|| BOOK REVIEW
From formal to real equality
Liisa Rantalaiho and Tuula Heiskanen, eds,
Gendered Practices in Working Life,
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
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
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
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).