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Being a woman in Finland: What's changed in 10, 20, 30 years?

In the 90s Finland's labour concilator thought it was acceptable to send a pornographic card to an equality researcher.

In the 1990s women's voluntary military service was hotly debated. At the turn of the millennnium Finland elected its first woman president, Tarja Halonen. Since 2017 the global #metoo movement has heightened awareness regarding sexual harassment. Image: Yle, AOP, kuvakäsittely: Ilkka Kemppinen / Yle

At the height of the Finnish recession of the 1990s, employment office clerks thought it was okay to suggest unemployed women take jobs as topless waitresses. Thirty years ago Finland still had no law criminalising spousal rape, despite Sweden already taking action on this issue in the 1960s.

Today things have changed. The country’s head of government is a woman, Sanna Marin. Women in Finland are able to join the army and discrimination based on pregnancy is illegal.

But social scientists still say Finnish society is gendered on many levels.

1990s: Penis postcards and topless bars

Marjut Jyrkinen, a Helsinki University professor specialised in working life, said women’s rights took a backseat during the economic squeeze of the 90s.

"Officials were completely lost in the midst of the rapidly internationalising sex and erotica trade. Employment centres even offered women work in topless bars," she explained.

As job seekers were forced to accept all work, Finnish labour unions soon fired back with a campaign against topless bars.

"The hotel and restaurant workers’ union ran a 'Wear a shirt to work' campaign to highlight the rights of women employed in the service industry.

The 1990s also saw a scandal which came to be known as the 'penis postcard' (kikkelikortti). The episode centred on then-national conciliator Jorma Reini sending a pornographic postcard to Marianne Laxén, who was a researcher for an advisory board working with equality law. Reini later made a public apology.

Pirjo Markkola from Tampere University said sexist rhetoric is no longer tolerated in Finnish society.

"I can’t imagine men in that position sending something like that anymore," she said.

Today the National Conciliator's Office is headed by a woman, Vuokko Piekkala.

2000s: Women decision-makers and #metoo

As the new millennium approached, more women entered politics in Finland. In the year 2000, Finnish president Tarja Halonen began the first of her two terms in office.

General elections in 2007 installed a legislature where women made up more than 40 percent of MPs.

In the ensuing years the government also made efforts to make family life more egalitarian by giving fathers the right to family leave.

"Fathers are far more active in their children’s lives than 30 years ago," Hanna Ylöstalo, an equality researcher at Turku University explained.

However, nearly a fifth of women in Finland work under fixed-term contracts. Temporary work is particularly prevalent among young women of child-bearing age.

The global #metoo movement has meanwhile exposed sexual assault and harassment at an unprecedented scale.

Ylöstalo pointed out that in her own youth there were no channels for dealing with sexual harassment, leading victims to often internalise abuse.

"Today you can bring these matters into a public forum."

Is equality done now?

Finland still has some problems it hasn’t been able to solve, according to Ylöstalo.

The main obstacle is the gender pay gap. Finnish women earn 16 percent less on average than men. Working life is also strongly segregated in Finland, according to the Finnish Institute for Health and Welfare (THL), which notes that "the division of the labour market into men's and women's jobs and professions is particularly strong in Finland (siirryt toiseen palveluun) in international comparison."

That said, the Finnish government's latest Equal Pay programme has stalled due to a lack of consensus between employer and worker organisations on measures to narrow the gender pay gap.

"Everyone agrees that jobs performed by women—particularly in the care sector—are important but no one wants to pay for them," Ylöstalo said.

Family leave practices can also put women in a vulnerable position financially. Women who stay at home caring for their children for at least three years earn up to twenty percent less than women without kids once they return to the workforce.