In the past ten or twenty years, the gender equality situation in the Finnish working life has hardly changed. The most obvious difference between women and men is related to fields of employment as work is still segregated into women’s and men’s jobs. Cultural understandings of the types of work suitable for women and men are deeply ingrained.
Occupational segregation is thought to explain even as much as 70 per cent of the wage differentials between women and men. The wage gap also affects the esteem afforded to different groups of employees.
“Women in middle management most often encounter gender inequality in their everyday work. They are also quick to recognise the phenomenon,” says Päivi Korvajärvi, professor of gender studies at the University of Tampere.
The European Union has urged Finland to take measures to decrease gender segregation.
However, the public opinion about gender quotas, which are sometimes given as an answer to the problem, is largely negative.
“There are gender quotas in municipal committees, for example, and research findings prove how well those quotas work. Yet it looks like neither women nor men want to introduce quotas in working life.”
There are more female supervisors in Finland than in the other EU member states, but there are fewer women in top leadership positions. In her ethnographic studies at Finnish workplaces, Korvajärvi has often encountered female middle managers who have poor career advancement prospects.
Korvajärvi has investigated gendered practices in working life especially in office work and the service sector.
A more recent trend is that gender is increasingly conceived of as an individual issue in the current working life. The clear gender differentiation is disappearing as everyone is now forced to build their own reputations and to create an image of themselves as individuals with a unique know-how and skill set. At the same time, there is a growing demand for social skills and networking.
“Individuality in working life signifies a conceptual change; it is now allowed for women to act in a masculine manner and for men to act in a feminine manner. Such fluidity erodes the dichotomy between two genders,” Korvajärvi explains.
“The conceptions about gender are no longer stable, and especially young people seem to be thinking in this way.”
Korvajärvi says that as a result the f-word, feminism, gives rise to negative connotations among many young women.
“They might erroneously even think that feminism is against gender equality because it only promotes women’s interests. Of course, that is not what feminism is doing.”
Gender in working life is often thought to mean something negative, a possible conflict.
“Perhaps that is why people often say that there are no equality problems in their own workplaces and that if there are problems they exist elsewhere, at a distance. In their opinion, gender equality legislation is enough to take care of all the problems.”
However, an even more alarming message has come up in recent research. Young women and even men have to endure a lot of harassment and abuse at work, which is most often verbal but can also be physical in some cases.
Professor Korvajärvi is worried that young people with temporary and atypical employment contracts do not want to approach their supervisors or labour protection delegates and tell them about the problems.
“Harassment is hidden and it is thought to be a personal problem. The general opinion seems to be that harassment is a regular fact of working life and that employees should just put up with it, which is a very unpleasant thought,” Korvajärvi continues.
“It is a very strange vision for the future of young employees that they should just put up with improprieties and even violations of their own physical integrity.”
This is why Korvajärvi encourages everyone who has encountered improper behaviour at the workplace to improve their own well-being and talk about it with their supervisors.
Text: Tiina Lankinen