Nordic Countries Forge Ahead to Counter Gender-Equality ImpasseNorway, Sweden, and Iceland are making swift progress on gender equality policies. Icelandic businesses may obtain a new equal pay certificate and in Sweden, a new national agency is established. However, in Denmark, politicians ignore the gender equality law: “Appalling,” says equal rights consultant.
“The Nordic welfare states have set the precedent, constituting a best practice of sorts in the field of gender equality, however by now, there are many indicators that other countries are passing the Nordic countries,” explains Jytte Nielsen, research librarian at KVINFO.
Thus, Norway, Sweden, and Iceland are preparing a host of new initiatives.
“The development is simply not up to speed,” according to Cecilia Schelin Seidegård, one of the researchers responsible for the Swedish Equal Rights Report, which analyses equal-rights initiatives in Sweden of the past 10 years. According to the report, equality is actually declining in a number of areas.
“We note an increasing chasm between men and women due to income levels and educational background but also between men and women from ethnic minorities compared to ethnic Swedes,” explains Cecilia Schelin Seidegård in the press release accompanying the report.
The Swedish report documents the gender equality challenges in Sweden, a country where men’s gendered violence against women and a gender segregated labour market stand out as the most pressing issues. There is a need for explicating new concrete targets concerning equal rights, and there is, according to the Swedish researchers, a pressing need for the establishment of a new state agency.
Nordic Welfare States at a Standstill
The Swedes are not alone in noticing that equal rights policies have reached an impasse. Reports from Norway and Iceland suggest a similar development. In Sweden, Norway, and Iceland, comprehensive analyses demonstrate how gender equality initiatives have come up against some form of barrier. A similar pattern is noticeable in Denmark, too.
“Sweden, Norway, and Iceland are witnessing a similar development to the Danish, i.e. that we seem to have reached dead end in terms of gender equality inasmuch as our previous equal rights strategies appear to have exhausted their efficacy. It would seem, that we simply cannot go forward using only the strategies applied so far,” says Jytte Nielsen, who explains that there is little to no improvements to equal pay in neither Denmark nor in Norway, Sweden, and Iceland. With the partial exception of Norway, where a woman’s quota has been introduced at the board level, all countries are burdened by a gender segregated labour market and low representation of women in management.
In Denmark, women’s political representation is also not moving towards increased gender equality. She notes: “The proportion of women elected in the last parliamentary and municipal elections has diminished”.
The Nordic reports demonstrate an overall stagnation in gender equality, however Norway, Sweden, and Iceland have proposed an increased focus at the political level. “The three countries have set out to move beyond this impasse by launching various initiatives,” explains Jytte Nielsen.
A Feminist Cabinet
The new recommendations were warmly received by the Swedish cabinet. “It is interesting to note that the recommendations suggest the establishment of a new state agency for gender equality. There is, in other words, a need for more control, structure, and continuity in order for us to reach our targets and improve the use of our resources,” declares Åsa Regner, the Swedish minister for gender equality.
The Swedish cabinet is a self-described ’feminist cabinet’, dedicated to gender mainstreaming their policies. The question of gender equality must permeate all government initiatives. “Gender equality is not merely a question of policy, rather it is a mindset that must influence all policies,” according to a Swedish cabinet press release.
Kick-Starting Gender Mainstreaming
Sweden has – like the other Nordic countries, including Denmark – applied gender mainstreaming as a gender equality strategy since 1997. However, according to the Swedish report, the law on gender mainstreaming has not been applied well. The new state agency must seek to redress this situation.
“A gender equality agency will offer cabinet the support necessary in order to apply our current knowledge and available data, it will support public authorities, municipalities, county councils, and other operators, and act as coordinating body for gender equality initiatives,” states the Swedish cabinet.
New Ambitions in Iceland
While Sweden is refocusing on gender mainstreaming, the Icelandic cabinet has recently presented a 4-year initiative, which proposes a particular focus on faltering gender equality in the labour market and the pay gap between men and women.
Furthermore, the initiative prioritises unequal political representation, male gender equality, and gender-based violence. According to Eygló Harðardóttir, Icelandic minister for gender equality, the plan reflects Iceland’s particular challenges in the field of gender equality.
