Party premier. That is what the prime minister of Finland, Sanna Marin, has been called during the last couple of weeks, due to a released video in which you see Sanna Marin dancing with her friends. Finnish and international media soon picked up the story and opponents shared their perspectives declaring that her choice regarding friends testifies to a lack of judgment and that a PM should focus on their role. Proponents, however, massively shared videos via social media of dancing women defending the right to party under the hashtag #SolidaritywithSanna. Although Sanna Marin has been criticized in the news for her outfits and private life multiple times, she has also been praised for her decisive approach to the COVID pandemic and for joining NATO during the Ukrainian-Russian war this year.
Finland scores high on the World Economic Forum’s Annual Gender Gap Report Index with its fourth position of 149 countries. The Finnish cabinet contains ten women and nine men being responsible for diverse portfolios and based on the fact that 47% of the country’s parliamentarians are women, it is a gender-balanced country according to the European Institute for Gender Equality (EIGE). This impacts the Finnish society, for example with the reform of 160 days of parental allowance to both parents to facilitate the work-life balance equally. Besides, based on research from Deloitte surveying 66 countries regarding the share of women on boards, Finland is one of the six countries in which more than 30 percent of the board is filled by women. However, the Finnish media seems to reinforce gender stereotypes and online harassment of female politicians is still happening today. It is a structural problem, both in politics and in business. To just name an example, since all five governing parties in Finland are headed by women, the coalition government is often called the ‘lipstick government’. The criticism of Sanna Marin’s ‘jacket scandal’ – her appearance in Trendi magazine just wearing a jacket -, or the nickname ‘body minister’ for the second female PM Mari Kiviniemi due to her attractive appearance, indicate a deeper focus on the physical appearance of female politicians rather than on content, contrary to the reporting for male politicians.
Is this why a dancing Finnish prime minister became such a hot news topic domestically and internationally? Because Sanna Marin is a young woman, as multiple articles declare? Would the same have happened to a young male PM?
What is Sanna Marin’s leadership style? And to what extent is it shaping organizations, politics, and society? Based on the results from a master thesis (MSc Global Business and Sustainability at the Erasmus University Rotterdam) on feminist leadership style and its shaping on organizations conducted by Luka Roozenboom and supervised by Negar Noori, this article sheds light on these perspectives.
Feminist Leadership style and its shaping on Organizations
The research defines feminist leadership as “Leading from feminist values and having a feminist perspective and vision of social justice, individually and collectively transforming themselves to use their power, resources, and skills in non-oppressive, inclusive structures and processes to mobilize and empower all people around a shared agenda of social, cultural, economic and political transformation for equivalence and the realization of human rights for all.” Noteworthy here is that a feminist leadership style can be successfully translated and applied in an organization by a leader when diversity, feminist values, and the position of women (the starting point from feminist theory) are proactively and loudly promoted and shared. The insights from interviewing two (female) leaders and their colleagues from the Dutch Air Force and a financial institution, whose leadership styles and values can be (partially) linked to a feminist leadership style are discussed in this research. To briefly summarize the study’s findings; a feminist leadership style may positively shape an organizational setting (for example in terms of dynamics and actions) when the feminist leadership style and its values are visible, and directly and proactively applied by a leader, whereby thresholds (such as old-school culture) and support (such as inspiring employees) may respectively negatively or positively shape the impact on organizations and society. The research can help organizations in understanding such a leadership style and enhance it and its shaping, in their own leadership style, team, organization, and/or society.
Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus
Leadership within organizations and leadership literature, as well as in the news, education, and healthcare, is mainly focused on men and is masculine-dominated, therefore comparing women to these pre-set standards and perspectives. This can also be observed in the news regarding Sanna Marin. Masculinity is typically associated with characteristics such as independence, rationality, autocratic behavior, and power, which are seen as essential factors for leadership. When women express feminine characteristics such as empathy, appearance, and vulnerability, in their way of leading, it is contradictory and controversial as long as the masculine way of thinking is seen as the baseline. The statement that Sanna Marin is not providing a good example because she is the mother of a four-year-old girl and yet still out dancing with friends, is in line with the caring and feminine traits that women are expected to show. And the male characteristics of being task-oriented and in control are what people assume is lacking in the leadership style of Sanna Marin, solely based on the snippets they have seen from her private life in the news.
However, as long as the masculine leadership style is still considered to be the norm and the focus remains on the male sex, gendered stereotypes will continue to exist. This can also be backed up by research that proves that men and women can have both feminine and masculine characteristics and that it is hard to pigeonhole, meaning that gender differences are not substantiated. We may instead want to look beyond gender and focus on equivalence for all people (including all sexes, the LGBTQ movement, different ethnicities, classes, cultural backgrounds, etc.). At this point, we need to talk about post-colonial feminist theory, which also promotes resistance toward the current traditionally masculine culture and leadership within organizations and how modern society requires a new perspective on culture, leadership, and genders, in a globalized economy. Both feminist theory and a feminist leadership style are focused on a feminist perspective on leadership and organizations, which includes ideas and values such as human rights for all and pursuing equality and equivalence for everyone. Research states that such values are expressed in the feminist approach toward social justice, equivalence, transforming themselves, and mobilizing others. The feminist values are unique in the way of reciprocal respect and being heard and hearing others, as well as pointing out critical and challenging issues and consciously aiming for gender diversity and empowerment.
Force for positive change according to PM Sanna Marin
Based on what has been said in the news, these feminist values are important for PM Sanna Marin. For example, at the Generation Equality Forum in Mexico in 2021, she said: “I am delighted to see the strong presence of young people here. You are the force for change in all societies. […] Women are powerful agents of change for democracy and human rights. A society based on equality provides equal opportunities for everyone. However, Finland, like all countries, still has to work to improve gender equality. Today, we need action more than ever before. […] Women and girls in vulnerable situations, such as those with disabilities and those belonging to ethnic minorities, face specific barriers.” During the interviews for my master thesis, it became clear that gendered changes in thinking about leadership are needed, visible, and should be focused on in organizations. This is also the message from Sanna Marin which she tried to share during the Forum in 2021 and other public presentations. However, the way this may shape society, politics, and organizations and how the media is perceiving it, is influenced by the support for and (internal and external) thresholds regarding (feminist) leadership. Unfortunately, these thresholds have become more present in the media during the last couple of weeks.
A highly valued element is creating the right circumstances in society for women’s careers and changing the underlying belief systems and culture. As Sanna Marine declares in the statement above, high-quality daycare for a reasonable cost and high-quality education for free should be the basis and accessible for everyone. The World Bank Group’s Women, Business and the Law program highlights that the support of childcare centers can increase the likelihood of women’s representation in national parliaments by 25% or more. Therefore, the focus by Sanna Marin on inclusion and creating a supporting system is crucial for the necessary diversity and leadership changes, which is in turn crucial to deal with grand societal challenges.
The Finnish Prime Minister leads with high-qualitative communication and negotiation skills, a calm and firm attitude, being more proactive and less egoistic, more interested in inclusion rather than power, and inclusive leadership. By having a profession with high responsibilities, Sanna Marin aims to change the culture and drive positive societal change. This should not mean that she has to give up on her personal life as well.
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