Gender hierarchies still widespread in the workplace

30 March 2010

Certain definitions of equality may, in fact, contribute to preserving gender-related hierarchies in Finnish workplaces. For instance, the claim that women are “as good as men” holds up men as the norm that women are compared to.

“Definitions of equality have not been considered very important to discuss at Finnish workplaces, but definitions have an impact in defining which problems are regarded specifically as equality problems. Open debate on equality and the aims of promoting equality really ought to be included as a goal of all efforts to promote equality – otherwise we run the risk of perpetuating the very structures we set out to demolish,” says researcher Hanna Ylöstalo.

Researcher Minna Leinonen says that recent studies have indicated that experiences related to gender and equality are linked with the positions that female and male respondents hold in the workplace hierarchy. In group discussions on the promotion of equality, men in management positions were least likely to bring up gender-related experiences, while such experiences were typically discussed by women employees.

Ylöstalo studies definitions of equality, while Leinonen studies links between gender and hierarchy in Finnish workplaces. Their research forms part of the Research Programme on Power and Society in Finland, funded by the Academy of Finland.

“In the workplace, the aspects of equality that people want to influence are particularly an equal status for industries dominated by women with those dominated by men, equal pay and equal distribution of labour. Today, men worry to an increasing extent about their position, occupational well-being and salary level, but women in male-dominated organisations still experience more inequality than men on the whole,” says Leinonen.

Equal rights are not enough on their own

According to Ylöstalo, equal rights cannot be achieved in practice merely because equal rights exist and women are not actively prevented from taking up certain occupations. In practice, this is evident in the form of, for example, pay differences. Equality defined as equal rights is one possible way of defining equality. This approach holds up as its ideal a workplace where gender does not matter.

Equality with an emphasis on gender differences states that women and men are different but equally valuable. This view of equality tends to comprise a critical stance to the way men and ‘the masculine’ are assigned more value in the workplace than women and ‘the feminine’, something that is reflected in, for instance, the fact that a majority of corporate leaders are men.

A multifaceted approach to equality underlines that equality as a concept extends beyond gender equality, and that work to promote equality should include aspects such as ethnic and sexual equality. This view contains potential problems in that it may sidestep gender equality, and the pursuit of ‘equality for all people’ may constitute a veiled strategy for opposing gender equality.

According to Hanna Ylöstalo, equality is something that everyone claims to be in favour of – in fact, no-one can oppose it without losing face. Consequently, opposition in the workplace has taken the form of making a distinction between ‘good’ equality and ‘bad’ equality and choosing sides. For example, when women take direct action to promote their own interests such as better salaries, this may often be condemned in the workplace as an unsuitable goal.

Why are men so often absent from equality debate in the workplace? One of the key factors here could be that they do not have first-hand experience of equality issues, or that they do not consider their experiences to be gender-related. Minna Leinonen considers it a challenge for workplaces to find a shared understanding on a matter that everyone cannot have first-hand experience of.

More information:
• Researcher Hanna Ylöstalo, University of Tampere, tel. +358 3 3551 7257,
• Researcher Minna Leinonen, University of Tampere, tel. +358 3 3551 7262,

Academy of Finland Communications
Tea Kalska, trainee
tel. +358 9 7748 8401




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