“The new plan seeks to redress the gendered pay gap, secure equal political influence for men and women, in addition to economic equality and the elimination of all forms of gender-based violence,” she says and affirms that the Icelandic government assumes political responsibility for acting on the challenges defined as structural issues. This requires, according to Eygló Harðardóttir, political will and a trained political focus on the issues.
“These challenges must be met by the application of decisive political strategies and structural changes,” she explains.
Icelandic Equal Pay Certificate under Way
In recent years, Iceland has targeted the gender segregated labour market and equal pay deficit. In 2012, the cabinet instituted a task group consisting of civil servants from the Ministry for Gender Equality and labour market representatives. The group has carried our extensive research on pay differentials. This work has led to the introduction of a pilot scheme targeting equal pay for equal work.
One initiative is the development of an equal pay certificate, which businesses may be eligible for if they can prove non-gender discriminatory pay system practices. Certification is awarded on the basis of a meticulous audit of staff pay scales and vocational and occupational classification. During the coming years, the certificate standards will be disseminated and applied in further companies. The task group is currently preparing a plan of action to put an end to the gender segregated labour market because of the direct correlation between gender segregation and gendered pay gap in the labour market.
Norway Bids Gender Stereotypes Farewell in Education
In Norway, there is a similar focus on the labour market and gender neutral pedagogy is seen as a means to encourage children from an early age to abstain from gender stereotypes in educational choice. The plan of action concurrently underlines the need for increased knowledge about gender equality in kindergartens in order to offer equal opportunities to girls and boys from the very beginning.
In Norway, reforms of the gender equality initiatives have taken place for a number of years. The red-green cabinet under the helm of Jens Stoltenberg initiated two reports on gender equality, including a plan of action, which was scrapped by Prime Minister Erna Solberg. Solberg’s cabinet has subsequently put forward their own policy proposal on gender, which was subsequently extended during negotiations in Parliament.
One of the proposals suggests financially supporting boys and girls who seek training or education in fields with an 80+ percent gender imbalance, i.e. where either males or females constitute at least 80 percent of the student body. The Norwegian parliamentary opposition also demanded a schedule from the parties to the labour market outlining the abolishment of the gendered pay gap between men and women. The Norwegian plan of action also addresses the problem of part-time jobs public-sector jobs, which prevent many women from gaining full-time work.
A Gender-Mainstreamed Danish State Budget, Please!
While the other Nordic countries have formed working groups, commissions, and research studies in order to gain a complete overview of current gender equality initiatives and their effects and develop new policy proposals, in Denmark, new policy initiatives on gender equality are glaringly absent.
”While this development – or rather, the lack of development – is of no cause for concern to politicians in Denmark, the situation is very different in the other Nordic countries,” notes Jytte Nielsen.
KVINFO’s Web Magazine asked gender equality consultant, Charlotte Kirkegaard from the consultancy Unisex Progress, about the state of Danish gender equality initiatives and the gender mainstreaming of laws in Denmark. Charlotte Kirkegaard is a law graduate and former researcher at the Centre for Gender Equality Research and has taught gender mainstreaming to civil servants in 14 Danish ministries.
“Having worked in this field for years, I am mostly shocked by the absolute absence of consequence analyses of current policies. I am appalled by the low standards and levels of professionalism. It is absurd. And often in contravention of prior knowledge.”
”The 2000 Gender Equality Law stipulates gender mainstreaming of policies in all corners of public administration, yet to date it hardly occurs anywhere. Generally, there are no consequence analyses and there are absolutely no consequence analyses specifically regarding gender equality. It is appalling,” she says.
Judging from her own experiences in Danish ministries, Sweden is, according to Charlotte Kirkegaard, doing the right thing by establishing a new state agency in order to reinforce the push for gender mainstreaming in public administration.
”In order to really make a positive difference in Denmark, a new systemic approach is required. If they really wanted gender equality in Denmark, the first step is to prepare a gender analysis of the state budget, mapping out the allocation of public funds. This in turn would require consequence analyses and gender-based data.”
Furthermore, Charlotte Kirkegaard also pinpoints the prerequisite political wish to actually make a mark on gender equality agendas:
”To my mind, the biggest problem is lack of political interest. You may have however many competent gender equality experts in the state administration, in municipalities, and other public institutions, but nothing changes without political interest.”
”Gender Equality Has Already Been Achieved in Denmark”
So why is there a lack of political initiatives on gender equality from Danish politicians? According to Jytte Nielsen, the stumbling blocks are composed of various intractable and fallacious views on the matter.
