The Maikki Friberg award is granted annually for notable work promoting equality and diversity at the University of Helsinki. All members of the University community may suggest potential recipients.
In 2020 the award was granted to the Students of Colour student association and Liisa Nieminen.
For Nieminen, it was something of a surprise.
“When I received the announcement by email, I checked multiple times that the message was actually intended for me, not someone else. I was pleasantly surprised by the award, since I don’t think it’s ever before been awarded to anyone at the Faculty of Law,” Nieminen says.
In the justification for granting the award, Nieminen is described as an expert lawyer dedicated to guiding various parties at the University in the realisation of equality and non-discrimination as well as a scholar who has continuously produced new knowledge pertaining to equality. Nieminen has also contributed to the practical implementation of equality by translating her scientific expertise into legal guidelines.
Gender pay gap remains a problem
Liisa Nieminen believes that the biggest equality issues in our society are associated with professional life.
“The gender pay gap still remains the biggest problem. The gap is based on the clear division of the labour market between men’s and women’s jobs. Jobs for women are less well paid, which is a problem that is very difficult to tackle through legislation, even though the law requires the promotion of equal pay.”
As a scholar, Nieminen has also examined age as a question of equality. The status of elderly people in professional life has again been a topic of discussion recently, for example, in the budget negotiations of the Finnish government.
“Now the discussion constantly revolves around the fact that people who are older than 50 years of age have great difficulty finding a new job if they become unemployed. Both older and younger people are discriminated against, and at times you really have to pause to consider what actually is the appropriate age for the labour market.”
Mixing up law and opinion
Nieminen is astonished by the prevailing attitude towards equality legislation. Even lawyers and scholars involve their personal views and values, for example, when interpreting law pertaining to gender equality.
“We have the Act on Equality between Women and Men in Finland, which I consider much more progressive than people’s attitudes in these questions. When talking about the act, many abandon their lawyer’s role and cling to traditional roles. For some reason, they don’t understand that this act is just like any other law, not a matter of opinion,” Nieminen says.
Nieminen emphasises that Finnish legislation requires equality of outcome, which, in turn, requires action, not only decisions or statements that sound good.
“Planning how to promote equality is not enough. The law specifically demands active measures to promote equality, as equality does not promote itself.”
As a scholar, Nieminen has also become familiar with positive action. This is, if possible, an even more sensitive question to many, and most organisations steer clear of relying on it in recruitment.
“Usually one of the applicants is considered to be clearly more qualified than the rest to avoid using this option. For one reason or another, positive action has a very negative stigma, even though I see it as nothing but a matter of law.”
Researchers can make a difference
Liisa Nieminen has a long and diverse career at the University of Helsinki. Since embarking on her academic career in the 1980s, she has held a number of positions at the University, among them a professorship in constitutional law. For three years, Nieminen also worked as a lawyer in the Office of the Parliamentary Ombudsman in the Finnish parliament.
In research, Nieminen specialises in constitutional law, European law as well as fundamental and human rights in general.
Nieminen believes she can promote equality, non-discrimination and other important matters in a very tangible way specifically as a scholar by contributing as an expert to law drafting. She has also served as a member of the National Non-Discrimination and Equality Tribunal of Finland.
“Legal scholars, myself included, often take part in the drafting of laws, which involves being consulted by the parliament. For instance, I’ve been consulted a great number of times with regard to children’s rights, enabling me to influence several reforms.”