Outi Ojala
Outi Ojala

Political Development

Party Affiliation

Profession/ Current priorities

Political Aims/ Priorities/ Assessments




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[ European Commission, DG V ]

© Jan 2001

European Database: Women in Decision-Making

Outi Ojala

Political Development

1. What made you decide to go into politics?
I was in the trade union movement and in the Tehy (the Finnish trade union for trained nurses and other staff in the field of health care) in which I found it very clear that all the important solutions concerning health care are political decisions which are made in the Eduskunta (the Parliament of Finland) or in municipal councils. The best way to influence these decisions was to go into politics.

2. Do/Did you have a role model?
I did not have any role models in my family but when I was working in a nurses' trade union organisation, Ms. Toini Nousiainen, who was the first chairwoman of the Tehy, became a kind of role model for me. She had excellent management skills. She was a strong and respected expert who was always ready to co-operate. She was tough when needed and also had the skills to get things done.

3. Have you been engaged in political grassroots activities before your involvement in party politics - e.g. in a citizens' rights, parents or other initiative? If so, in which function, in which institution and when did your political carrier begin?
As a matter of fact, I have not been in grassroots activities before my involvement in party politics. It came later... I was active in a student organisation related to my profession as trained nurse and in my trade union organisation. I was, for example, promoting professional training for nurses, organising seminars for students in the field etc, but have not been actually involved in any civic organisation.

4. Where there disruptions in your political career path and why?
Not really, because I came into it quite late (when 40 )... Actually, ever since I went into politics - the last 15-16 years - it has been a full-time job for me.

5. Did your objectives change during your political career?
They really have not changed much. One of the motives for my political career was women's position in working life in general and particularly in the female- dominated, so called 'soft', fields of working life, like health care, and looking after employees' interests in these fields. Furthermore, the 'women's salary question' as well as women's position in society and gender equality in general, have always been my main themes in political work. Welfare policies and the role of the public sector have also been such themes from the beginning of my political career. Since I have worked for the public sector for 20 years, I have always 'defended the public sector' and its role in the Nordic Welfare State model. These were my major interests when I was working in the trade union movement. Even though my trade union organisation (Tehy) was kind of bourgeois (a great deal of the members support right-wing political parties), it was a strong advocate of the public (welfare) services... Tehy was an interest organisation of the health care staff, but it also defended the interests of patients and spoke for the health care services.

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Party Affiliation

1. What was your motivation to join a political party?
The party I joined was the People's Democratic League of Finland (SKDL), the predecessor of the Left Wing Alliance (established in 1990). Before I formally joined the party in 1985, I had been voting for it and working for it in the trade union movement. The reason why I did not join the party earlier was due to its internal conflicts, which did not make it so attractive. But already in the late 1970s, I was classified as its supporter (while working in the trade union movement). But the final reason for joining the party was women's activity. I was preparing the women's conference (Women's Forum) for the year 1986, which was organised by the Women's Democratic League of Finland (SNDL, women's organisation which was a member organisation of the SKDL).
It was an astonishing experience for me. The conference was held just after the UN's Women's Conference in Nairobi, and completely new modes of action for conference participants were introduced, such as 'open space' for people to come and do things themselves - not just offering them events carefully prepared beforehand... There were 2000 participants in this conference and it was really fantastic... I was one of the chairpersons of the organising group. This is how some people (from the party), so to say, 'spotted' me and I became the chairwoman of the Women's Democratic League of Finland (SNDL) in 1986. It was quite amazing since I had not actually been striving for this post.
Furthermore, the reasons to join the party I chose, were the objectives and values that it has, and also because I was really attracted by some individual people in the party who really had a strong desire for reforms. I was also interested in the possibility to be able to do something completely new and to have a real impact on the decisions and program of the party.

