The new Prime Minister’s age is notable. At 34 years-old, she is the youngest prime minister in the world. She joined the recently elected prime ministers of New Zealand, Salvador and Ukraine in the under 40 years-old group.
Then there has been the focus on gender. The new female prime minister’s coalition government was formed with all five party leaders being women – the majority being under 40-years of age, also.
A photograph of the new prime minister with three of her women cabinet members (all in their thirties) quickly made the headlines. Less encouraging and sarcastic voices suggested that “given all the gender talk” the photo lacked “gender-balance”.
Feminists across countries applauded and congratulated the new prime minister inspired what might promise more change and innovative solutions to come.
Others were more critical. How could such “unexperienced” woman be entrusted with all that power. Sexist tendencies could also be observed: maybe not unexpected, some (mainstream) media coverage commented on the looks of the new Finnish Prime Minister.
The German Tagesschau, for example, received much push-back on social media for having referred to Prime Minister Sanna Marin as ”beautiful & young” (“hübsch & jung”).
How did Finland get there? Below are some key take-aways.
The culture of gender diversity is key. Having a strong pipeline does not necessarily translate to results in top leadership. We know that globally women often graduate in higher numbers (and with better grades) from universities across various academic disciplines.
Yet, such talent pipeline is frequently leaking due to lack of public and private sector “demand”, or women deciding themselves, not to put themselves forward for top positions (a drop in “supply”).
In addition to structural enablers (including ways to address “unconscious bias”), culture plays a significant role. Take the example of Iceland, where Vigdis Finnbogadottir was the first and the longest sitting woman president in the world (1980–1996).
Boys (and girls under the age of eight) had only ever known a woman to be president. As a result, boys were questioning if men could possibly be president of their country some day.
How does the World Economic Forum rank Iceland in its 2018 Gender Equality Report? First place! As Laura Liswood (author of the “Loudest Duck” narrating the Icelandic anecdote) puts it: “We quickly come to believe that our experiences and our observations represent not only how the world works, but also how it should work.”
Other enablers (such as quotas, childcare) can help build the pipeline. Research from the past 30 years suggests that quota provisions and the type of electoral system are good predictors for women’s representation in parliament across countries.
Voluntary party quotas can also be an effective means to boost the share of women in parliament, but to a lesser extend than parliamentary quotas (European Political Science Review).
Overall, 10 European Union member states (though not Finland) instituted legislative candidate quotas to increase gender balance in parliaments.
Yet, the Finnish Equality Act (while not applying to bodies chosen via elections) includes a quota provision that requires state-administration committees, advisory boards, and others to have at least 40% of both women and men. Finland was also the first country in Europe to allow universal and equal suffrage.
Some argue that countries should explore ways in which to proactively support representation of youth in parliament. According to the Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU), two-thirds of 70 parliaments examined had 2% or fewer young parliamentarians (defined at age 30 or younger) in 2014.
The same research confirmed that all upper houses studied had less than 6% young adults in their ranks, with three quarters electing no young person at all. Is there a case to be made for parliamentary quotas for youth, as authors of a 2018 article in the European Science Review suggest?
As the large share of care responsibilities continues to rest with women, childcare support can play an important role in accelerating women’s leadership.
The World Bank Group’s Women, Business and the Law program highlights a significant correlation between childcare support and women’s representation in parliaments: government support to employers, childcare centres and parents for early childcare can increase the likelihood of women’s representation of 25% or more in national parliaments.
Or looking at it the other way, 25% or more female representation in parliaments increases the likelihood of laws mandating government support to parents, employers and childcare centres for preschool childcare services for older age groups.
How does Finland fare regarding aspects of childcare support? Only around 13% of households reported unmet needs for formal childcare services in Finland, compared to around 86% of households reporting unmet needs in Portugal and 60% in Greece.
Moreover, in contrast to most of the European Union countries, in Finland eligibility for parental leave is not constrained by employment status, duration or type of employment.
What is the common denominator among women who advance to the top posts of government?
In a 2010 interview, Laura Liswood, the secretary general of the Council of Women World Leaders (which is composed of 74 of women presidents, prime ministers, and heads of government) put it this way: “By and large one common denominator is that women have a passion and a desire to change things.”
One thing is clear: the world will be watching Prime Minister Sanna Marin and her new cabinet. The world’s oldest prime minister (94-years old), Malaysian leader Mahathir Mohamad, offered this wisdom to the youngest prime minister: “Ask old people for advice and hold onto your idealism.”
As the recent Finnish experience has shown, maybe it is also time for more traditional politicians to listen more carefully to advice from youth?