Interview: Pirkko Mäkinen, Ombudsman for equality, worried about the situation in Finland, encourages the political parties to take action

Pirkko MäkinenIf you had to describe your life and your career in a nutshell, what would it be?

First of all, my name is Pirkko Mäkinen, and from my educational background I am a lawyer, and I have been working all my life in state administration, starting with the Ministry of Labour, then I worked in the Ministry of Interior, then in the Ministry of Social Affairs and Health. The Office of the Ombusman for gender equality was located in that Ministry. And in the beginning of this year, my office was moved under the Ministry of Justice, so now it is my sixth ministry. In between those ministerial posts, I have been working for 4 years in the Parliamentary Ombudsman office.

This office of the ombudsman for Equality is very interesting because it has so many sides. I can deal with concrete complaints coming from people living here in Finland, and on the other hand I have the opportunity to promote equality in all the fields of the Finnish society. And I feel that it is very useful.

How did you get interested in gender equality?

It was a bit a surprise for me. The gender equality legislation came into force in 1987, but before that there has been different committees discussing about discrimination based on gender and sex. And I have worked with them giving statements (statements) about this legislation, and suddenly I thought “Oh, it looks like a very interesting area to work” and so I sent my application and I was nominated as a deputy director in the Ombudsman’s office. Later on, I got a promotion and I was nominated as a gender equality ombudsman for a first term in 1995. I began a second term and then I moved in the Parliamentary ombudsman office, in order to enlarge my experience. When I came back, I had again an opportunity to be nominated as a gender equality ombudsperson, and I jumped on it.

Is it very different in the office of the Parliamentary Ombudsman?

Oh yes, it is! Because it covers such a wide area of topics, and it is very powerful and respected, and it was a good opportunity to learn how they deal with individual complaints and how they do inspections on various organisations and places. I learnt a lot.

But you have wished to come back?

Oh yes! In a way, my present job is more concrete, the gender equality legislation covers a lot of domains in Finland, and in addition we can investigate cases coming from private sector as well as cases coming from public sector. We have also the possibility to discuss with various authorities and organisations about ideas to promote gender equality in concrete ways in the Finnish society.

I have understood that you are treating complaints, you are promoting gender equality, and you are measuring and keeping track of the progress in the field of gender equality. What are the main domains where you are personally active?

We have an obligation to investigate these concrete complaint cases. The number of cases has been more or less same during the past 4 to 5 years, from 700 to 1000 a year. We have also phone lines where lawyers give guidance to clients who want to intervene in different issues where they think they have been discriminated because of their sex. When time allows, we focus on these promotional activities. And on a general level we work with the gender equality authorities in the Ministry of Social Affairs and Health, and try to find common ways to promote gender equality.
Every government since 1995 has prepared a gender equality policy programme, this government as well. And it has changed very much indeed. Earlier on, in the government equality programme, there were a lot of ideas and concrete projects. This government and its predecessor, instead of doing a lot of small projects, have concentrated more or less on mainstreaming activities. This government in particular has put an emphasis on men’s role in gender equality, in particular on how men can benefit if Finnish society would be more gender equality friendly. Men face different kind of problems in this domain, and it has been very interesting to follow that discussion.

Are you also performing inspections?

Yes, we have an opportunity to conduct inspections, but we do it rarely. It is frequent however in our activities to pay a visit to different workplaces, and during these visits we are trying to promote the idea to develop gender activity planning at the workplace level, but as well to learn how these processes benefit employers and employees. It has proven to be very a very exciting experiment, and every year we have been trying to pay a visit to at least five workplaces. We try to select different types of workplaces in order to learn how this planning process is functioning, if they have been successful, if they have had any kind of problem doing equality planning, etc.

What was the last visit?

A company called Lassila and Tikanoja, a publicly listed company, whose activity is the collection of garbage and cleaning offices and industrial buildings. It was a very good place to visit, because their recruitment processes are very well organised indeed, they recruit every year more than 1 500 people, because it is not really the kind of workplace where people wish to stay. Then changes in the workforce happen all the time, it is challenging for them. They are competing of course, trying to expand their market and develop environment friendly policies in their activities.

Are they promoting equality?

Yes, they are, especially in big cities they have quite a number of various nationalities in their workforce, because it is not so easy to find capable workforce in the Finnish speaking population, so they have recruitment offices in Estonia, and they offer work opportunities to immigrants. Different cultures lead to various challenges in terms of gender equality. And they address them!

On a more general level, what is your opinion on the situation of gender equality in Finland?

