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The Gender-Segregated Labour Market – A Nordic Paradox

It is called the gender equality paradox – that gender-segregated labour markets persist in gender equality-oriented welfare states. This was the topic of discussion when a Nordic network of researchers and scholars met for a seminar in Oslo.


‘We tend to think of gender equality as a one-dimensional phenomenon,’ says Mari Teigen, research director at the Norwegian Institute for Social Research and director of the Centre for Research on Gender Equality.

Around 20 researchers and scholars from universities across Scandinavia gathered during May 7-8 at the Institute for Social Research in Oslo to discuss comparative studies of the Nordic gender equality model. The network is putting a difficult welfare challenge on the agenda. How can we explain that we still have gender-segregated labour markets in the Nordic countries?

‘Segregation breeds segregation,’ says Teigen.

She has studied gender segregation in education and the labour market for many years, and last year she was the editor of a new book on the topic (Kjönnsdeling og etniske skiller på arbeidsmarkedet). Her work shows that the conflict between the gender equality-oriented welfare state and vast gender segregation in the labour market persists.

‘Gender segregation in education and the labour market makes it problematic for people who want to make non-traditional choices,’ says Teigen and points to discrimination as an ultimate consequence.

‘We have identified clear cases of gender-driven exclusion processes in some gender-segregated fields,’ she says.

Women moving into male-dominated occupations

The gender segregation is a challenge to society for several reasons.
‘There are big differences between the private and public sectors. The private sector is much more male dominated,’ says Teigen.

But what do the differences mean in practice?
‘What we see in the labour market is that women are moving into the male-dominated field, but not vice versa.’

There are obvious reasons for this.
‘Male-dominated jobs have higher status and better pay. But we also know that the occupations that are at a standstill, and that are female dominated, are characterised by low pay, high demands and unattractive work schedules.’

‘As a result, men don’t want to move into female-dominated occupations,’ says Teigen, who believes that this tendency may help explain the persisting gender segregation.

A healthy family life

The Nordic network: Mari Teigen (Norwegian Institute for Social Research), Ann-Dorte Christensen (Aalborg University) (Norwegian Institute for Social Research, Oslo), Ulf Mellström (Karlstad University) and Liisa Husu (Örebro University).
 The Nordic network: Mari Teigen (Norwegian Institute for Social Research), Ann-Dorte Christensen (Aalborg University) (Norwegian Institute for Social Research, Oslo), Ulf Mellström (Karlstad University) and Liisa Husu (Örebro University).

However, there are also other reasons the labour market remains gender segregated. One has to do with workers’ ability to combine work and family life.
‘Male-dominated occupations in the private sector offer less room for a satisfactory family life, since the culture in those fields expects you to work a lot of hours and make a lot of money,’ says Teigen.

But the career-family life equation is a challenge also in other fields. Teigen points to the health and care sector.
‘The extent of weekend work that’s necessary if you want to work full time in the health sector keeps many women from working full time,’ she says.

So, are women sacrificing more working time than men to make family life work? Yes, says Teigen.
‘You could say that the women are paying for a healthy family life.’

Nordic platform

The seminar in Oslo is one of four meetings arranged by the network.

The theme of the meetings is gender equality in a Nordic perspective. Ulf Mellström at Karlstad University, who helped pull the meeting together, hopes that increased awareness and sharing of knowledge will yield positive results.

‘I hope we can promote funding of this type of research through a publication platform. We are much stronger together than individually,’ he says.

Mellström stresses the political importance. He hopes that the unique gathering of sociologists, political scientists and gender researchers will serve as a source of competence in Nordic policy making. Because there is no doubt that we still have a long way to go in the Nordic gender equality work. Not least when it comes to gender segregation in the labour market.

‘I think many people believe that politicians are working hard with the segregation issue, but there is little evidence pointing in that direction,’ says Teigen.

‘It is well documented that gender equality makes society qualitatively better for both women and men in terms of quality of life. Gender equality brings dignity to individuals and a greater sense of community to society,’ says Mellström

Updated 14 February 2024