The woman’s role in Finland

The Finns acknowledge that as a small nation, the role of women has been important in both agriculture and industry in supporting both the family and the nation. Thus Finland has had a long history in the emancipation of women. Traditionally in the 19th century, when boys had acquired the elementary skills of reading and writing, they were taken out of school and were put into farm work. Girls, however, stayed on to be further educated. Finland has long had equal opportunities as a “trademark”, and has continually updated their laws.

Finnish women

The history of the legal emancipation of women began in the 1860s.

  • 1864: Single women attain legal majority at the age of 25 and the right to dispose of their own income from the age 15, and their own property from the age of 21, provided they notify a court of law.
  • 1864: Marriage laws improved.
  • 1868: Divorce made easier.
  • 1871: Rights to enter university.
  • 1878: First women physicians licensed.
  • 1878: Inheritance laws amended to inherit equally with men.
  • 1880: Emancipation movement began.
  • 1890: Women allowed to teach in educational establishments.
  • 1906: Universal suffrage, the first women in the world to vote along with New Zealand. First in the world to be allowed to stand for public office.
  • 1907: First women elected to the Eduskunta—19 out of 200 MPs.
  • 1916: Equal pay for women in schools and permitted to become university teachers.
  • 1919: The new republic embodied the principles of full equality for the sexes.
  • 1921: Compulsory general education decreed by law.
  • 1922: Married women granted independent right to enter into Contracts of Employment.
  • 1922: Formal establishment of the rights of unmarried mothers and their children.
  • 1922: Father’s obligation to support children until 17 years of age and the right of illegitimate offspring to inherit equally with legitimate children.
  • 1926: Complete equality for women within the civil service. This covered issues such as competence requirement, salaries and pensions.
  • 1930: Marriage Act granting legal equality of spouses.
  • 1947: Central Association of Women Entrepreneurs founded.
  • 1970: Grounds for abortion extended to include social considerations.
  • 1970: Ratification of UN Convention on banning all discrimination against women.
  • By 1981: 64 per cent of students taking university exams were women.
  • 1986: New Surname Act passed, permitting spouses to take the surname of either party.
  • 1988: Women permitted to enter the clergy of the Evangelical Lutheran Church.
  • 1990: Elisabeth Rehn becomes first woman Minister of Defence in the World.
  • 1994: Voluntary military service made available to women.
  • 1994: Riitta Uosukainen becomes first woman Speaker of the Finnish Parliament.
  • 1995: Stipulation of a 40 per cent quota of women in municipal select boards, municipal administration and government committees.
  • 1996: Cabinet’s Equal Opportunity Programme (1996– 99).
  • 2000: Tarja Halonen becomes first woman elected as president of Finland.
  • 2005: Revised Act on Equality—requirement for gender equality planning at workplaces.
  • 2006: Tarja Halonen re-elected President

Finnish women are very proud of being among the first women voters in the world and they are well represented in the Finnish parliament. The part that women play in Finnish public life is far more important than can be seen in other countries.

There is a long tradition of women at work in Finland, with almost equal numbers of men and women working. The overwhelming majority of women (71 per cent) are in full-time employment whilst bringing up their children and looking after the family home. Women do less part-time work in Finland than anywhere else in Europe. There are many women in business, in forestry, in engineering and in the chemicals industry. There is no culture of traditional “women’s jobs”, as there is, for example, in the UK in welfare and the caring services. Legally, women’s pay is equal, but on the whole, women earn around 80 per cent of men’s earnings. For Finnish women, financial independence is the basis of equal opportunities, and this explains the importance for them of working. Surveys show that 58 per cent of women regard work to be significantly important in becoming self-fulfilled. After 1945, Finnish women bore a heavy responsibility as breadwinners and equalled the men in their struggle to make reparations to Russia after the war. Until very recently, it was quite common for women to remain in agriculture and continue to maintain the family smallholding, whilst the men became the major wage earners.

The Rural Advisory Centres play an important role in supporting women’s efforts in creating businesses. In many rural regions, women work from home—in isolation—and the centres have helped developed networks, mentoring programmes and an interactive Internet network. One bank in Finland offers reduced bank rates for women entrepreneurs. About 30 per cent of entrepreneurs are women and there are many government funded bodies helping to develop their skills through mentoring and training programmes.

In terms of breaking the «glass ceiling», Finnish women can be said to be one generation ahead of those in the UK. Whilst many women in Western society got married and stayed at home to look after the children, however well educated they were, in Finland this did not happen. There are many women in Finland in their mid-fifties who have well-paid and powerful jobs.

There are those who have built businesses and sold them on successfully, there are those that have climbed quite high on the corporate ladder, and there are those who have become government ministers. In this respect, Finnish women can be seen as pioneers in working life. According to Statistics Finland, Finnish women are better educated than the men, which allows them opportunities for similar job status. Women also consider the workplace to be a good environment to learn new things and gain training. They have a great desire for self-development.

The nation as a whole is trying to encourage women to become more prominent at the highest level. In 1998, only 2 per cent of senior managers were women (four women in the top 200 companies). In 2005, 22 per cent of the highest management positions in public administration were held by women. In the private sector, just over a quarter of all managers were women. Some 17 per cent of the board members in the hundred biggest private companies were women in 2005. A third of Finns have a woman as their immediate boss, more than elsewhere in Europe.

Women are seen as popular and successful in their role as a boss. They are said to be more supportive and encouraging than their male counterparts, though, apparently, words of thanks and praise are just as few from the female boss! One of my clients from Kuopio, a man in his late twenties, voiced this opinion in public a couple of years before she was voted in. “The future belongs to women. They’re good leaders”. If women in Western societies want any role models, we need look no further than Finland to find them.

Finland is one of the safest countries in Europe for single women to travel. However, it is not usual to see a single woman in a pub, and she may therefore attract some unwanted attention.