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Intersectional Gender Equality Policy on Nordic Agenda

Nordic gender equality policy is facing new challenges. What will happen when, or if, the intersectionality perspective takes over? Nordic researchers met in Örebro to discuss the answer.

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‘This is a hot topic in Sweden right now,’ said Liisa Husu, professor in gender studies at Örebro University, when she opened the workshop Thursday.

The Swedish gender equality commission presented its final report earlier in the week. The commission proposes a clearer intersectional perspective in the country’s gender equality policy, and that the government should establish a national gender equality agency.
‘If this means that gender will be treated separately, it could be seen as a return from an integrated to a separating perspective. But the establishment of a national gender equality agency is at the same time a big and important step forward,’ said Sofia Strid, researcher at Centrum för feministiska samhällsstudier, Örebro University.
Strid is part of the Nordic research network that arranged the workshop. The network wants to facilitate a discussion about the increasing complexity of gender equality policy. Around 20 researchers from various Nordic countries participated in Örebro.

Johanna Kantola, gender researcher at the University of Helsinki described the situation in Finland:
‘We’re experiencing a gender equality policy crisis,’ she said.
Her statement can be interpreted as a rhetorical wink to the government. According to Kantola, various crises are precisely what the Finnish government likes to refer to when justifying cutbacks in the public sector. The financial crisis, the EU crisis and the refugee crisis are used as reasons to reduce public spending, she says. The government wants to save money for example by changing the rules for paid sick leave and lowering the extra pay for public employees working nights and holidays.
‘The only good thing happening in Finland right now is the growing opposition,’ said Kantola.
She mentioned an initiative where 88 professors are protesting publically against the cutbacks. She also described how Finnish trade unions have mobilised around the gender equality issues:
‘Many people who have never been part of the feminist movement are starting to get involved.’

Hege Skjeie, professor at the University of Oslo, described some challenges with the intersectionality perspective. Photo: Charlie Olofsson
 Hege Skjeie, professor at the University of Oslo, described some challenges with the intersectionality perspective. Photo: Charlie Olofsson

The workshop in Örebro began Thursday and continued Friday. Hege Skjeie, professor in political science at the University of Oslo, described some of the challenges resulting from the theoretical transition from gender equality to a broader focus on equal treatment and antidiscrimination. One thing she sees is that some groups can be eager to safeguard their own interests.
‘They may fear that their own particular group will end up short-changed,’ she said.
The groups with the longest history of being organised and the strongest legal protection feel they have the most to lose when other grounds for discrimination are put on the agenda, she continued and gave an example. In Norway, the possibility to adopt an integrated antidiscrimination law has been discussed – an idea some women’s groups oppose.
According to Sofia Strid, the Nordic countries have chosen partly different paths in their design of discrimination laws. For example, Sweden has a law in line with the one proposed in Norway, while Finland has separate discrimination and gender equality laws in place.
‘We need to learn more about the consequences of different models. How does the design of the laws affect gender equality, the class system and LGBT people’s rights? This is something we need to look closer at,’ said Strid.
In her research, she has shown a particular interest in how the civil society has received the intersectionality perspective.
‘It’s interesting to look at how various organisations deal with the discrimination grounds. For example, we see that many feminist organisations try to include several other grounds for discrimination at the same time as they place gender a bit above the others.’

Both Strid and Skjeie feel that there is a lack of examples of how the intersectionality perspective can be implemented in policy proposals and practical gender equality work. They mention the Equality Ombudsman as an example where the intersectional analysis has led to concrete change. Norway was the first Nordic country to have a central equality ombudsman for all types of discrimination, and the other countries have since carried out similar reforms.
Strid thinks that having Nordic researchers get together and talk may help unveil how the intersectionality perspective has impacted policy and the situation of various groups.
‘We need to look at which paths are available and which paths have proved effective.’


This is an article about one of the projects granted funding through the Nordic Gender Equality Fund.

Updated 2 October 2020