2. Does your party have an equal opportunities regulation?
Debate on gender quotas began already in the SKDL. The proposal for gender quotas (for decision-making bodies of the party) were initiated by Ms. Sinikka Mustakallio and Ms. Ulla-Leena Alppi (in the middle of the 1980s) - the reaction was quite shocking. I was a member of the party government (SKDL) at that time and there, quotas really were an object of crushing criticism. However, later, in 1990, when SKDL was disbanded and the Left Wing Alliance was established to replace it, the old women's organisation (SNDL) within the SKDL was replaced by a new women's organisation called the Left Wing Women. The struggle for gender quotas and gender balance in decision-making bodies of the party was carried on in a new organisation. Left Wing Women were also actively involved in establishing the new party (Left Wing Alliance). We have a so called 'double strategy' - on the one hand, we work and influence inside the party, and on the other hand, we have our own activities... Gender quotas for decision-making bodies of the party were enacted in the Left Wing Alliance in 1992.

3. Which offices did you hold in your party?
I was one of the first three chairwomen of the Left Wing Women (the women's organization within the Left Wing Alliance). Actually, we did not want to have any single leader; instead, we have the so-called 'valtikka' (scepter), which includes three 'spokeswomen'. At the time when the party was established, I was the chairperson of its Helsinki district organisation. I was even running for the office of vice-chair of the Left Wing Alliance in its constituent meeting, but I lost the vice-presidency to Ms. Salme Kandolin and did not want to join the first party board. Soon after, I became a member of the party board as well as party council... Later on I became a vice-president of the parliamentary group of the Left Wing Alliance (1995), and now I am the president of that group.

4. Did you have mentors within your party?
Well, firstly I would name the people that originally 'spotted' me, but at that time I was not so interested in leading positions. Actually it was these people that drew me into the party and did a lot of work. As a matter of fact, they are still there... Most of them are women, but also there are some men. They have supported me for twenty years now, but they are not the leading figures of the party... On the other hand, there are also some persons at the top of the hierarchy, like the former party leader, Mr. Clas Andersson who supported me several times. Thanks to him I have received support from the leading figures of the party.

5. Did you ever change party affiliation?
Earlier in my life, in the 1960's, I used to vote for the Social Democrats in general elections, even though I have never been a member of that party. In 1968, after the crisis in Czechoslovakia, I chose my side (SKDL)... My parents supported the Social Democrats.

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Profession/ Current priorities

1. What kind of jobs have you done?
For more than 20 years I have worked in the field of health care, but mostly (1975-1991) in management positions (or as a senior official)... as a head nurse. Although working for the same employer I assumed different tasks, as a secretary of a project or as a teacher or in different posts of my trade union etc. Actually, I had already decided to begin studies at the university for a master's degree in health-care management, but politics won the game.

2. In which areas do you see your special competencies?
I would say that they are in social and health care, women's issues and gender equality policies. I have also studied new things, so that I can, at the moment claim that also foreign affairs and (European) integration policies are my special competencies... and naturally, working life issues since I have a trade union background.

3. Which are your political priorities?
My points of departure are social equality and gender equality... It is particularly important that the constitutional civil rights (since 1995) include a statutory obligation for the state and municipalities to promote also economic and educational (and cultural) rights along with the traditional civil rights. Balancing income differences by public services and income transfers is also a crucial function of society. In my opinion, Finland and other Nordic countries are not only excellent examples of social equality but they have also shown that the kind of policy aiming at social equality is essential for economic growth and success.

4. Which are your main fields of actions?
At the moment, I am strongly involved in questions of European integration and foreign policy... For example, I am a member of the Grand Committee of Parliament (sometimes even called the 'EU Committee') in which all EU-issues are prepared and debated. According to the new Constitution (since 1.3.2000) and in practice even before that, the role of the national Parliament in the policies concerning the European Union and the basic principles of that policy drawn up by the Government, have been crucial. In this process the Grand Committee as well the special Committees of Parliament are working in close co-operation with the national Government.

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Political Aims/ Priorities/ Assessments

