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Rule of law - gender equality

My speech at the Finnish Foreign Ministry of Affairs i March 2014

“A female attorney’s role in the pursuit of gender equality”

I would like to start by telling you a story – a true story of an exceptional woman, my dear friend and colleague. The year is 1968 and she is browsing thru the courses offered at the University of Helsinki in order to decide what would be a suitable carrier choice for her. Among other faculties presenting their courses was also the Faculty of law. As she came to the end of the presentation she had made up her mind. This would fit her perfectly – since at the very end it said “not recommended for women”. Ritva-Liisa Luomaranta, alias Riksu.

Gender equality in the workplace

This anecdote might seem funny, since this way of thinking is so far from how we see things today in Finland. Today women would over 60 % of the admission places at the faculty of law in Helsinki. But what if my colleague would not have disregarded the recommendations? But only 1/3 of the attorneys are women in Finland, according to a recently published doctoral thesis. The research points out that the work of an attorney is challenging and time consuming, and in order to climb the career ladder as an attorney, it is usually at the expense of your personal life. In Finland we have a very good public childcare system that enables parents to return to work, as well as the system of free meals in kindergarten and in schools.

The challenges in everyday life are despite this many. At work there are deadlines to be met, and meetings to attend and presentations to be held. As an attorney you always feel that you can investigate a little more, or go thru the agreement one more time. The job is never done or you can at least always improve what you already have done. Attorneys are very work oriented, in general. So I think that the result of the doctoral thesis I mentioned before is correct; being a good attorney usually means that your child is always the last one to be picked up from day care. And if your child gets sick, it’s always at the most inconvenient time. Unfortunately many law firms have little or no understanding for the pressure that attorneys with small children are under.

I am lucky to be employed by an attorney’s office that values their employees. Borenius founded the Crowded Years initiative in 2012. It’s main ambition being to provide the employees with better ways to combine work and private life. This was a new and innovative approach to tackle something which had not before been given concrete attention at law firm level, including the intention to correct the gender imbalance at the hierarchical top ranks for a major law firm. In practice this means promoting flexible working hours, working from home and joint project leadership. It is such a relief that the employer understands that having a career and a family is more difficult at certain stages in life.

All in all Finland has done a decent job enabling gender equality in the workplace, because our welfare state depends on it. In order to enable economic growth and competitive potential in a country with less than 5,5 million inhabitants, gender equality is not just a benefit – it is a national necessity. But there are still things to be done. The UN Human Rights Committee just recently reprimanded Finland for amongst other things the significant pay gap of approximately 20 %. This has direct effects on the gender roles in our country. And the best example might be the question of who stays home with your infant. Tradition has some part in the fact that it usually is the mother, but according to research a main factor is, in fact the significant pay gap.

Domestic violence

As you can hear, a lot of positive things have happened since 1968, and Finland is in many respects a “model student” in the area of gender equality. According to the World Economic Forum (WEF) Finland is the second most gender equal country in the world. Iceland is number one and has been so for many years. The survey conducted put emphasis on participation in politics, financial equality, and the right to education and access to healthcare. But there is a flipside to the success story. Just recently, an EU-report on domestic violence was published. According to the report 47 % of adult women in Finland have experienced violence of some kind, beaten only by Denmark. The rate of domestic violence in Finland is almost twice the European average, at 43.5 %. Twenty percent of all homicides in Finland are attributed to a woman’s death at the hands of a current or former partner, according to the National Research Institute of Legal Policy. It doesn’t help that only around 10 % of the domestic violence taken place in a relationship, is reported to the authorities. The corresponding figure in Europe is around 20 %.

It’s needless to say that more efforts need to be directed towards the protection of equal rights in the private sphere. But to change the way we think takes a great deal longer than changing a law.

Law and custom

A famous woman in Finland, who lived in the 19th century (1807-1879), once said that both law and custom suppresses women. The woman was Fredrika Runeberg (the wife of Finland’s national poet Johan Ludwig Runeberg). At that time it was not considered correct for a woman in her position to work outside home or to study, even though it was not prohibited by law. Also women’s right to own property and inherit became possible more than 100 years ago. Despite this we can still see the aftermaths of the traditional set up, where men had legal advantages when it came to owning and inheriting property.

Take for example the way marital property is distributed in a marriage. I often come across couples in divorce proceedings where the woman hardly owns anything on paper. They might have been married or have lived together for 50 years, but it’s the man who “owns” the house, the summer cottage, the boat, the car etc. It is possible by law to demand compensation from the other spouse. Usually it’s a question what the other spouse has invested financially, and not how much it was worth to raise the children and take care of the housework – as these are not grounds for compensation per se.

Sometimes women are totally unaware of the situation. And It’s quite surprising to note that Finnish woman do not know their rights, or at least don’t stand up for them. In many countries women and girls suffer from weak rule of law and face multiple barriers to justice. Even where good laws exist, women are often unaware of their rights, the laws are not always enforced, or the laws may conflict with local customs and culture. According to the organisation The World Justice Project “Putting the rule of law behind women’s rights” would help solve many of our world’s toughest challenges.

Protecting the rule of law

Every state can ratify an agreement or make laws. This is not a guarantee for the rule of law. The law has to obligate the legislators, the regulatory authorities as well as the courts. And the laws need to be protected.

The Finnish Bar Association sat down in 2011 with a mission to express the purpose of the work of its members, for those outside the legal profession. The Association board came up with the statement “Attorneys protect the rule of law”. The attorneys’ role in the upholding of the rule of law is irreplaceable. In fact the rule of law cannot exist without an independent bar. The Finnish Association Board found a connection between having an independent bar and having a country with the rule of law, since the countries with the highest number of human rights violations are the countries where attorneys have the poorest working conditions. Since the government and its officials are accountable under law, sometimes an attorney has to question the government’s actions. An attorney stands between the people and the government in the role as a protector of the rule of law. It doesn’t take a genius to see that an attorney and an independent bar is considered a threat in a country where the leaders take the law into their own hands. I don’t think it is a coincidence that in many countries, many defenders of human rights are in fact attorneys.

Therefore, every attorney should remember that they contribute to protect the rule of law through their daily work. Under the Constitution of Finland “Everyone is equal before the law”. It is my duty to act in the interests of my client regardless of gender and comply with the law and observe the proper professional conduct. Only this way can the legal protection be strengthened and the rule of law promoted.

What can we do?

My mission as an attorney is quite clear, and I am proud of my profession. But what is my role as a private person, a mother, and a woman in Finland? I’m quite active in social media and asked my, almost 500 friends on Facebook a couple of weeks ago to comment on women’s rights: -“what could be done to improve women’s rights in Finland and internationally”? I expected a lively discussion, but I never expected what I got – which was exactly zero comments! It was probably the wrong forum, but I think it also shows what a difficult topic this is. We all play a very important role in society, and we cannot leave all the work to the authorities.

I believe we can and should make a contribution to society in our own way. We just have to sit down and think about what our personal mission is, just like the Finnish Bar Association Board did. I’ve grown up with parents, whose mission has been to help whenever possible. Even though they are only two persons, I’m sure they have managed to make a difference thru their efforts over the years. Since today’s topic is women’s rights, I can mention their project to gather used baby strollers in Finland, and all kinds of baby supplies and distribute the items to single and poor mothers in Latvia.

Compared to the struggles and hardships women face in many countries, issues like imposing of quotas for women on company boards, equal salaries etc. might seem like luxury issues. These are nonetheless important questions in our developing society. Our world is moving forward and new generations are taking over. I believe one of the keys to a more gender equal society is our children. It is important to bring up the issue of gender equality in school and kindergarten, but I believe it is the parents who play the most important role. So I have a very important role in strive for a more gender equal society in raising my children – just as any other parent. The most effective way is probably being by setting an example for the children in how we interact with people and in our marriages and relationships. with the other sex we will probably best way is probably to set an example In Finland the equality in the private sphere is lagging behind.

Take for example housework. Even if both parties in a relationship work full time, women do more housework according to research in Finland. The reason for this is believed to be traditional gender roles and pay gap. And if one effect of this unequal division means that female law students do not pursuit a career as an attorney, then this is quite alarming.

Personally, I don’t think I could practice as an attorney without 100 % support from my husband. But the lack of time is a constant subject for discussion at our house. But I believe women are partly to blame when it comes to the dividing of housework and wanting to keep the “traditional” women’s work to themselves. I remember going back to work after having been at home with our small ones, and how hard it was for me to let go of having total control over the children’s clothes, meals, bedtimes etc. If my husband had picked out clothes for the children - I changed the clothes. If women want men to participate in housework and childcare, we have to remember to treat them equally. Women will never reach equality in the area of housework, if we desperately try to hang on to tradition. And if it’s equality that we are after, we have to accept that our child might be wearing the “wrong” pants – and that it’s really not that important.

I wish I could say that all kind of discrimination against women in Finland is long gone, but that’s not the case. Even I find myself in situations today in 2014, where my role as an attorney is overshadowed by the fact that I am a woman. And it’s like a slap in the face!

But I’m glad that I live and work in Finland, I’m glad we have women like my colleague, who do not resign or act submissively to a bit of resistance. We need more of these women in Finland – women who stand up for their rights. I’m glad for employers who acknowledge the fact that it is difficult to combine work and private life. I’m proud of my profession’s mission to protect the rule of law and I’m glad for husbands who support their wives and treat them with respect. Only this way can we ensure that our children will treat their colleagues, friends and future spouses equally – regardless of gender!

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