The role of men in gender equality
The exchange of good practices held in Helsinki, Finland on the 28th-29th October 2014 focused on the role of men in developing gender equality through a combination of measures aimed at achieving a better work-life balance for both women and men. In addition to the exploration of the approach in the host country Finland, there were presentations from associated countries Austria and Iceland on the measures they have adopted and a further 12 countries participated in the debate.
Finland is quite ahead of other countries in developing a more comprehensive approach to men’s issues. The government action plan for gender equality in Finland is based on the premise that it involves both men and women and so this means understanding the views and needs of both genders. It also means raising awareness from an early age with childhood education crucial for shaping attitudes later in life. The paternity leave schemes in Finland are based on non-transferable rights and allowances are quite effective in terms of the take-up by fathers. The policy debate is continuing and through consultation and reporting, progress is being made, though much still remains to be achieved and in the current debate the role of men is centre-stage. A working group has been tasked with addressing gender equality from men’s perspective and has issued a final report which will feed into future policy including the Government Action Plan for Gender Equality and how the male image can be diversified. Ultimately the objective is to work towards a common gender equality policy for men and women.
The situation in Austria differed from that in Finland with a more conservative society where the male breadwinner notion still prevails. This is evidenced in the labour market where there remains a big gap between the participation rates of women and men, much of this due to the roles in parenting. While there already exists legislation (and also embodied in some collective agreements) allowing the sharing of parental leave, take up by men is low for both short and longer periods. To improve the situation new legislation was introduced at a federal level in 2011, the so-called ‘Daddy’s Leave’. This allows fathers employed in the public sector (though other organisations can voluntarily adopt it) the right to take up to one month’s leave following childbirth but is unpaid except for social insurance contributions which are met.
The situation in Iceland is more akin to the Finnish approach and the country is acknowledged to have the smallest gender gap in the world, though this is felt to leave no room for complacency. The first efforts at introducing parental leave for fathers were made in the 1990s but the debate on how men and women can share the responsibilities started well before this date. The country has high levels of labour market participation for both men and women and comparatively long working hours and this has helped shape policy. Employers with more than 25 employees must have a gender equality plan and this is backed up through consensus from the social partners. Parental leave entitlement has been incrementally introduced and take up by men is now very high with the costs covered by an insurance levy. In 2012 a new law was introduced to add structure to the parental leave options over a 12 month period and with the associated aim to help equalise working hours between men and women.
The discussion among the participating countries was in agreement on the need to engage men more effectively in the process of gender equality but was also aware of the inherent difficulties in doing so. It was clear that issue of men’s rights is not a right angle for discussions should be avoided and instead the focus should be on getting men to articulate their needs and concerns in the context of a broader approach to gender equality. Changing views and perceptions was seen as an essential backdrop to more formal policy and this should start at a young age. Developments in parental leave entitlement and take up were seen as essential elements for policy but how they were structured, financed and implemented would need to reflect the often diverse economic, social and cultural differences among countries.