”Nothing changes in Denmark – regardless of the party affiliations of varying cabinets – due to the widespread misconception that the country has already achieved gender equality. Thus, statistics suggesting differently are merely an indication of men’s and women’s markedly different preferences and life choices,” explains Jytte Nielsen, who has worked in a professional capacity on issues pertaining to equality and gender for more than 25 years.
Minister for Gender Equality, Karen Ellemann has declared, in line with her predecessor, that she is not pushing for any major legal initiatives in this field. When KVINFO’s Web Magazine reached out for her reply to the criticism levelled, she referred to her party, Venstre’s equal rights spokesperson, Jakob Engel-Schmidt. He agrees, in part, that things are moving at too slow a pace.
“Yes and no. We face challenges in some areas. In other areas, e.g. women in management, we are making progress,” he declares.
Despite the fact that the analysis is well-nigh identical to the situation, which has spurred cabinets of all colours to action in Denmark’s neighbouring countries, Jakob Engel-Schmidt does not see the need for new legislation. He refuses to earmark a specific part of parental leave to fathers even though such a move has shifted the unequal distribution of parental leave in several Nordic countries.
“We don’t necessarily subscribe to the same value based politics – something which is also evident in other areas, e.g. immigration,” he explains. Instead, he is pushing for a change in attitudes.
”An upcoming initiative seeks to strike an alliance with small-, medium-sized-, and large companies in order to push for a cultural change. I think we can make great strides by changing culture and behaviour.”
However, it is precisely this attitude which has failed so far,” insists Jytte Nielsen:
“Political initiatives in Denmark often consists of small-scale campaigns intended to transform people’s mindsets. However, there is never a follow-up to these campaigns and clear outcomes are never defined beforehand. A comprehensive plan of action or a clear idea of direction and goals in this field are sorely lacking. Hence, there is no plan in this field setting clear goals for i.e. 2025. It simply does not exist with regards to gender equality in Denmark,” explains Jytte Nielsen and refutes the notion that the faltering political focus on gender equality is due to a lack of knowledge.
“There is not a lack of knowledge in Denmark. The problem is simply that the findings of domestic gender research are not applied. Danish politicians are not interested in its application. Because they do not recognise the problem,” says Jytte Nielsen.
Jakob Engel-Schmidt is not completely averse to the launch of a proper gender equality study, charting problems and their potential solutions, like in Sweden. In Denmark, major studies have not been carried out since the 1960s Women’s Commission.
“I am willing to debate whether or not we need such a study. However, this is a debate between the relevant organisations and parties,” he explains.
However, he disagrees entirely with Charlotte Kirkegaard’s critique that the current gender equality legislation is not implemented.
“I believe we respect the letter of the law, a view which I am sure is supported by the parliamentary committee on gender equality,” he says. He finds the critique unsubstantiated and is convinced, that it would serve critics to be more concrete when raising points of critique.
Gender Mainstreaming – The Idea that Gender Analysis Should Permeate Legislative Processes
Jytte Nielsen is favourably inclined towards the new Swedish state agency on gender equality and the Icelandic equal pay certification scheme:
”It sounds like a great idea, however the successful outcome of such a certification scheme presupposes a demand in order to bestow brand value on certified organisations and companies, whether public or private. The success of the scheme lies with the partners and clients of these companies – do they find diversity, gender, and equality important? If there is no demand, the whole exercise remains pointless. Companies need an incentive to take part in the certification scheme.”
The new state agency for gender equality in Sweden tries to take a new tack and has come about due to the failure of gender mainstreaming to deliver.
”The attempted gender-mainstreaming strategy in Sweden – and in the other Nordic countries, including Denmark – has failed. Or rather, it has not delivered. Consequently, Sweden has decided to take action by establishing a dedicated gender equality agency. This is a very positive move because now a single agency will be tasked with the implementation of gender quality policies rather than parcelling the responsibility out to a whole range of different agents. Hopefully, this will entail a greater and more comprehensive and long-term focus,” says Jytte Nielsen, who estimates that the current situation in Sweden is similar to the challenges faced in Denmark with regards to the application of gender mainstreaming:
”There is a lack of capacity and knowledge on how to actually approach this field – in Denmark and elsewhere,” she says.