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60th IFLA General Conference - Conference Proceedings - August 21-27, 1994

How long do women have to wait?

Tuula Haavisto
Secretary General, Finnish Library Association
Museokatu 18 A 5, FIN-00100 Helsinki


How long do women have to wait to become full-licensed citizens? And is it only to wait or is it to do something ourselves? One could think that the answer is selfclear. But is it? The process of women towards being subjects is a dialectical process of our own activity and official actions as making laws and statutes, arranging national/local discussions and studies about equality. The mental process, women's collective and individual consciousness is also a complicated question. Men's opinions about equality are developing, too. Finland is a country which has a long experience about majority of women working full-time outside home. Partly due to this fact the position of women in Finland is nowadays quite good. But still we don't live in heaven yet. Women's salaries are lower than those of men. Women are not yet as high regarded as men. In the paper I discuss the process of interaction between women's own activity and the society in formulating the present situation. As an example I use Finland and its libraries. 90% of its library staff is female, and the great majority of library directors are women as well. How does this influence our library policy, working methods, working atmosphere - or does it have any influence at all?


How long to do women have to wait?

The position of women is a process. This process has its own characteristics in every country and culture, but the main question always seems to be something like "how are the relationships and possibilities of women and men organized in a society"?

In this paper I'll try to describe how the process has got further in one specific country, Finland. There is a dialectic relationship between women's own activities and the changes on the official side of the society, as in legislation. Both factors are important. Secondly, it is important to notice, that women in Finland have managed to use the ages of transition in the history for their benefi t. That has happened in the other Nordic countries, too.

In Finland equality has developed rather far. This has happened in the frame of a Nordic welfare state, but it has some other roots, too. But not only the position and life of women has changed - men have participated in the process, too. Changes in legislation and ways of acting cover the whole society.

Equality was born from poverty

In some sense the original root for the Finnish equality is the poor and unindependent history of the country. The majority of Finns lived even in the 40's in countryside, cultivating small family farms. Compared with e.g. latifundios, the Finnish system was equally hard to everyone: both women and men, even children, had to strengthen extremely to survive. If there was any overclass living easie r life, it consisted mainly of foreign rulers. Finland was up to 1809 a Swedish province, and 1810-1917 a Russian Grand Duchy. In a farmer family everyone had her and his "natural" role in the system. Everyone was needed, and every good worker, male or female, was respected. This fact is still alive in our everyday life: it is very clear that women participate strongly in the maintenance of famil ies. It is a Finnish speciality that a great majority of women is working and has worked full-time outside the home. Having children doesn't change this choice. The state and the communities support women's work with long maternity leaves and the day-care system. In the recent recession these systems have got threatened, but they still exist.

I have to mention, too, that women's movements have been strong in Finland since the beginning of this century. Their activities have covered a large area from gymnastics to the political women's organisations or the Martha Organisation, which has enlightened women in household questions. The importance of these movements to the consciousness of Finnish women has been significant. I would argue t hat one or another women's movement has been near to every Finnish woman.

The state - enemy or ally?

Our history under foreign rule had other consequences, too. It is one reason to the positive attitude of our women's movement towards the state as a social structure. Contrary to the Anglo-American feminist tradition, where the state has been considered as a paternalistic, negative power, women in all Nordic countries see the state more as an ally to women.

In Finland, during the last decades of the Russian rule, independence was a common target of the whole nation. A lot of political, educational, etc. work was done to reach it. In this work also women's movements were active. When independency then was reached in 1917, it was an achievement of everyone, including both genders. And after this, women had the right to have a clear role in "our common state".

In all Nordic countries, the public sector has from the beginning of this century offered the most working places for women. Researchers speak about a symbolic gender contract, although there is of course no written paper. But it was generally accepted that women had their responsibility in public life. It was rejected but still important: education of children, health and social care on lower le vel as nurses. So librarianship, especially public libraries was self-evidently a suitable area for women. Librarians also participated in the social mission which was mainly a responsibility of women: they were along with teachers refining the nation, uprooting bad manners from the common people. There exists impressive documents in our library history about this mission. In fact, the mission is still continuing.

Women do have this mission of cultivating the people in nearly every culture. What was exceptional in the Nordic countries, was that women carried out this task largely in public life, not only in homes. (But what also can be noticed is that the enlightening movements in Finland were always begun by men. After their awakening speeches women were allowed to continue, to implement the ideas as publ ic libraries, to the everyday life, in every corner of the country.)

It was important that women had this large area of social activities. Eventually they reached also such speciality, which was badly needed in the society. They could not be ignored.

At the same time the male-dominated trade unions were negotiating better working conditions. According to a Finnish study on women (1) one can say: during the times the development produced two parallel welfare states. The men's state guarantees traditional trade union benefits, and the women's state offers services and helps to organize everyday life. How these models survive or are reformed dur ing the present age of transition, is a challenge for their supporters.

Time for a new gender contract

But times were changing. Society was being modernized, and from the 60's women were no more pleased with their "public maternity". They wanted to conquer new areas, they wanted to be leaders. They wanted new respect - and better salaries - for their special skills, e.g. social capability.

As a result of great amounts of political work of women, with more and more support from men the formal equality got new pushes: The Council for Equality between Men and Women was founded in 1972 under the Ministry of Welfare to begin the official work for the gender equality. The first Act of Equality between Women and Men was accepted in 1987 (now under reform). Since then we have had an Equali ty Ombudsman, too. Official groups for gender equality were founded in communities, offices and all kinds of working places. The last but one "forbidden" profession, the clerical office was opened to women in 1988. The army is not open for women in Finland, although there are demands for that. It is maybe intresting to know, that also some men have used the possibility to look for justice via e.g . the Equality Ombudsman.

