• From guns to babies - making parliaments more gender sensitive in Finland and the UK

    What does a gender sensitive parliament mean? To put it simply: a gender sensitive parliament responds to the needs of all of its members and puts a special emphasis on gender issues. It calls for evaluating parliaments’ structures, operations, infrastructure, and everyday practices from a gender perspective.

    Let us give few examples of the types of questions that this raises. Does it matter what kinds of toilets the parliament has? Or to which areas of the parliament babies are allowed to enter? How to change the masculine parliamentary culture? What solutions have other parliaments adopted to tackle some of the remaining inequalities? Why is there such a big motherhood gap among elected MPs in the UK?

    The International Parliamentary Union (IPU) carried out a survey on gender sensitive parliaments in 2009-2010. As an outcome it published a global review of good practices in order to develop parliaments as equal working environments for both women and men. IPU collected information on the ways in which gender can be mainstreamed into the work of a parliamentary institution as well as the Plan of Action for implementation.

    Gender equality in the parliament doesn’t mean just percentages of representation or gender equality laws. It also means awareness of gender sensitive infrastructure and improving parliamentary culture, either formal or informal.

    The UK House of Commons organised an interesting seminar on Gender Sensitive Parliaments at the Palace of Westminster 19 November 2015.

    We had the privilege to present our research and experiences about the Finnish parliament in the conference.

    We learnt from the Speaker of the Parliament, Rt Hon Jon Bercow (MP), that he had managed to push through a reform just recently where the traditional shooting gallery had been transformed into a nursery for the children of the people working the parliament.

    At the same time, the UK MPs have to ask the party whip for the right to take some time off when they have children.

    The conference buzzed about toilets, nurseries, babies, breastfeeding, harassment, working hours, gender working groups, networks and platforms. The Finnish and Swedish politicians added their stories about the importance of skiing and sauna to the mix of gender sensitive parliaments.

    Fundamentally these diverse issues boil down to questions about equality and justice: what kind of job is it to be a politician; should we change our notions and ways of doing politics so that they would be compatible with lives of people in different life circumstances; how do parliaments preserve their special character and adopt to today’s requirements about gender equal and diverse workplaces.

    We were asked to talk about three key dimensions that a gender sensitive parliament might consist of in our countries and the reforms that have been undertaken in relation to these: (i) equality of participation throughout the house; (ii) gender sensitive infrastructure; and (iii) gender sensitive culture.

    Case Finland

    It turned out that Finland is internationally known for one of its good practices: it is one of the few countries – along with Sweden – that has a gender equality plan for the parliament. Nevertheless Finland has had its own problems – for example scandals about sexual and gender based harassment in the parliament. The Gender equality and non-discrimination plan indeed presents a list of important measures that would help to tackle for example the identified gender pay gap, and male domination in top positions and key preparatory bodies and working groups.

    Unfortunately, this equality and non-discrimination plan for parliamentary staff dates back to 2011. It has not been evaluated, monitored or updated since – in breach with the Finnish Gender Equality Act that the parliament itself has enacted.

    As anyone in Finland might guess, Sweden stood out in terms of its policy on gender sensitizing parliaments. Sweden had similar measures to Finland but all were more institutionalized, better implemented and monitored. The political commitment was visible in the continuous development of these measures. For example, the parliamentary sitting hours were more fixed than in Finland or the UK, as were the voting times, the parliament finishes its plenaries well in time for the weekend (on Thursdays at 3pm).

    Gender equality plan for the MPs

    Sweden has not only a gender equality plan for the parliamentary staff but also for the MPs. The current gender equality plan for the MPs tackles some recent issues such as gendered hate speech in the social media and considers the parliament’s role in preventing this. Parliamentary Speaker’s Working Group that consists of MPs from all parties has been an important driving force for the reforms.

    Finally, Sweden also gave us ideas about a solution to one gender equality problem that women MPs in Finland have identified.

    In Finland, in the plenary, the MPs from the committee whose report in being discussed should have the right to speak among the first speakers in a parliamentary debate. This unwritten norm is proving to be highly gendered. Especially on debates on defense policy and foreign policy the Speakers have tended to bypass women’s attempts to speak in the parliament.

    The Swedish parliament has been recently reformed so that the members of the committee whose report in under discussion sit in a separate row or bench in the front of the parliament. Perhaps this would make it easier for Finnish Speakers of the Parliament to identify the women MPs of the defense committee who want to participate in formulating Finnish defense policy.

    The Sauna Committee

    In many cases gendered practices in politics are not formal but very informal. The working culture can formally be quite gender sensitive but in reality exclusive informal institutions may emerge. In Finland one of the funniest examples of inaccessible informal parliamentary institutions is the so called "sauna committee".

    There is a sauna in the Finnish Parliament building but there are separate saunas for male and female staff members and MPs. That is not a problem at all. What causes problems is the exclusive discussion culture and discourse. “Oh, we already decided that in the sauna committee,” is a slogan that a woman MP can face when entering a committee meeting.

    That is why we think that gender awareness and sensitivity are highly needed and recommended to the daily practices and culture of the parliaments.

    Johanna Kantola (PhD, docent) is Academy Research Fellow at the University of Helsinki, Finland, where she also holds a permanent position as a Senior Lecturer in gender studies. She has published extensively on gender, power and politics and her most recent books include Gender and Political Analysis (Palgrave, 2016), Gender and the European Union (Palgrave, 2010), The Oxford Handbook on Gender and Politics (edited, Oxford University Press, 2013).

    Johanna Sumuvuori (M. Soc. Sc.) is Head of Society Programme at the Finnish Institute in London. She has also worked as an MP at the Finnish parliament, managed various NGOs and worked in communications. Johanna has a Master's Degree in social sciences and is a post-graduate student of political history at the University of Helsinki, Finland. She has also studied as a Visiting Doctoral Student at the University of Oxford, UK and at the US Foreign Policy Programme at Bard College, New York.

Thursday, 28th January 2016