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The Law Can’t Stop at the Front Door

Violence against women, forced sterilisation and family norms. These were some of the topics discussed when Nordic gender and law researchers met in Umeå.

Monica Burman. Press photo
 Monica Burman. Press photo

The law cannot stop at the front door, but must enter into the home, said UK Professor Rosemary Hunter in her keynote speech.
The need to legislate on issues related to the private sphere was a recurring theme at the conference, which was held 5–6 May. Law and gender researchers from mainly the Nordic countries met in Umeå, Sweden, to discuss how legislation can be used to create gender equality.

Almost 80 people participated in the conference – far more than the host had expected.
‘There’s a feminist wave going on right now, at least in Sweden. There’s a strong interest in these issues, not least among students,’ says Monica Burman, researcher at Umeå Forum for Studies on Law and Society, Umeå University, which arranged the conference.

‘Gender equality is not a competition’

The Nordic countries are often described as international forerunners in gender equality, and this is in fact curbing the development. According to the Nordic self-image, the Nordic countries have already achieved gender equality. However, this is a false belief, said the participants in a panel discussion at the conference.
‘It’s true that we are topping the list compared with other countries, but that doesn’t say much about what we need to do,’ said Hege Brækhus, professor at the University of Tromsø.’
The pay gap between women and men has not changed in years and domestic violence remains a widespread problem, she continued.

Brynhildur G. Flóvenz, associate professor at the University of Iceland, agreed with the criticism of the Nordic self-image.
‘We are the world champions of gender equality, right? But it’s not a competition,’ she said, adding that the Nordic countries do not score so well in all events.
Not least when it comes to gender equality in academia have the Nordic countries fallen behind, she pointed out. Only 15 per cent of Danish professors are women, according to statistics from 2012.

‘A growing field with great diversity’

Law and gender panel. Photo: Charlie Olofsson
 Law and gender panel. Photo: Charlie Olofsson

The conference included panel discussions, speeches and project presentations. Monica Burman describes the legally oriented gender research in the Nordic region as a growing field with great diversity.
Thirty papers on a wide range of topics were presented at the conference. Surrogate motherhood, the Swedish tax deduction for household services, gender quotas for company boards, adoption, forced sterilisation and discrimination in connection with pregnancy were some issues addressed.

The conference was titled Law’s Ability to Produce Gender Equality.
‘We all agree that the law is a tool, but we are not equally optimistic regarding the change that can be accomplished through legislation,’ Burman explains.
Burman participated in a panel discussion on future challenges. Several of the panel participants emphasised the importance of the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women in order to achieve change.
‘It is a strong document but a poorly used tool. We need to use the law,’ said Eva-Maria Svensson, professor at the University of Gothenburg and the University of Tromsø.

Burman feels that the entire conference radiated a strong willingness to produce change and be more activist as researchers.
‘There’s a willingness to reach out in society and get things done, and not just sit at home and tinker with one’s research,’ she says.

Updated 2 May 2020