This is the culmination of a national push for gender equity that started even before Finland’s independence in 1917.
In the same report meanwhile, our own birth nations of the United States and Japan held the positions of No. 30 and No. 120 respectively, out of 156 countries.
We wound up admiring the people and society of Finland so much that we’ve been returning to North Karelia and to the capital city of Helsinki for extended visits ever since.
Contrary to the stereotypical image of Finnish people as being reserved, Naomi was instantly “adopted” as a long-lost sister by the exuberant, highly accomplished women of the Martha organization — a volunteer community service group — and by a wide range of local mothers, professional women and university professors.
In Finland, we found a fiercely egalitarian and modest society that is much the opposite of what we were used to in the US. Schoolchildren learn through play and joyful discovery, enjoy multiple outdoor daily recess periods and have highly respected teachers and fairly-funded public schools. Parental leave is generous, public hospitals are first-rate, and the full participation of women in political leadership and many professions is accepted as routine.
“Finland is a small nation,” former President Halonen explained to us last year from her home in the working-class Helsinki district where she grew up.
“For 700 years we were a part of our western neighbor (Sweden). Then the king of Sweden started a war against Russia and he lost it. Then we were 100 years a part of Russia — luckily as an autonomous part. Now our independence has lasted a little more than 100 years.” In that time, she said, “we have had one civil war and two wars and many difficulties.”
“We have learned to be very independent and stubborn and hardworking. Perhaps somehow it has been easier for us to realize that you need both men and women for a society to function at 100%. Here in the North (of the globe) we have a long tradition of strong women in society. The women have to be strong in order to survive and in order to help their families and their fellow citizens,” said Halonen.
She became the nation’s first cabinet member in 1926, and led the national association of servants and household workers for 50 years. Sillanpää helped start an organization of shelters for single women and their children and fought to improve the lives of the elderly and disadvantaged.
A Finnish business executive recently told us of an “ethos of equality” that is “culturally embedded” into the nation. She explained that “this happens in fundamental social services like health care and high-quality education, which are offered to all citizens as an essential, non-negotiable foundation for gender equity in a society.”
This brutally honest admission is especially relevant in light of the fact that the theme of this year’s International Women’s Day is “BreakTheBias.”
The more we speak with Finnish people, the more we are struck by how often they emphasize the idea of partnership between women and men, rather than a competition of “women versus men.” We often hear of the collective Finnish desire to care for each and every member of society.
Finland is not necessarily “better than,” or even directly comparable to, many other nations. But it can serve as an inspiring source of reflection on what may be shining truths in human affairs — when a society strives to truly and humbly make each gender full partners in power and in leadership, and makes a national mission out of striving to care for all its citizens with fairness and compassion, the whole of society thrives.
The people of Finland are the first to acknowledge that this is still a work in progress — but they are showing the world why it is worth striving for.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism