in their own workplaces. The pace of work is so hectic that there are plenty of other things to do even without fighting for equality. Not many would like to become the killjoy and conflict monger in their own work environment.

“Good practices to address such conflicts often do not exist, which is another reason why gender issues cannot be tackled,” Korvajärvi says.

Does the avoidance of critical questions mean that we are permanently between a rock and a hard place in equality matters?  Is gender equality in working life a utopia?

According to Korvajärvi, things are developing even though some steps must also be taken backwards.

“There is a cross draught. Frustratingly many things remain unchanged but at the same time many issues can still be furthered. The wage gap seems to be an eternal question, but at the same time the debate on gender equality has become more multi-faceted. For example, the debate has extended to questions of men’s equality, the intersecting issues of age, ethnicity and gender, and gender-sensitive economic policies,” Korvajärvi says.

More hope for the future comes from the fact that it is now more widely acknowledged that gender is not just an individual-level and biological issue; there are always also cultural, structural and unequal aspects at play. We should just be better at tackling them.

“This is hard because gender is not done in a vacuum, and gendered practices are involved in and entangled with everything we do,” Korvajärvi says.

This is why gender equality and its meaning in working life should be thought about in new ways.

“Considering equality as a human rights issue instead of a collective bargaining matter could be one such way,” Korvajärvi says.

If that were the case, equality considerations might be taken into account before wage negotiations. According to Korvajärvi, the existence of unequal deep structures and mechanisms should be recognised and acknowledged everywhere from workplaces to child health clinics and schools.

“It is only then that we would be able to make conscious decisions and estimate their consequences. Even though many decisions look like they might be made by individuals, the big picture is not always similar. Understanding gendered practices is never a matter that involves just one actor,” Korvajärvi says.

That might be the way to make little girls dream of careers as police officers or of good pay. That these two wishes cannot coincide is a reality which they may encounter later regardless of their gender.

Towards a multiplicity of gender in working life and research

At the same time as the debate around equality between women and men continues, the need has arisen to widen the debate to concern the conceptualisation of sex as a wider thing than concerning just two sexes.

“The current public debate is pointing to the fact that the division into women and men does not work. We need room for people who do not want to be or cannot be of either sex. Deconstructing the traditional dichotomy even to the extent that the whole concept of sex is questioned is clearly in the air these days,” Korvajärvi says.

That is a whole new minefield because research shows that people want to see their work colleagues either as women or men. Individuals are also expected to behave in a way that strengthens either sex. The norm of heterosexuality is another strong aspect of working life.

“These norms are not often highlighted but they crop up from time to time; for example, when it is asked who can work as the editor-in-chief of a newspaper or as a vicar,” Korvajärvi explains.

Nevertheless, change and liberation are happening, and research should be able to respond to this change.

“For example, we are accustomed to looking at statistics according to the men-women dimension. A new kind of thinking on sex would also entail changing the statistical classifications,” Korvajärvi concludes.

Text: Hanna Hyvärinen
Picture: Jonne Renvall