There is a contradiction between the perception and the reality. Quite a number of Finns tend to think that we have reached gender equality in society, but when you scratch a bit you then realise that it is not the fact at all, we have not reached the goal. There are severe problems, like for example pay differences between women and men. The gap is a little bit less than 20 %, around 17% or 18 %. Another problem is the violence against women in the Finnish society. Another major issue is that women face difficulties to attain these high ranking positions in private companies, but as well in public authorities. And for me it is really hard to explain why. Why on earth employers are not trusting women’s competences? Because if you see the latest statistics, women do have a higher education status than the men in Finland nowadays. And still the number of women in high ranking positions is much lower than the number of men.

What are you doing about it?

We are trying to encourage private companies and public organisations to do equality planning, to promote women’s position. It is actually an obligation based on gender equality legislation that if an employer, being it public or private, has more than 30 employees, it has an obligation to do equality planning. And in these plans they should explain concretely how they are willing and committed to promote women’s careers, how they are organising opportunities to reconcile work activities and family life, how they are going to guarantee that there is no pay discrimination at the workplace…

Are they sometimes asking for your help to build these plans?

Oh yes, they are! We are trying to propose concrete measures for them to include in their equality plans, and we are as well trying to cooperate with social partners, meaning employers’ and employees’ organisations, to give them some ideas on how to do concretely equality planning. And now we have even stronger incentive to do so, because the legislation has changed at the beginning of this year. Now there is more practical guidance in the legislation, such as the obligation to do these pay surveys in order to prevent pay discrimination.

But for me the problem lies in the private sector. There is no transparency about salaries, and it is problematic when you have to do these salaries’ surveys, because employees’ representatives cannot access this information: how can they promote gender equality and be sure that there is no discrimination at the workplace level.

Do you think that the crisis has had an impact on the progression of equality?

It has, when you see that gender equality discussions are not very present among politicians. They discuss more about economy, the employment situation, the size of public sector… So nowadays gender equality issues are not taking the forefront in the public discussions. In addition, everybody is more or less warned that there should be cuts in the public sector and people are worrying about what it means. Bearing in mind that 75 % or 85 % of public employees, especially in municipalities are women, the cuts in that sector would mean that unemployment among women will increase. And if there are cuts, the level of services in health and social services will suffer. People have no ideas about what political parties have in mind. When the election campaign is just starting, political parties are very hesitant to tell the voters what they are willing to do, where they are targeting these cuts. And it would be good to know before going to vote …

And what is the situation of equality in the political world?

It has been changing, not only in a positive way! Earlier on, half of our party leaders were women, in the Social Democratic Party, in the Centre Party, Greens and in the Christian Democratic Party, and nowadays there are all men, except for the very small Christian Democratic Party. The number of women in Parliament is sufficient, but of course there is room for improvement there as well. It varies from party to party. It seems that the Social Democratic Party has the most women in Parliament, and Finns party has the less, even if they are quite a big party. Greens have been earlier on a very female oriented political party, but now it is balanced to some extent. In the Centre Party, a majority of MPs are men. In the National Coalition Party, it is almost balanced.

What are your objectives for 2015?

We are going to give guidance about how to implement these new sections in the new gender equality legislation. As well, we started in autumn 2014 a campaign against sexual harassment in schools, and we are planning to continue this activity because we learnt in different researches and statistics that, at school, bullying between boys and girls and sexual harassment are very severe problems. So we are trying to equip teachers with information and material helping to discuss about these problems, and about how to set a limit: what is acceptable when boys meet girls and when girls meet boys, what are the limits of a good behaviour. We encourage school children to discuss these topics together with their teachers. I want to think positively that if children at school age learn how to behave correctly, they will then continue when they study at the University, where this type of skills is needed also. When they enter into the labour market, then also it is good to know how to behave…

So you recommend beginning early?

Yes, I do. Because a recent European study from the Fundamental Rights Agency (FRA) showed that in Finland violence against women is a very severe problem. We knew that before, but this statistic and study prove that things are very bad. Then we learnt as well that in the labour market sexual harassment against young women is very severe. In this FRA survey, they asked the victims what they did when they were being harassed at work: did they talk about these problems? The answers was globally negative: “I did not tell anybody, I did not tell my boss, I did not tell my friends, I did not tell my husband or partner at home…” So even though we have in Finland this gender equality planning at workplace level, we have realised that quite a number of workplaces have introduced in their policies a zero tolerance about sexual harassment. Even when it is the case, we have to be aware that there might be a need for some training at workplace level. And also, when an incident happens, who is the person you would contact? What kind of decisions the employer is willing to place? It is necessary to discuss these things at the workplace as well.

Have you seen companies who have implemented this kind of policy?

Among others, I have visited some years ago Clas Ohlson, which is of Swedish origin. They had very concrete ways and methods to deal with these topics. And in this guidance they stated very clearly that managers should take these complaints very seriously and investigate what has happened. And a workmate should always take a stand and say: “This is not OK” if they witness some incident happening in the workplace. They have also introduced a concrete step forward describing how to proceed when this type of problem occurs at the workplace. It was a very good example indeed.

