Helsinki (31.05.1998 - Juhani Artto) The Nordic countries are often - and with justification - presented as model countries with respect to equality of the sexes. Concrete results in this area, however, are far from ideal in the opinion of Riitta Partinen, the SAK Secretary of Equal Opportunity. In Finland, as in all other countries in the world, women are still discriminated against in working life, even though in the Nordic countries this occurs in forms which are more covert than elsewhere.

"In earlier decades we believed that inequality would disappear when legislation was balanced, when women got as much formal education as men and when the problem of arranging day-care for small children was overcome. In the 1990s, however, we have had to recognise that all of this is not enough", Partinen says.

"We have been forced to deepen our analysis of the reasons why the many important steps which have been taken to create the conditions for equality have left us with so few concrete results in working life."

What is going wrong?

Partinen lists the obstacles: "The illusion of equality in Finland is one of them. We are accustomed to discrimination and it makes us blind to inequality. Generally speaking, enterprise management does not see the importance of equality, which reinforces passive attitudes and indifference. Some people refrain from actively promoting equality in the fear that they will be branded as troublemakers and isolated. The legislation and agreements are not well-known and, finally, there is lack of will."

In spite of this the attitude climate is, according to Partinen's experiences, more favourable for equality in Finland than elsewhere - Sweden, Norway and Denmark included. "Here the participation of women in working life is so self-evident that hardly anybody makes mothers feel guilty about working outside of the home. Rather many men share household responsibilities with their wives."

"During the economic slump of the early 1990s, some government officials and politicians were ready to send female employees back home or turn them into part-time workers. A large majority of women rejected these ideas and expressed their preference for full-time employment."

"Finnish women know from their own experience that economic independence is the best guarantee of security and healthy self-esteem."

But how is progress to be made?

"There is a promising new development in view", Partinen says. "Recently a new kind of interest towards the equality of the sexes has been aroused among employers. The key idea behind this late awakening is that there are benefits to be gained. There is growing evidence that equality in the workplace is a good thing not only in principle but also from the economic point of view."

"Equality in working life means a better working atmosphere, more satisfied employees and higher work motivation. Staff turnover falls and - as enterprise managers are gradually beginning to appreciate - the corporate image is enhanced both nationally and internationally."

"Partly these are still hypotheses because research and empirical data in this field are surprisingly scarce."

As an encouraging example of the positive approach, Partinen refers to the chemical industry multinational Akzo-Nobel's unit in Ireland. "After noticing that there were no women in the management, the five year pursuit of an active equality policy led the Irish unit staff to make such rapid progress that today there is no longer any need for further discussion of the issue."

In Finland the labour market partners have agreed on an experimental equality promotion project covering ten workplaces in various sectors of working life. The project will report on its progress in June 1999.

Partinen also has positive expectations of the work to integrate job evaluation into equality work. Only 300,000 jobs in Finnish working life have been evaluated according to how demanding they are for the worker. Many more jobs will be evaluated over the next few years, thereby improving the basis for combating discrimination against women.

Individual workplaces are now at the centre of equality policy. "We are trying to create examples of good practice from which others can learn", Partinen says. At top level round table discussions between the labour market partners, SAK has proposed the establishment of "good practice banks". Partinen hopes that one of these will be set up in Finland in autumn 1999. At this time Finland will preside at an EU equality summit. After this it will be possible to set up a European good practice bank.

"The trade union movement must launch constructive initiatives at grassroots level. The greatest challenge is to find initiatives leading to concrete solutions", Partinen emphasises.