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Various Routes are Taken in Nordic Equal Opportunities Policy

The Nordic countries are often thought of as an ideal when it comes to gender equality and they are highly ranked in international comparisons. However, this does not reflect the whole truth about equality in the Nordic countries.

Illustration: Emma Hanquist
Illustration: Emma Hanquist

‘Sweden, Norway and Finland follow a Nordic model which means that their equality policies are characterised by a relatively strong legislative and institutional anchoring. Denmark differs in having a less robust policy,’ says Mari Teigen, a sociologist and research leader at the Institute for Social Research in Oslo.

Maria Carbin is a researcher at Umeå University and was a member of the research team for the EU-project Quing; Quality in Gender and Equality Policies, which lasted from 2006 to 2011. She has, among other things, analysed Danish policy documents concerning equality.

‘The Danish equal opportunities policy more resembles the form that is adopted in the rest of Europe. It has been accorded a low priority status and action that has been taken has been more often in response to directives from the EU and UN than arising out of Denmark’s own political agenda.’

It was, for instance, only after the EU Commission had directed criticism at Denmark that, in 2011, the Danish Institute for Human Rights was commissioned to promote equality between the sexes. Until then there was no independent authority responsible for this issue.

Denmark lacks a strong women’s movement

Maria Carbin
Maria Carbin

Maria Carbin considers that the issue of gender has not been problematised in Denmark in the same way as it has, for instance, in Sweden. The issue of feminism occupies a minor position in the debate and concepts such as that of a gender power system do not exist.

‘A weak women’s movement and the fact that Danish political parties have not had any women’s organisations since the 1970s may also have contributed to the fact that women’s issues are not placed high on the agenda,’ says Maria Carbin.

The Quing project and Maria Carbin’s research were completed before the change of government in 2011 when the Social Democratic Party came to power in Denmark and hopes were raised for a more active equal opportunities policy.

Karen Sjørup, who does research on equality issues, among other things, at Roskilde University, feels that such hopes have not been fulfilled.

‘We have a new minister for gender equality who is also responsible for the church. So far he has been very taken up with the issue of same-sex marriages and the situation of men, but apart from that not very much has happened.’

A high degree of employment among women and an extensive childcare system contributes to the fact that Denmark is often ranked highly in international comparisons of gender equality. Highly educated women are beginning to be seen in the higher echelons of trade and industry, but Karen Sjørup feels that this gives a misleading picture of the women’s situation on the labour market.

‘Most women are low-paid and do not have a university education. There is also a wage gap between women and men due to the fact that professions dominated by women are less valued than the traditionally male professions. The government does nothing to alleviate that gap and it’s a factor that does not register in international rankings either.’

Karen Sjørup confirms that Denmark lacks a strong women’s movement, but she speaks of several active networks which are pressing for change and working on concrete projects to promote equality.

‘These networks are generally ignored by the government and the projects receive no funding from the state,’ she says.

The Icelandic ‘glass rock’

In Iceland an increased number of women entered politics in the wake of the economic collapse. In the election of 2009 the share of women in the Icelandic parliament – the Althing – increased from 32 to 43 per cent and Iceland acquired a woman prime minister for the first time.

Thorgerdur Einarsdóttir, who is Professor of Gender Studies at the University of Iceland finds that it is to some extent the economic crisis, but above all the election victory of the Social Democrats and the Left-Green Movement, which explains just why this happened in 2009.

As in other countries, there is a clear tendency for the red-green parties to have more women in their lists than it is for the bourgeois parties. After the resurgence of the bourgeois parties in the most recent election, in 2013, the proportion of women in the Althing has somewhat decreased.

The state of women’s representation in politics explains why over the past four years Iceland has topped the rankings in the Global Gender Gap, which measures the levels of equal opportunities in 134 countries. However, Thorgerdur Einarsdóttir’s research shows that even if women have formally obtained more power the process is ambiguous.

‘Far-reaching liberalisation in Iceland has led to an equality paradox. At the same time as the women have obtained more visibility in public life, a relocation of power has taken place from politics to the market, which means that the level of influence they actually have has decreased.

Thorgerdur Einarsdóttir,
Thorgerdur Einarsdóttir

Icelandic researchers also talk about ‘the glass rock’, a term which implies that women acquire high positions in politics and working life when times are particularly hard and they are thus exposed to a greater risk of failure.

‘In the wake of the economic collapse a woman was elected prime minister and was given the difficult task of reorganising the economy. However, after one term she no longer has the confidence of the voters,’ Thorgerdur Einarsdóttir says.

She says that the equality issues have not been given any space at all within this year’s election campaign, although the outgoing red-green government had put in place a wide range of policies aiming at increasing equal opportunities for women. An integration of equal opportunities into the state budget, prohibitions against strip clubs, an Act of Parliament on the sex trade in accordance with the Swedish model, as well as gender quotas on boards of directors according to the Norwegian model are some of these.

‘If you wanted to be critical you could say that these are ultimately just symbolic issues. They are measures which have not been expensive to put in place and which, in the absence of sanctions, unfortunately are not always being followed,’ Thorgerdur Einarsdóttir says.

Good policies – needing implementation

Mari Teigen in Oslo is one of twelve researchers who have been working on an investigation into equal opportunities policies in Norway which has received much attention and which has resulted in the reports A Structure for Equality 2011 and Policies for Equality 2012.

Mari Teigen
Mari Teigen

The mandate of the investigation has been extensive, with a focus on gender, class and ethnicity. Mari Teigen considers that the work has been characterised by innovative thinking in both its analyses and proposals for implementation.

‘The most important conclusion is that the integration of gender and social equality does not work in the way it has been thought to. Many more international studies point in the same direction. The policies might be good but the implementation remains inadequate.

When the investigation was submitted its chair Hege Skjeie, a professor at Oslo University, described the integration of gender and social equality as ‘the strategy of the powerless’. By this he means that the strategy is based on the expectation that people who do not themselves necessarily possess any competence in matters of equality apply an equal opportunities perspective to anything they do. Moreover, the issues of equal opportunities constantly have to compete with the other issues for which the respective authority or administration is responsible.

In order to alleviate the deficiencies in implementation there is a need for more effective guidance in relation to equal opportunities policies.
‘We propose that the ministry responsible for issues of gender and social equality is backed up by an authority, a regional directorate, which distributes funding and is given an overarching national responsibility,’ says Mari Teigen.

The investigation acknowledges considerable deficiencies when it comes to equal opportunities in politics, the educational system and working life, and it also focuses attention on women’s need for protection against assault and violence. Concrete measures are proposed in every field.

‘We have made a point of putting forward measures which have not been tested before,’ Mari Teigen says.

The twelve researchers of the investigation had no links with interested parties in the labour market. This, finds Mari Teigen, enabled them to formulate appropriate measures.

At the same time it implies that the parties do not have a duty to implement the measures.

‘The Swedish Delegation for Gender Equality in Working Life is at an advantage here. It has a broader composition and the work has been established more effectively right from the beginning.

The articles source is magazine Genus number 1/2013.

Updated 30 September 2019