Are you promoting these examples?

Yes! Whenever I visit a workplace, I manage to give some concrete examples.

What about the men/women balance in companies’ boards?

It has changed gradually. In state-owned companies, we have already at least 40 % of women in the boards, and in general all sexes are represented equally. In publicly listed companies, the percentage of women in boards has gradually increased to around 20 % without quotas, and the Chamber of Commerce has set a strategic target to increase this presence. And there is a decision that if a company is not having at least one representative of each sex, then they must publicly explain why. I have noticed that media are following carefully this topic and interview these companies if they have not succeeded in attaining this objective. Last week, this government published its gender equality policy programme results and they said very openly that if companies do not have more women in the boards, they are willing to introduce a specific legislation to introduce quota in that area as well.

Before the elections?

[She laughs]. Not before April! It will be for the next government to do so. But there is still a chance for Finnish companies to introduce more women. But another important problem concerning these big Finnish private companies is that there is only one of them with a female CEO!

So they are working seriously to increase the presence of women in boards, but the development is too slow from my point of view. And it is a funny thing to realise that when the State owns a majority of company shares, then they succeed in finding more women and attain 40 % easily. Why on earth the other ones are not doing more in this area!

Quite a number of European states have introduced quotas, France, Italy, Spain, and Norway for instance… However, it is true when we look at European statistics that we have succeeded in increasing the number of women in boards, and at European level 20 % of women in boards is a pretty good result, but still we should do better.

Now the political parties are presenting their programmes for the election. What would you recommend them to include in the field of equality?

I would like to see concrete ideas on how they would improve the gender equality situation in Finland. How they would tackle the violence against women. Considering the number of prisoners for violent acts against others, including women, and the importance of violent behaviour in the Finnish culture, the situation is not considered as critical as it should be. And for me this violence against women is so harmful, so bad! That is why we should try to tackle this problem in concrete ways, start with youngsters by punishing and dealing with bullying in concrete ways: children should be taught to solve their problems without violence.

And another thing that I would like to see: how the future government and Parliament should review the legislation to correct the unbalance between men and women when taking care of children. Now women tend to take more responsibilities for caring for small children, and they pay high costs for that: when you see the general situation in the labour market, often young women are offered only time-fixed contracts, because employers are thinking that they may get pregnant. This absence of permanent work relationship affects their pay level, and their future in labour market as well.

So I understand that this is something where you would like to see a reform?

Yes! That means sharing the care in a more equal way. In that respect on the job market it should be totally OK if a father would be 6 months away from their job because they take care of small children. That would really and concretely improve the situation. This government one week ago made a decision to defer a reform which would have gone in this direction, a step on the way of equal pay.

So they stopped it?

Yes, they stopped it! First of all, they decided that there should be more equal distribution of family leaves, but then they realised that there is resistance among opposition parties and in the public, some saying that the government should not decide how families should solve their family problems.

But in a way it is a very complex situation. We thought earlier that it would be a very good thing to organise Finnish daycare in such a way that it is a subjective right to have a daycare place for small children, and then municipalities had this obligation to offer that kind of services to families. But when you look at the statistics, quite a number of families take care of their children at home. And who stays at home? It is always the mother. Quite often, the situation is such that the mother has not a permanent job to which she could return. Then the families calculate how much they should pay if the child was in the daycare, and what is the subsidy that they are gaining from the State and municipality, and they think: “Ok, it is enough. It is wiser for the family that mother stays at home”. But from a longer perspective, it is not so wise for a mother to stay at home, because she is losing her opportunity to be again in labour market. She is losing a pension, because you have to work to get the rights to pension. The difference between the pensions of men and those of women is much higher than the difference in pay, just because of that!

This was my last question, but do you want to add something?

It is important to realise that, during the elections, even in Finland, you have more or less to train younger generations to see these gender equality questions. And there are these more or less permanent problems we are facing; like these pay differences and the lack of women in high positions, and the fact that the care is dominant in women’s role. But at the same time we realise that there are new gender equality developments: for instance today young men are willing to take their responsibility in the family care, and that is a positive sign in the Finnish society. They should for example have the right to be real fathers, even though divorce happens, but even in this case men are stressing that they want to continue to take care of their children and spend time with them. It is a good evolution!

In addition, not all men but some men are also realising that they could choose not so stereotypically occupations and areas in their life. Women tend to do it more often, but I tend to see that some men are choosing to become teachers, nurses or midwives for instance, and there should be more. To make gender equality function as well for men is a real challenge for us.

Categories: Elections, Social

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