Helsinki (28.06.1999 - Juhani Artto) The opening ceremonies for the four-yearly ETUC* Congress will be held tomorrow morning. Today, the delegates warmed up for the Congress by broadly discussing ways to improve gender equality in working life.

Today's Equality Conference was historic in two ways which reflect changing attitudes in the European trade union movement towards the whole problem of gender equality.

In contrast with the traditional "Women's Conference" with only female participants, the male representatives at the ETUC Congress were also invited to participate in the equality discussion. This approach was also emphasised in the speeches: lack of equality has a negative impact not only on female employees but also on their male colleagues and even on enterprises.

The ETUC's leading women also expressed their satisfaction with the arrangement in which the delegates spent a whole day, just before the Congress, working on gender equality issues. In her opening speech SAK Equal Opportunities Secretary and Vice President of the ETUC Women's Committee, Riitta Partinen, reminded everyone that women are in a weaker position than men in all countries in the world and measured by all criteria of working life.

Partinen offered the following analysis:

"Changes in the status of women have been monitored for years, if not for decades, and the roots of the problem have been studied as well. There is plenty of knowledge about the structures that maintain and propagate inequality from generation to generation. The development of women and men into a social gender is a culture-bound process which can be changed, but this change takes years to effect".

"Despite this, there is no reason to be pessimistic. By comparing the opportunities and limits of modern women with those of their mothers and grandmothers, every woman and man may note the changes which already have been realised", she added.

Attitudes towards equality are favourable in Finland, Partinen told the participants. However, while a majority support gender equality in various fields of life, this it is not enough to solve the problem satisfactorily. Merely identifying the gaps is not always easy, she said. This is clearly reflected in the new equality barometer made among the Finns. 44 per cent of men and 31 per cent of women believe that women have equal opportunities with men in working life, even though women's average earnings are only 80 per cent of those of men. The more educated women are, the more critical they are of the equality gap. The younger men are, the greater are their illusions about women's opportunities.

An encouraging novelty in Finland is the willingness of the labour market partners to cooperate in tackling the gender disparity. The partners have set up working groups with the common goal of identifying and eliminating factors which sustain inequality. SAK President, Mr. Lauri Ihalainen, who was one the guest speakers, resented the fact that many new tendencies in working life tend to hamper positive solutions seeking to reduce the gender gap. The growth of atypical employment which particularly affects female and young workers makes it more difficult to improve gender equality, Ihalainen observed.

The labour market partners are also running nine pilot equality projects in nine companies representing various types of employer: public sector, service sector and industrial enterprises. In the chemical industry the partners have a common project which seeks to encourage women to opt for a technical education and career.

An important part of the pay gap in Finland derives from the exceptionally deep division of labour in the industrialised countries. Female employees mainly work in traditional women's jobs while men correspondingly concentrate on traditional male jobs.

Since 1995 Finland has had an Act on Equality Between Women and Men but this includes no sanctions against companies which fail to promote gender equality actively. Only 30 per cent of enterprises have approved a gender equality plan and it is obvious that even all of these are not closely monitoring whether such plans lead to the expected outcomes. More pressure on enterprises is needed, both from rank and file members and from union leaders.

The Congress participants also paid considerable attention to the gender gaps within their own union organisations. Generally speaking women are not represented in governing bodies in proportion to their share of the membership. A new Europe-wide study, presented to the Congress by Ada Garcia of the Catholic University of Louvain, demonstrates this disparity clearly. Some progress has been made in the 1990s but there is still a long way to go to bridge the gap. In the trade union confederations studied 37 per cent of the membership are women. Of their principal leaders only 13 per cent are women. Of the latest Confederation Congress delegates 28 per cent were women.

The presentation by Mia Heikkinen of the European Foundation for the Improvement of Living and Working Conditions was based on the preliminary conclusions of the study: "Strengthening and Mainstreaming Equal Opportunities through Collective Bargaining". In this study researchers analyse 239 collective agreements concluded in the 15 European Union Member States. The list of the negotiation and implementation stages in which gender equality must be considered is impressive. It consists of setting binding goals, timetabling, dividing responsibilities, monitoring, training those responsible at all hierarchical levels, participation by both women and men in gender equality issues, evaluation and sanctions.

The largest central trade union confederation in Sweden, LO, has decided to produce in advance a gender (and class) analysis of the impacts of all important decisions due to be made by leading organs. SAK in Finland has recently made a similar decision. SAK Equal Opportunities Secretary Riitta Partinen regards the decision as a step in the right direction but she reminds us that the task of identifying and eliminating the factors which perpetuate inequality will still not be easy. "This is one of the first experiences of our Swedish colleagues", she notes.

Equality will not be the main issue at the ETUC Conference, beginning tomorrow, as the unemployment problem has the highest priority. In the main document draft equality issues are treated in a fairly traditional manner.

"A fundamental area where action is needed to workers' rights is in the field of equality. Notwithstanding the principles set out in Treaties, in the successive Directives promoting equality between women and men and in a number of Court decisions which have advanced rights to equality, the reality remains of segmented labour markets with unequal treatment of men and women in all elements of the employment relationship, from pay and working hours (with consequences in turn for social protection), through access to training and career development. These inequalities, and the wider inequalities between women and men in society are mutually enforcing", the draft concludes.

In concrete terms, according to the draft, "Congress commits the ETUC to ... call for data on men's and women's salaries to be collected by sector of activity and for conciliation procedures to handle complaints of wage discrimination."

At the end of his speech SAK President Lauri Ihalainen listed ideas which he would like to be discussed within the European trade union movement. One of these was to propose negotiations to the European employers for an Equality Framework Agreement between the labour market partners. "This would be an umbrella recommendation helping to improve attitudes. It would help the concerned parties to regard gender equality as a matter of honour instead of being regarded as a threat", Ihalainen enthused.

*ETUC, the European Trade Union Congress, is the largest trade union umbrella organisation in Europe. The representative nature of the ETUC has grown steadily since it was established in 1973. Following changes in Central and Eastern Europe several new trade unions have joined its ranks. As of October 1998, the ETUC had a membership of 65 National Trade Union Confederations from 28 countries and 14 European Industry Federations encompassing a total of 59 million individual members. There are also 6 National Trade Union Confederations and one European Industry Federation with observer status.