1. Which objectives would you like to achieve through your political work?
Generally speaking, globalisation brings enormous political challenges in Finland, in Europe and in the whole world - to ensure that not everything will be subject to economic competition. But along with economic competition and growth, human and civil rights, peoples' welfare and social dimension should be strongly taken care of. In that sense, I think, the European Union could serve as a counterbalance to the dominating neo-liberal thinking and developments which see everything under free market and competition aspects. In this respect, this is an enormous political question.
In the hardening international competition, Finland cannot succeed alone. European integration and the European Union are an opportunity to form a kind of counterbalance to the freely moving capital and to the faceless market forces. And in this sense, global responsibility includes that the position of the poorest and developing countries should be improved and conditions for free trade (or conditions for 'fair trade') be created so that the recent development of the poorest countries getting poorer and poorer can be stopped.
Of course, if the aim is to create a world of freedom and security, it is absolutely necessary to draw attention to the above-mentioned factors. If the kind of intensive trends towards segregation between industrialised countries and developing countries and segregation inside the individual countries, will go on, or will be allowed to go on, it will form a huge 'globalisation risk' and a threat to security which now is quite different than, say, 10 to 15 years ago. Future threats to security are strongly related to the consequences of this segregation such as poverty and social exclusion.

2. How and why did your objectives change during your political career?
At the time I went into politics the world situation was quite different, the Cold War and so on... and after that when the situation changed, this, of course, forced re-evaluation. But on the other hand, not everything has changed. Side by side with the collapse of the socialist system, the free movement and internationalisation of capital was released. All this has narrowed the competencies and capacity of the national states to interfere. This has resulted, for example, in social dumping and in this sense, all this has forced re- evaluation.
However, I have not felt forced to reconsider my political priorities and the basic values behind them. But the changes I described above, have forced me to find new strategies to solve problems. The 'old' way, the strong belief that the State can solve everything does not work anymore. And in this regard, I wish that also enterprises and big companies would start to think differently, that they would also feel responsible for the environment and be aware that they need competent, well-trained and educated staff and a well- functioning infrastructure.
The enterprises should understand that also they have a responsibility for all that. They cannot assume that ordinary employees or individual people would pay for the maintenance of the infrastructure alone, but also employers are responsible for that. Now enterprises and big companies escape from that responsibility and transfer their functions for a better profit... In that sense, I have been forced to re-evaluate my priorities. Another change would surely be, that along with a growing experience, grows 'realism' and the kind of naive trust that I had in rapid changes has faded away.

3. Do equal opportunity strategies - in your opinion - have an impact in your country to promote women in decision-making? (quota, EO legislation, etc... please name the strategy)
There is no doubt that gender equality policies have had an impact, particularly on working life and social activities. But still, I think, that one of the main factors behind the Finnish gender equality is - I don't know if that was a conscious choice at the time - the strong Welfare State model which enabled women to go to work, and on the other hand, offered them sensible work and jobs with high qualifications, in the public sector. This has actually been quite crucial in making it possible to have strong gender equality and improvements in women's position. Along with this development, consciousness of gender equality issues has grown which made it possible to create policies to promote gender equality. In my opinion, the legislation on gender equality including gender quotas in decision-making are also consequences of this special history.
On the other hand, Finnish women have a long tradition of being in working life; they are used to working outside the home. The situation in Finland only shows how much time it takes to get results (in terms of gender equality). It does not change in a few years - more time is needed to change the attitudes.

4. What about the strategies to promote gender equality in decision-making?
There is a strong women's movement in Finland as well as strong women's organisations within political parties which is why women are quite visible... It is not enough just to talk about 'gender equality'. This has no impact unless one actually talks about women's rights. It has also been important in Finland that there were both independent women's organisations and political women's organisations which is why women's position in society has not been the interest of one single group, but, instead, there has been hard pressure from every direction.
However, at the same time there has been a danger that gender equality is only a political 'liturgy', lip service ... When the institutions for gender equality were established and legislation on gender equality was enacted, the political elite- and especially men in these power structures - assumed that now everything... had been done - that there is no need to do anything else. There have been some backlashes now and then and in a way there is this thinking: 'Do women ever stop with their demands?' There have always been such periods - one glass-ceiling after another has been showing up ought to be broken.

5. Did you benefit from these strategies?
Yes, both formally and informally. There have been strategies both on formal level concerning the state, municipalities and working life and on informal level like the strategies of civic organisations, women's organisations and alike which overlap and support each other. No doubt, looking back in history, it has always been easier to make progress (if there are some good examples)... For example, some Nordic strategies have, in a way, promoted gender equality in other countries. It is difficult to say how. I personally have actually benefited from them, but I might say that it is in their (general) acceptability... It has been much easier to push things forward when one has been able to refer to practices already used in other countries. And I would like to say that after official strategies have been introduced in another country it is more difficult to resist them... And if women put even a little pressure on it, opponents have to give up at least a little bit.

