A feminist and an optimist

Professor of gender studies Johanna Kantola admits to being an optimist. “I believe that when you have the tenacity to talk about equality and to conduct a dialogue, it will eventually lead to more understanding, and that can change the ways in which people act.”

Professor of gender studies Johanna Kantola admits to being an optimist. “I believe that when you have the tenacity to talk about equality and to conduct a dialogue, it will eventually lead to more understanding, and that can change the ways in which people act.”

Johanna Kantola, professor of gender studies, still believes in fighting for equality. The idea that Finland is a model country in terms of the rights of women and girls may actually be counter productive.


Finland is often talked about as a paragon of gender equality. We have had a woman President and, for a brief moment, a female Prime Minister. Children have had a statutory right to childcare since the 1990s, and women gained the right to vote already in 1906.

However, one could argue that the situation has deteriorated over the past few years. The current government has limited the right to childcare and decided that gender equality has already been achieved, thus leaving the issue out of the government programme for the first time in twenty years. The current government also has the strongest male majority in recent history.

“When I go to international gender studies conferences and tell my colleagues that we no longer have a statutory right to child daycare in Finland, it always comes as a great shock to everyone,” says Johanna Kantola, the newly appointed professor of gender studies at the University of Tampere in Finland.

According to Kantola, gender equality should be examined in one policy field at a time. There are fields where gender equality issues are taken into account better than they are in others, and there are still several problematic fields. Furthermore, in fields such as child daycare – where gender equality had previously been achieved – progress has been reversed.

One area where the position of Finland as a model country is particularly questionable is violence against women. Implementing the Istanbul Convention adopted by the Council of Europe in 2011 (Convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence) has been particularly slow.

“For some reason, violence has been a very difficult issue for our women-friendly welfare state,” Kantola says.

According to Kantola, one reason for the slow progress is the popular belief that Finland is a model country.

“Because of that discourse, we are convinced that if violence against women is really a problem, we as a model country will surely have a solution. However, we don’t. We still do not have the necessary legislation in all respects. In addition, there are not enough places in women’s shelters or they are not located in all municipalities, so they are hard to get to. Talking about a model country clearly hinders seeing such shortcomings,” Kantola explains.

At the same time, the discourse about being a model country blurs the fact that gender equality has not always advanced due to our own initiative. Pressure for developing policy and legislation often comes from international treaties. For example, the Non-Discrimination Act exists because Finland must have such legislation according to a European Union directive.

“The poor mastery of discrimination concepts and anti-discrimination legislation has been one of the weaknesses of Nordic gender equality policies. Talking about model countries has also played a role in the other Nordic countries,” Kantola points out.

In recent years, the work on equality has also slowed down in the European Union. The Commission, led by Jean-Claude Juncker, has wanted to cut the number of EU regulations and directives. Equality legislation has thus not progressed during the current Commission’s term of office. In addition, the economic crisis that began a decade ago has made economic policy a priority.

“The current austerity politics have ignored social rights and gender issues. New mechanisms of undemocratic economic governance have also been created. It has therefore been difficult for women’s organisations to highlight the unequal effects of the economic policies, for example,” Kantola says.

At the same time, the ethos of the cuts has made it easy to reduce funding for equality work.

However, according to Kantola, it is ignoring the facts to claim that the economy is more important or urgent than equality in an economic crisis. The economy and equality are very tightly interwoven.

“In Finland, for example, attempts have been made to improve the economy by increasing the employment rate. Many people have been of the opinion that this is where the government has failed: the employment rate has not risen as expected. We have finally started talking about women’s employment, which is a key factor. The employment rate will not rise if we do not understand the mechanisms that prevent improvements in the employment rate of women,” Kantola explains.

According to Kantola, examples of such mechanisms include the uneven distribution of parental leave and the quality of working life, such as hidden discrimination that prevents women from advancing in their careers and diminishes their motivation to return to work after parental leave.

If it is repeated that the equality debate can resume only after issues of the economy or some other issues are taken care of, those things given precedence will not be accomplished.

“We should not forget that equality is a value in itself, either. It is a basic human right and an essential societal norm. Therefore, it must always be promoted, no matter what the economic situation is,” Kantola points out.

At the rhetorical level, the importance of equality is often acknowledged. It is just not realised in practice. The promotion of equality has become, above all, a “personal virtue” or a “characteristic” of politicians.
“This was the research result in our recent project called the Gender Equality Deficit. Those politicians from the governing parties who think of themselves as promoters of equality were personally hurt by our criticism of government policy,” Kantola says.

According to her, personalising the promotion of equality and the reception of criticism is dangerous.

“If equality and its shortcomings are seen as personal, as if they were psychological problems, they are not seen as they should be – as structural problems in society. If that is the case, social and political problems are individualised and personalised, which is a negative trend. People should be able to discuss politics and its content without being offended,” Kantola explains.

Negative trends seem to abound in questions of equality. When asked whether she feels frustrated in this respect, Kantola answers in the negative.

“No, it doesn’t. This cause is so significant that it empowers you. Besides, positive things are also happening because the negative developments in recent years have made people more active politically. The Feminist Party was established as well as a feminist network in the parliament with members from nearly all political parties. There was previously only a women’s network in parliament,” Kantola notes.

The backlash has given rise to a new will to fight, and it has also offered fresh research material.

“When the things that you take for granted fall apart, it gives us researchers the opportunity to examine how sustainable the norms were in the first place and who has truly committed to them. For example, ever since the 2000s, we are used to thinking that the Finnish government consists of equal numbers of men and women. Then we suddenly have a government where only a third of its members are women. These are interesting developments to study,” Kantola says.

Kantola also says that she is an optimist.

“I believe that when you have the tenacity to talk about these issues and to conduct a dialogue, it will eventually lead to more understanding and that can change the ways in which people act,” Kantola states.
Sometimes optimism pays off. Kantola was very happy about the initiative of the newspaper Aamulehti to neutralise job titles in newspaper language.

“That was a great start. Language plays a huge role, and journalists are in a key position as users of language and power. It was also great that they did not replace “foreman” with “forewoman”, for example. That would just reproduce the binary understanding that there are only women and men when the reality is actually quite complicated,” Kantola adds.

Johanna Kantola

Kantola is professor of gender studies at the Faculty of Social Sciences, University of Tampere.
Until 2020, Kantola is leading the Academy of Finland-funded research project Gender and Power in Reconfigured Corporatist Finland. The research investigates, among other things, the gendered effects of the so-called employment and competitiveness agreement, which is a part of the current government’s programme. The lengthening of working hours and cuts to holiday bonuses in particular have hit women employees and female-dominated sectors.

Kantola is one of the researchers in the Gender Equality Deficit project funded by the Kone Foundation. The aim is to generate knowledge on equality in economics and economic policies for political decision makers and journalists.

Kantola studied at the University of Birmingham and earned her doctorate in the field of politics at the University of Bristol.

She has previously worked as an Academy of Finland Research Fellow and university lecturer in gender studies at the universities of Helsinki and Jyväskylä, and as an acting professor of gender studies and professor of politics at the University of Helsinki.

In 2009, she was elected Academic of the Year by the Finnish Union for University Researchers and Teachers.

Kantola has authored and edited several internationally published textbooks by prestigious publishing houses, including Oxford University Press. She is the founder and co-editor of the Gender and Politics Book Series by the British publishing house Palgrave Macmillan.

Text: Hanna Hyvärinen
Photograph: Jonne Renvall