Statutory perspective on non-discrimination and the promotion of gender equality

Legislation prohibits discrimination in employment, recruitment and job advertisements. The employer is also under obligation to address discrimination. In addition, the employer must systematically and purposefully promote gender equality as well as the equitable treatment and non-discrimination of employees by improving working practices and conditions.

What constitutes illegal discrimination?

Discrimination consists of placing a person at a disadvantage on the basis of some characteristic of theirs in terms of pay, career advancement or the organization of working conditions, for example. The prohibition of discrimination applies to both direct and indirect discrimination. Direct discrimination occurs when an ostensibly neutral rule or practice actually puts a group of people at a disadvantage.

Discrimination also includes harassment, including sexual and gender-based harassment, and the denial of reasonable accommodation to persons with disabilities. It is also prohibited to order or instruct other people to engage in discrimination.

Positive action (Non-discrimination Act 1325/2014 § 9) aimed at promoting equality is not discrimination.

Planned and goal-oriented development of equality and non-discrimination happens in five stages:

  1. review of the current situation
  2. assessment of development needs
  3. planning measures
  4. carrying out those measures
  5. evaluating the effectiveness of the measures.

Promoting non-discrimination, equitable treatment and equality also promotes employees' well-being at work and work ability, as well as their commitment to the organization. This may be reflected in reduced sickness absences and intention to change jobs, among other results. As such, working to develop equality and non-discrimination is in the best interests of both employees and employers.

Discrimination grounds stated in the Non-Discrimination Act and the Act on Equality between Women and Men

Non-Discrimination Act (1325/2014):
age, origin, nationality, language, religion, belief, opinion, political activity, trade union activity, family relationships, state of health, disability, sexual orientation or other personal characteristics.

Act on Equality between Women and Men (1986/609):
gender, gender identity and gender expression. Discrimination is also prohibited on gender-related grounds, such as pregnancy.

Non-discrimination and gender equality plans as a tool in the workplace

The employer is under an obligation to draw up non-discrimination and gender equality plans if the workplace regularly has at least 30 employees. The plans can be made separately or combined into a single plan, as is the case in many workplaces today.

The content of the gender equality plan is provided for in the Act on Equality between Women and Men (Section 6a). The Non-discrimination Act, which entered into force in 2015, does not define the contents of the non-discrimination plan as precisely. However, the plan must be based on an assessment of equality in the workplace and include the necessary measures to promote non-discrimination. 

It is worth noting that the partial reform of the Non-discrimination Act was started during 2021.  It is expected that the revised act will also include changes to the employer's obligations with regard to the non-discrimination plan. Those responsible for equality in the workplace should familiarize themselves with the reformed law when it enters into force.

Workplaces with fewer than 30 regular employees are also under an obligation to promote equality and non-discrimination, although written plans are not compulsory. This means that even small workplaces must assess the current situation related to equality and non-discrimination in order to plan the necessary measures.

Promoting non-discrimination and gender equality is an important part of creating a more inclusive workplace culture. Organizations with a solid commitment to an inclusive culture will often integrate the legally required law promoting equality and gender equality into their broader efforts to promote inclusion. In such cases, it is common to more broadly survey inclusion and related experiences as the basis of development measures. The following section goes through the steps for carrying out an assessment of the current situation as the basis for the statutory work on non-discrimination and gender equality.

1. Assessment of the current state of non-discrimination and gender equality

The assessment of the current state of non-discrimination and gender equality can either be carried out separately or together.  One benefit of combining these two is that it allows for naturally cross-examining the issues of non-discrimination and gender equality. As a matter of fact, the issues of non-discrimination and gender equality are essentially interlinked.