In the last election the Finns choose to the Parliament a higher share of women than ever in any country (80/200). In the presidential election this spring we had two strong candidates in the final round. The female one came second with 46% of votes. Finnish women see this situation as a turning point.

In the library world these problematics could be seen only partly: being a traditional women's area the majority of librarians has always been female, as a great part of chief librarians, too. Nowadays 90% of all public librarians are women, and 80-85% of chief librarians. In the research libraries the situation is different. There also ca. 90% of all librarians are female, but the chiefs are mor e often men than in public libraries. Of all the people active in the library field of Finland a very great majority is female.

I would think that there are two reasons why women have occupied leading offices in libraries. Firstly, the tradition and working culture in Finland has supported women in their work better than in most countries. Secondly, and more wretchedly, the low salaries and the low status of librarians haven't locked men to these positions.

New methods to reach equality

One element has been unchangeable during the whole process of the equalisation. The appreciation of traditional women's work and their capabilities has been lower than that of men. The 90's has begun with efforts to find solutions to this problem. At least one methodological (2) and some concrete local studies have been done to find a way to balance different skills, responsibility, strain and wo rking circumstances of any profession. These studies have been ordered by the central labour market organisations.

An other recent gender question is the quotas for both genders in some institutions (education, state and communal organs, etc). Before they haven't been actively demanded in Finland. But now in connection with the reform of the Act of Equality between Women and Men people are speaking about the good experiences about quotas in Norway. They have influenced positively especially politics.

As I mentioned, the appreciation and image of librarians is in Finland as poor as everywhere. But what is amazing, the image of libraries is not. According to my evaluation, people in Finland are as conscious about the importance of libraries as one could wish. E.g. this spring we got easily more than 550.000 signatures (over 11% of the whole population) to an appeal for the libraries. We haven't yet many ideas about the reason why the librarians are not as appreciated as the institution. Maybe we haven't popularized the work enough. The old cliché about reading as the work of librarians is still alive.


Which differences can be seen between women and men as librarians? Nothing very clear. It seems that differences between individuals are more important than between gender groups. And from both sexes persons choosing librarianship are more introvert people, also in Finland. First some critics on women. They are slow to adopt new technical innovations. An acute problem in Finland is telematics. I argue, that if we had more male librarians, our electronic network would be much further than it is now!

What is, according to my experience, very positive in most female librarians, they don't use their time and energy in power struggles. Working groups, meetings, executive boards are concentrating primarily on the matter itself, and very seldom in prestige problems. I do meet such problems mainly when cooperating with "outsiders". But on the other hand this fact includes also a negative side: I th ink women do even avoid power too much. When we come to a conflict situation, we are too helpless. Everything is OK and most women are very capable, as long as all participants in a situation are willing to find a common decision. But that is and can not be always the case.

An interesting group to be compared with librarians is the information specialists, most of whom are working in the private sector. In Finland they have their own education, even their own culture. And here again, the great majority of leading persons are female. In my opinion these women are the strongest leaders on the field of libraries and information services. They have learned more effectiv e leadership in their private enterprises, and they have in many cases succeeded in conquering good positions with their own work. They are more goal-orientated than library leaders in average, I think. Librarians have something to learn here.


I have mentioned, that Finnish men have changed as well as women. Yes, they have become more equal - by force of circumstances. But new generations, especially highly educated men, are ready to get further in this direction. When I think on men I know, their reason to adopt these attitudes is their democratic mind. They wouldn't feel at home in a paternalistic milieu either. They have found new elements in themselves; they e.g. seem to be very keen, active and warm as fathers. A great majority of fathers nowadays take the possibility to use part of the maternity leave. This part naturally shortens the mother's leave. These important indicators were presented in a recent dissertation (made by a male researcher).

It is very clearly different to co-operate with this kind of men than with traditional authoritative men. In international contacts one sometimes experiences this very strongly...

Of course we have a good selection of traditional paternalists in Finland, too. But nowadays their fate is in my eyes more pitiable. In public discussions they are in a very bad position, even outlaws. E.g. the researchers and specialists on working studies argue today by common consent, that the days of these kind of bosses and small-scale tyrants are over. What is needed in modern working commu nities, are quite other capabilities: team-working, equal negotiations, a really independent status for every working partner.

This last demand can be traced in the change in the work itself. Our society is on its way from an industrial society to an information society. In these new circumstances the quality of the work becomes more important than in mass production. And quality can only be produced by people who themselves are conciously responsible for their input in the working process. Subdued and controlled people are not.

Another focus in the working life of the information society seems to be that different professions and branches compete for talented students. Because the important talent nowadays is in brains and no more in muscles, there is no sex limitation. I have read many articles and seen advertisements where industry tries to persuade girls to engineering and other traditionally male education. They wan t the best brains.

I think that the need to get all the best brains in use will be in Finland as everywhere the key element to beat back the backlash towards the position of women. Problems caused by this segregation according to talents will be, I guess, no more a problem of gender but of social equality.


(1) Liisa RANTALAIHO: The Gender System of the Finnish Society. In: Liisa Rantalaiho (ed.): Social Changes and the Status of Women. Univ. of Tampere, Centre for Women's Studies and Gender Relations. Working Papers 3/1993. Tampere 1993.

(2) What Does the Job Demand? A test study to develop job evaluation schemes. An English extract. By Juha Vuorinen & al. Helsinki 1993.