6. How do you judge these strategies - gender quotas in decision-making in particular?
If we think about the resistance to gender quotas... There was namely an opposition here in the Eduskunta (Parliament of Finland) that claimed very strongly that if gender quotas were enacted everything would collapse, all the expertise - for example in municipal boards - will disappear. This criticism has (after the legislation on gender quotas came into force in 1995) turned out to be unwarranted just like we women thought it would be. The problem was that it has been difficult to lean on women's expertise or that women's expertise has not been appreciated. In that sense, it is sometimes necessary to have a strategy which is strong and tough. In regard to the resistance to gender quotas - I would argue - that if women had given up we would have a quite different municipal government than it is today.
On the other hand, an indication of how difficult it is to push this kind of strategy forward can be seen in the problems that arise when selecting members for the various government-appointed committees: Ministers still have to keep an eye on - or, fortunately, a part of them are keeping an eye on - that there is at least minimum representation of women in such committees. So, it is still so that some people think that it is even 'painful' to look for female members for such committees. All in all, I think that gender quotas have been a success, but what has not been so successful is mainstreaming.

7. Why have we failed in mainstreaming?
Mainstreaming is a strategy which - or the mechanisms and advantages of that strategy - has remained quite unclear... But I think that, at least partially, this is because mainstreaming has not been generally approved. The lack of acceptance could be explained by the economic consequences which mainstreaming is supposed to have. Supposedly economic consequences have been made to look like a major obstacle for its implementation - even though there is no evidence that there would be any harmful economic consequences.
However, it has been said that (sometimes) mainstreaming is impossible to implement... I take one example - sharing employers' expenses for maternity and parental leaves. Even though it is a completely technical measure (and could be easily done) if wanted it has been strongly resisted. It was argued that it were so difficult to implement and... that one cannot do it because not all the employees are married and do not have a spouse... However, most of the children of the employees do have a father somewhere and father's employer is the one who could pay a part of the expenses...
It is not only the male-dominated fields that are opposed ... Even though it has been widely accepted as a 'women's strategy' it has not been generally approved...

8. Is it the employers that are against mainstreaming?
Of course they are... But I mean, it is the legislators which ought to have the courage to push this forward since we are not talking about expenses which would lead to bankruptcies. If it would be so, how is it possible to employ female employees in female-dominated fields?

9. Do you see direct or indirect discrimination in "conventional" policy-making? What is it that keeps women from committing themselves to politics?
Yes, I think, that all of us women politicians do face under-valuation particularly at the beginning of the career. You are regarded as insufficient in your performance, or made to feel that you are nothing - on the grounds of being female. In addition women are made invisible. Nowadays, it is not so usual in my case. But even today, I may find myself in a situation where, for example, I introduce a new idea which does not draw any attention, but after a while when a male politician presents the same idea the reaction would be: "It is a wonderful idea!" So, a woman does, over and over, find herself in situations which indicate indirect discrimination. But I cannot say that I have faced direct discrimination - not today, not in my position.

10. What is that keeps women from committing themselves to politics? What are the major obstacles?
In my opinion, the major obstacle is the fact that politics is more than a full- time job and women still have the main responsibility for child care and domestic work. This is what makes women hesitate if they are to decide whether to go into politics or not. But I don't think that there are any other real obstacles. Sometimes women make too great demands on themselves, and they underestimate their own competence.

11. What obstacles have you had to overcome in your own career?
Thinking myself - I did not have any children and this gave me the opportunity. The question of time, I think, is fundamental. Everybody has the same twenty-four hours in a day and night, and when you do not have small children you simply have more hours to spend and you can choose how to spend them. To go into politics is a commitment that you really have to consider - it is something else than going to movies or art lessons.
On the other hand, my own work for the trade union movement gave me self-confidence and the strength to act and understand how to influence different issues, competence and so on. For example, public speaking could be an obstacle for most people, but I had already given speeches for large audiences while being trade union activist and before I went into politics. Trade union movement gave me an opportunity to win over these obstacles and I have never underestimated my own competence or skills. I believe that politics is peoples' business and that ordinary people are able to work in politics.

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