From formal to real equality

Liisa Rantalaiho and Tuula Heiskanen, eds,
Gendered Practices in Working Life,
Macmillan 1997.

Review by Sue Innes

The question at the centre of Gendered Practices in Working Life is a crucial and very interesting one - perhaps even more interesting elsewhere in Europe than in the Nordic countries, where there is at least the advantage that it can be posed. It is why, when the most common explanations for gender inequality generally accepted are no longer true, does inequality persist?

Formal equality is central to international characterisation of the Nordic countries, with an almost equal participation by men and women in the labour market; state support for people with caring responsibilities; and the highest proportion of women in government in the world. This study shows that even this is not enough to guarantee equality in employment and public life. In Finland the common explanations for gender hierarchy and women's subordination, that women's involvement in working life is less than that of men in time and skill-level and that women are less organised in protection of their interests, do not hold. Women are well-established as half of Finland's total labour force, almost all working full-time; they have a high educational level (under age of 40, higher than men's); women's rate of union membership is higher than men's; state support for parents and other carers is accepted as a "social right".

In Britain, in comparison, although slightly more women work full-time than part-time, women make up most of the growing labour force of low-paid, part-time workers; women are less likely to join a union than men; and women workers' family responsibilities are seen as an individual problem met most usually through private provision or by other family members (usually Granny). So all of those explanations make perfect sense to us.

"If these explanations were enough, then Finnish women ought to be in an enviable position of full gender equality," Liisa Rantalaiho comments. "But that is not the case." She details men's dominance of senior and decision-making positions, a very high level of gender segregation in employment, and the gender gap in wages. Elsewhere in the study the persistence of taken-for-granted male norms and sexual violence and harassment are referred to. It is the difference identified by English feminist Eleanor Rathbone - in 1925, and since forgotten - between real, as opposed to strictly legal, equality.

The obvious conclusion is perhaps the gloomy one, that it is little use for women to work or study hard and to organise. The authors do not however belittle the degree of economic independence and wider room for action women have achieved, but argue that "there is no single key to abolish gender inequality. Inequality is systemic. As a system it reproduces itself like a mythical monster: when you hack off its head, it grows two others."

In my overview of progress to equality in Britain in 1995, Making It Work, I used the image of couch grass (a remarkably inventive and persistent weed) to make a similar point. This weed has "deep cultural roots in the definitions of women's and men's work and women's and men's action spaces". My book, based on accounts of a number of related research projects, examines those roots in depth and raises further detailed, equally necessary questions. One suggested answer is the 'conflict of difference' in a society where men still determine the terms of integration - but that only leads to the further question: why, if women's independence is so established, has male control of 'the text' persisted?

But to answer these questions I, as a British reader of this book from Finland, wanted less defining of terms (sometimes repetitively) and much more detail - more attention to the research and local conditions and less to the international literature, more facts, less abstraction. For example, from my experience of British media, the chapter on Work and Parenthood by Riikka Kivimäki, seems to conflate a flexibility which is integral to the nature of journalism with flexibility that's of real use to parents. If it is really different in Finland, something other than finishing work at midnight after the children have finally gone to sleep, there isn't enough detail here to tell us that. In contrast, the chapter Anne's Story: Sexual Harassment as a Process by Hannele Varsa, which focuses fully on one case makes its argument more successfully.

And what about Finnish men? A story about male power and resistance (such as Cynthia Cockburn has documented in Britain) seems to lie behind these accounts, but is not explicitly addressed. Above all, what about family roles? The assumption that women have family responsibilities which conflict with work both runs through the book and is denied by it: women and men are seen as giving the same commitment to paid work yet it is accepted in several of the studies that women face a home/work tension that men do not. Life-totalities need more careful assessment if the premise that there are no obvious explanations for inequality in Finland is to hold. Further, all women are presented as having family responsibilities: attention to the differences between women could be productive in this respect.

Nevertheless, the focus in the study beyond labour market and economic indicators to social and textual practices within organisations, to self-definition (and its possibility) and the subjective is valuable, as is the theoretical and methodological plurality. These are well-informed arguments which badly need a wider hearing, as a counter to the simplistic accounts of gender difference which seem to be gaining credence. The way that assumptions of equality and an apparent 'gender neutrality' can make structural inequalities invisible is a central paradox of our times. This book is a tool to untangle it and an important addition to the growing communication between people in Britain and the Nordic countries who want to see real equality - at last.

The Writer is a journalist and the author of Making it Work: Women, Change and Challenge in the 1990s (Chatto and Windus, 1995).

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