The Equality Act in a nutshell

The Act on Equality between Women and Men (609/1986), otherwise known as the Equality Act, came into force on 1.1.1987, and since then a number of changes have been made to it. The purpose of the Equality Act is to prevent discrimination based on gender, to promote equality between women and men, and to improve the status of women, particularly in working life. The aims of the Act also include preventing discrimination based on gender identity or gender expression.

The Equality Act prohibits discrimination on the basis of gender identity and gender expression, pregnancy, childbirth, parenthood or family obligations. In addition, the Equality Act prohibits any discrimination on the basis of persons being treated differently by virtue of a provision, justification or practice that appears to be gender-neutral in terms of gender identity and gender expression, but where the effect of said action is such that the person may actually find themselves in a less favourable position on the basis of gender.  Both this form of discrimination and that based on parenthood and family responsibilities is referred to as indirect discrimination. Such treatment is not, however, discriminatory if it is pursuant to an acceptable objective and the means chosen are considered appropriate and necessary in relation to said objective. 

Other forms of discrimination prohibited under the Equality Act include sexual harassment, gender-based harassment, and any order or instruction to engage in discrimination. Countermeasures, or treating someone less favourably because they have made appeal to their rights, constitute discrimination. The reason for discrimination may also be connected to an individual close to the person, or discrimination may be based on an assumption.

In the Equality Act, the phrase 'gender identity' refers to an individual's experience of their own gender. The phrase 'gender expression' refers to expressing one's gender through clothing, behaviour, or by other equivalent means. The anti-discrimination regulations included in the Equality Act also apply to discrimination based on the fact that an individual's physical gender-defining characteristics are not unambiguously female or male.

As a rule, the Equality Act applies to all societal activities and all areas of life. The Act does not apply to relationships between family members, other private relationships, or activities associated with religious practice.

The Equality Act contains three types of provisions:

  • provisions promoting equality,
  • prohibitions on discrimination, and
  • provisions on legal protection and monitoring of the Act.

Equality obligations apply to public authorities, education providers and other organisations providing education or training, and employers. Public authorities should assess all of their activities from the perspective of different genders and create practices for promoting equality. Equality is also promoted through the use of quotas. At educational institutions and in working life, equality is, among other things, promoted through gender equality plans.

The general prohibition of discrimination defines and prohibits direct and indirect discrimination based on gender. Special prohibitions define discriminatory actions in working life, at educational institutions, in organisations representing labour market interests, and in the provision of goods and services. An affected person may claim compensation for violations of these prohibitions. Employers and educational institutions are responsible, when requested, for providing a written report on their actions to anyone suspecting that discrimination has taken place.

Compliance with the Equality Act is overseen by the Ombudsman for Equality and the National Non-Discrimination and Equality Tribunal. Among other things, the Ombudsman for Equality provides guidance and advice on applying the Equality Act, such as in relation to the prohibitions of discrimination and equality planning. The Tribunal may, under threat of a fine, prohibit discriminatory practices and oblige the training provider or employer to comply with its equality planning obligations. If the matter is not otherwise resolved, the party suspected of discrimination may bring an action for compensation in the district court. 

The Act on Equality between Women and Men (609/1986)