Helsinki (15.06.1998) Hours of work have become gender-oriented in Europe. Women have shorter working hours than men and are more prepared to take advantage of parental and other long-term leaves of absence and job-sharing programmes.

How should we view this? Are part-time work and long leaves of absence a feminine way of enhancing the quality of life or are they a trap which marginalises women and cuts their earnings in the labour market?

The commentators take a strict view. In their opinion we should discontinue all options favouring part-time work and "career breaks" that undermine the work of women. This will leave a general reduction in working hours as a policy in line with the interests of women.

It is clear that a general reduction in working hours best corresponds to the needs of women and that political movements working on behalf of women have always sought a shorter working day for both women and men. However, we cannot put a stay on the needs of women while we wait for the universal implementation of a six-hour working day. I wouldn't want to stop our tentative efforts to share work while there are women who take advantage of the programmes. As long as women participate in job-sharing schemes voluntarily, such schemes are acceptable.

It is important to analyse how job-sharing and flexibility policies affect the role of women in the labour market and influence their quality of life. Job-sharing must be voluntary and temporary and any loss of income must be within the limits of acceptability.

The programmes should increase the rights of women to decide how they schedule working hours and leisure. Nevertheless, part-time work or temporary leave of absence are better alternatives from the point of view of the situation of women in the labour market than is withdrawal from the labour market for longer periods.

It is important for gender equality to promote the opportunities of men to take advantage of parental leave and to adapt their working hours to the needs of their families. According to recent studies made by a project at Stakes (the National Research and Development Centre for Welfare and Health), men and women have almost identical attitudes towards how to combine work with family life.

In spite of this, the gender routine - formulated in families, income creation and public life, at places of work and elsewhere - results in gender-oriented practices.

On the whole, we should be more alarmed by the longer working hours of men (fathers) than by the shorter working hours of women (mothers).

*Excerpt from a lecture given by Raija Julkunen at a seminar on working hours organised by SAK in Helsinki on May 11 1998.