There are various methods for carrying out the assessment

  • Analysis of information that is already available
    • A personnel survey, such as an atmosphere or well-being at work survey, may indicate development needs related to non-discrimination and equality. As such, it is beneficial to examine and analyze the existing data from the perspective of non-discrimination and gender equality before collecting any new data.
    • Within the limits of the background variables, previous surveys can also be analyzed from different perspectives, such as age and gender.
    • Occupational safety and health work or other similar activities may already have produced information on development needs related to non-discrimination and equality that should be addressed.
  • Taking non-discrimination and gender equality into consideration in any planned personnel surveys
    • The surveys may include background questions (e.g. mother tongue, ethnicity, age, disability, belonging to a gender or sexual minority). This allows the results to be viewed in relation to different groups and provides information on groups that may, for example, experience more harassment or inappropriate treatment. It is important that the surveys clearly state the reasons for such background questions and what the collected data is used for as well as what it is not used for. It is essential for respondents to be able to trust that their privacy will be respected and that the data will not be used unethically. Otherwise, they may not respond to sensitive questions honestly. Surveys can also include indicators on the current state of non-discrimination and equality.
  • Non-discrimination and equality survey
    • A non-discrimination and equality survey gathers together observations and experiences of discrimination and employees’ views on the state of non-discrimination and equality at the workplace. The survey should include all the grounds for discrimination mentioned in the Act on Equality between Women and Men and the Non-discrimination Act.
    • For example, the equality survey by the Ministry of Justice can be used as a template. However, the survey should be tailored to suit your organization.
    • It may be appropriate to use a third party to draw up and carry out the survey. The advantage of a well-done survey is that it can be updated as necessary and used to monitor the non-discrimination and equality situation when assessing the effectiveness of any measures taken.
  • Interviews
    • The results of the survey may point to certain themes that could be useful to study in more detail by using interviews. However, it is worth noting that conducting and analyzing interviews can be time-consuming. Interviews should therefore be prepared carefully, both in terms of the questions included and the number and recruitment of interviewees.
    • Creating a sufficiently safe atmosphere is also essential in conducting the interviews in order to encourage the interviewees to communicate their experiences freely and openly. It is important to make sure that the interviewees cannot be identified when reporting the interviews.
  • Group discussions and workshops
    • These may be good ways of seeking more information and understanding the development areas that other methods have highlighted.

Data collection methods can be combined in order to gain a better understanding of development areas. Nonetheless, when planning the survey, it is also important to make sure that there is sufficient time and other necessary resources to also plan and implement the development measures.

2. Setting goals and planning and implementing measures

Once development needs have been assessed, goals for improving non-discrimination and equality are defined, and measures promoting them are planned.

When drawing up the action plan, it should be ensured that:

  • measures aimed at achieving the goals are as concrete as possible and their implementation is scheduled
  • the plan includes methods for evaluating the implementation of the measures and the achievement of the objectives
  • a timetable is defined for the evaluation of the achievement of the objectives
  • the persons responsible for the measures and the assessment of their implementation and achievement of the objectives are recorded in the plan
  • if the organization considers that equality can also be promoted through positive action, this should be recorded in the equality plan.

The law requires that the gender equality plan is updated at least every two years, and that the personnel are notified of the plan and the updates.

The majority of workplaces with a legal obligation to draw up a gender equality plan have done so. However, in the light of research data, it appears that a significant number of employees are not aware of the gender equality plans and the equality work at their workplace. That is why workplaces should pay more attention to providing information about the plan.

The Non-discrimination Act, which entered into force in 2015, does not define an interval for updating the non-discrimination plan. However, it is good practice to update it at least every three years or at the same time as the gender equality plan – especially if the plans are combined. It is also good practice to inform personnel about the update of the non-discrimination plan. The law specifies in more detail the people who have the right, upon request, to be informed of the measures taken by the employer to promote equality in the workplace.

Workplace policies and operational models regarding discrimination, harassment and inappropriate treatment

In addition to the systematic development of non-discrimination and equality, the workplace should have guidelines that all employees know regarding how to deal with discrimination, inappropriate treatment, harassment – including sexual harassment – racism and workplace bullying.  This prevents negative behaviour and builds an equitable and non-discriminatory organizational culture. The spirit of the law requires zero tolerance from the employer. It is therefore the employer's responsibility to intervene if it comes to light that an employee has been discriminated against or harassed, for example.

Emphasizing to personnel the organization's zero tolerance indicates that undesirable behaviour and conduct is not acceptable under any circumstances. It is important that all supervisors have understood that the employer has a legal obligation to address harassment and discrimination.  Non-discrimination and the promotion of equality and equitable treatment in the workplace are in the employer's interest. Their implementation supports employees' well-being and commitment.