Thoughts from an Expat and a Native.
A couple of weeks ago, I was interviewed for a German video programme about how it is to live in Finland as a woman, and how society is different here compared to other countries – with the new female government being the inspiration for the piece. While I consciously decide not to really share any specific political views, this is a discussion that is more a societal than a political one to me, and there have been instances where I thought about the implications of what it means to be a woman in Finland in 2020, compared to home country Luxembourg, or Germany, where I studied.
A big thank you to Varpu from Her Finland for connecting me with reporter Nico from the Y-Kollektiv team, for me to contribute to the piece! Varpu will share some of her thoughts on my main thoughts with us here as well, to represent the native Finnish side of the issues and questions. Make sure you check all her amazing content and follow her on Instagram!
Here are some of my thoughts – please note that these are of course subjective and reflective of my own experiences. I don’t want to start a debate over whether these are “correct” or not, but a constructive discussion and hear your thoughts, and if you have had different experiences, those are absolutely valid and you are welcome to share them. Thank you already.
1 – I feel like women’s independence and equality are deeply rooted in Finlands values and history, in a way that some things might feel more normal here (one of the first countries where women could vote etc.). For example, when the 5 women in the government heads news broke, of course, it was reported by the news media here, but I feel like it only took over the conversation really as international media covered it so extensively. It was probably more their age which sparked a discussion on their experience.
Varpu: I was a kid during the deep recession of the 90s in Finland. The people in my life and the society around me have always been working together to achieve common goals.
To be honest, I have never felt like there was something I couldn’t do because of being a woman.
Equality is within the Finnish language, too. The grammar lacks gender. All Finnish pronouns are gender-neutral and there’s only one word to describe “she/he” in Finnish and that is “hän”.
2 – Equality is generally very visible, both in the way how society supports families and hence enables women to pursue their careers. But again, I feel like many women in Finland see it as totally normal to have a career and don’t even question whether they would go back to work after having a child, because it is made possible by how things work here. About a possible comparison to Luxembourg (where I’m from) or Germany (where I studied), I do hesitate a bit to make any statements, because I have been away for such a long time, and I don’t have a very direct, current relation to either country. However, recently, I heard from friends back home, that they were asked during a job interview when they were planning to get pregnant, and another didn’t get a housing loan with her partner unless they were getting married or had a child. I’ve never ever heard of anything like this in Finland. However, I don’t have kids myself, so this is only sourced from what I have observed. Varpu probably has more thoughts on this!
Varpu: I started Her Finland when I was pregnant and worked on it through my maternity leave. My blog was my creative outlet and a way to use my “business” brain when I was staying at home with our daughter. I feel I was supported by family and society to do so.
I’m super grateful for the “new entrepreneur allowance” I got from the Finnish officials when setting up my business and life as an entrepreneur with a baby. Of course, there was a process to go through but that’s the deal with all things in life, I feel. You’ll have to work to achieve your dreams.
Finland has excellent daycare services for families and my readers all over the world are always amazed at how small the cost is (less than 300€/month in my home town). The healthcare system for kids is fantastic and also free of charge.
Furthermore, as a working parent, when your (less than 10-year old) kid gets sick you have the right to take care of her at home or with some jobs, your employer might hire you a nanny.
Finally, if a meeting is lasting over 4 pm, it’s almost guaranteed that the discussion will end quickly as all parents want to get home to their kids.
In my opinion, the amount of free time you have on the weekday evenings in Finland is one of the biggest differences in work-life compared to my experiences working abroad in the UK and Switzerland.
3 – Of course, we also have to acknowledge that Finland is a smaller country so that politics might be more accessible to anyone, not just women. Joining a political party or being active in your community might be easier, faster and can feel more rewarding because of that, and really give you the perception of being able to make an impact. This is not only about being a woman, although I do have a feeling that women feel more heard and accepted as well. Their authority is not really questioned.
Varpu: I also feel that the politic world is not distant, or a separate system, from other fields of life and business because Finland is a small country.
I have a deep admiration for all people who do politics because it’s such a hard job. You can never make everybody happy.
4 – In my experience as an entrepreneur in Finland, there is a strong sense of support and collaboration in the community – this Facebook group being a wonderful example of it, and the same with Varpu connecting me with the team for this project. In comparison to other countries, I have lived in, I feel less of a competitive pressure here, and more a strong will to help another, which might also have contributed to women in politics having a stronger voice (speculation on my end).
Varpu: From a Finnish point of view, I’m beyond happy to hear that Kathrin’s experiences are so positive about Finland. Finland is a funny mix of both being distant and working together. I mean that many of us like to be on our own and, for example, don’t like confrontation face to face that much (If you make noise in your flat, you could get a snappy note from your neighbour, not a knock on the door, more examples on Finnish small talk. When it comes to working together, a Finn always says what she means and means what she says.
I feel similarly to Kathrin that Finland is not a competitive society. It’s almost impossible for Finns to praise themselves for a work well done because all sorts of bragging is very negative in Finnish culture.
For example, one of the Finnish friends worked in a non-Finnish company in which you had to tell about all the great things you had done during weekly meetings. My friend left the company soon because the work culture was too different for her and she didn’t like blowing her own horn.
5 – This brings me to the point that Finnish society is very trusting, which isn’t news. But it comes up in this context as well. Finland is also a country that seems more open and willing to new things, which again comes back down to the fact that it is smaller (population-wise) and it might be easier to realise certain things (looking at the level of technological advancement etc.). But also in the sense of security, where women can feel safe on the street, no matter the time of day or location.
Situations like the recent discussion about equality in Finland, and the new government, seem like a good reminder to Finns of how special Finland is, and for the country to acknowledge their own advanced status in the world. Because things here are taken for granted sometimes, which is amazing.
Varpu: Oh yes, this has led me to serious danger situations when I was younger and travelling abroad alone or with girlfriends.
You can walk anywhere in Finland without paying much attention to your surroundings. You don’t have to think that people want to do bad things to you because of your race or sex.
Most Finns come to any situation believing everyone else is honest, trustworthy and has good intentions. Some might call this approach being too naive, but I feel I’m lucky to live in such a society.
6 – Circulating back to the 5 ladies in the government: I wanted to be very clear that even though I think it is great and amazing, that not all of Finland thinks so. Especially in the regions further in the countryside there has been criticism from many directions. But also how I am hopeful that the current government gets the job done and manages to contribute to moving the country forward in a way that the pressure from the right will subside before the next elections. Again, this is a very personal evaluation.
Varpu: I feel that sometimes in this world we forget that the point of a discussion is to grow an understanding and build bridges, not to compete about who’s clever or point out who’s wrong.
From a native perspective, I don’t feel it’s countryside nor regions, I feel there are bubbles in the Finnish society in general. The people in one particular bubble don’t seek out to find others’ viewpoints nor common ground.
At the moment, social media is making these bubbles stronger, because most social media platforms work based on the fact that they show you more similar content, not different.
We have to be actively using our mind to evaluate the information we are given. If we are not using our brain, it’s easy to have a completely wrong perception on any matter.
All in all – Finland is probably the best country to live in as a woman. And I am proud to live in a country that is this progressive and open-minded. Thank you to Varpu for your valuable contribution, and thanks to the Nico from Y-Kollektiv for sparking the discussion and have me be part of the short documentary.
We’re all in this together.