Merkel’s Finland Prize: Is German Chancellor The Right Person For €150,000 Equality Award?

German Chancellor Angela Merkel receives a framed certificate and flowers from Finnish Prime Minister Juha Sipilä (Centre) on 14th December 2017 / Credit: Juha Roininen / EUP-IMAGES / Finnish Government Flickr

Angela Merkel is set to be awarded the Finnish Government’s first ever gender equality prize today, although she won’t actually be attending the Tampere ceremony to collect it in person.

Prime Minister Juha Sipilä (Centre) and Tampere Mayor Anna-Kaisa Ikonen (NCP) will both be at the award ceremony, but Chancellor Merkel will send a video greeting and be represented by the German Ambassador to Finland instead.

When Angela Merkel was announced as the winner of the International Gender Equality Prize last December, there were raised eyebrows from policy experts in Germany and Finland, as well as gender and feminist-focused NGOs in both countries, about the strength of Merkel’s qualifications for the prize.

Those questions persist today, and experts that News Now Finland contacted weren’t willing to champion Merkel’s win or her work in gender equality, which they describe in a more routine way, except for the awards committee itself.

About The Prize

The International Gender Equality Prize, launched in Finland’s centenary celebration year, is intended to highlight the work of one person or organisation in the field of gender equality.

It’s the first award of its kind in the world, and the government used it to show Finland’s deep commitment to building a more gender-equal society over the last one hundred years since independence.

Some 400 people from 30 countries, mostly women but a few men, were nominated for the prize. The committee says Merkel’s name came up several times, and that she received strong endorsements.

The €150,000 prize money is pooled from existing development funds, and will not go to Merkel directly, but to a person or organisation that she names. That recipient will be announced at today’s Tampere ceremony.

In Favour Of Angela

Merkel’s interest in gender equality goes back decades, according to Paulina Ahokas who is the Chair of the International Gender Equality Prize in Tampere.

And Ahokas says Merkel has been decisive in raising gender minority concerns with Russia in particular.

“Already in [Helmut] Kohl’s government she was in charge of gender equality issues and took a lot of projects forward there. She’s been the only person who visibly, loudly spoke in particular about gender minority issues in discussions, how they are being treated in Russia, and has done that very openly” explains Ahokas.

So the German Chancellor upbraided Vladimir Putin about persecution of gender and sexual minorities. Did it have any effect?


“She was quite firm with Putin during the G7 meeting where she pushed him to assert his influence to assure the rights of minorities in Chechnya. Which actually led to an investigation into the human rights abuses happening there” says Cai Weaver, a PhD researcher at Helsinki University who specialises in sexual minorities and the politicization of sexuality in Russia.

Weaver finds it worth mentioning that Putin made public statements on the issues after Merkel’s intervention, and that an investigation happened at all. Reports of human rights abuses in the region fell dramatically, he says, after the investigations started.

“Merkel has always been firm with Putin, to his face on and in front of cameras, on the treatment of homosexuals, especially after the national propaganda ban of 2013. She has vocally criticised this on numerous occasions” says Weaver.

But Weaver also says he was “surprised” when he read about Merkel’s prize win.

“Sure, gender equality in Germany has improved over the last two decades but I am at a loss to think of a specific domestic policy from Merkel advocating for change” he says.

Merkel’s Germany Legacy

At home, Merkel isn’t known as a leading light in the gender equality movement. It’s a subject she’s warmed to only slowly over the course of her political career.

“Merkel has embraced the gender topic more over time. Her new cabinet is set to be 50% women, and she herself appears more comfortable talking about the topic, the longer she is in the post” says Ulrike Franke, Policy Fellow at the European Council for Foreign Relations in Berlin.

Still, entering her fourth term as Chancellor, Merkel hasn’t made gender equality an important part of her politics, something German feminists have criticised her for. In fact, on several gender equality indicators Germany has not improved since Merkel came to power in 2005.

The recently elected Bundestag German parliament is more male than before, and the percentage of female MPs has gone down from 36.5% to 30.7%, as low as it was back in 1994.

But at the same time, under Merkel Germany got its first female Defence Minister in 2013; and Merkel has nominated a woman as secretary of her Christian Democrat CDU party – a possible successor as Chancellor.  By comparison, Finland’s first female Defence Minister, Elisabeth Rehn, was appointed in 1990.

“Merkel may not be openly feminist, but by being the first female German Chancellor, and being that successful in the job, she has lead by example” says Franke.

That rational has also been cited by the IGEP committee who said that Merkel “can show that women can rise to the top ranks of society” by “breaking through the glass ceiling”.

Opposition To Angela’s Gender Prize Win

It’s not hard to find subject experts who don’t rate Merkel’s gender equality credentials, in Finland or in Germany.

At the Finnish Feminists’ Union Naisasialiitto, Secretary Milla Pyykkönen doesn’t mix her words.

“When the announcement came, I thought that they have just picked her because she is the most powerful woman in the world at the moment”.

“You can’t say that Angela Merkel’s politics are about gender equality. She has made quite humanistic politics, she has spoken in a very human way about refugees, but that doesn’t mean she has a gender point of view” says Pyykkönen.

The Feminists’ Union says although Merkel is not against gender equality, she’s not shown herself to be in favour of it either.

“Just being a woman is not enough” says Pyykkönen.

In Germany, the National Council of German Women’s Organizations Deutscher Frauenrat represents 60 national women’s organisations.

They declined an opportunity to comment for this story, citing the international nature of the award, but in a previous column for The Guardian newspaper titled “Merkel’s Failure On Gender Equality“, the group’s Ulrike Helwerth gave a laundry list of areas where she thought Merkel had fallen short.

Those areas included token gestures on childcare and parental leave; an outdated tax system that rewarded married couples where the husband is a high earner and the wife earns very little, and gender rights setbacks for women from the former East Germany.

“Women from east Germany deplore the loss of the ’emancipating advances’ they gained in the GDR, such as the right to economic independence from a husband or partner through work and income, the right to an adequate childcare system and the right to abortion” wrote Helwerth in the 2009 article.

No Feminist Icon, But Gender Champion For Finland

Merkel might not be a feminist icon – “real feminists would be offended if I described myself as one” she said in 2013 – but she has the chance to use her International Gender Equality Prize from Finland to boost the work of other activists.

“Through the prize we say that people of power, whoever that is, can use their power to advance their agenda” says Paulina Ahokas from the IGEP committee.

“We Finns believe that through gender equality we make a better world […] we will give the prize to champions of gender equality, and through that we are committed to taking gender equality further in our own society. It’s a very strong statement, a revolutionary statement from Finland to do this” she says.

The International Gender Equality Prize ceremony takes place in Tampere today at 14:00. State-funded broadcaster YLE will show the award event live online.