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The Same Challenges Remain After 40 Years

The Nordic countries may be world leading in gender equality, but the challenges that caused the Nordic Council of Ministers to start cooperating around gender equality policy in 1974 remain practically the same. This was concluded at a conference celebrating 40 years of Nordic gender equality cooperation.

The Icelandic Presidency of the Nordic Council of Ministers arranged the conference in Reykjavík on 26 August.

Panelsamtal med Margot Wallström, tidigare EU-kommissionär, Eygló Harðardóttir, Islands jämställdhetsminister, och Vigdís Finnbogadóttir, Islands tidigare president.
 Margot Wallström, former EU commissioner, Eygló Harðardóttir, Iceland’s Minister for Gender Equality, and Vigdís Finnbogadóttir, former president of Iceland.

‘We can be proud of being world leaders in gender equality,’ said Iceland’s Minister for Gender Equality Eygló Harðardóttir when she opened the conference.

In most Nordic countries, the representation of women and men has evened out considerably since 1974. Women’s entry into higher education and the expanded provision of childcare and parental insurance have led to more Nordic women entering the workforce than elsewhere in Europe. However, the labour market remains strongly gender segregated and corporate management continues to be dominated by men.

The list of speakers at the conference included Margot Wallström, former EU commissioner and UN representative for the monitoring of women in war zones. In the 1990s, Wallström served as minister in several social democratic governments in Sweden.

Major changes in views of manhood

‘I recognise a lot of today’s challenges from my years as a minister. Back then, we focused on political representation, the labour market, education and men’s participation in the gender equality work. The role of men is probably the area that has seen the most change over the 40 years. There has been a “men’s liberation” perspective that has changed the view of what it’s like to be a man.’

Iceland’s former president, Vigdís Finnbogadóttir, noted that there were more men at the conference than at similar conferences 20 years ago.

‘We used to ask, “Where are the men?” So, we would like to thank all of you men who are here today.’

But she also pointed out that women’s access to power and influence is undermined because they lack access to the media, are expected to spend a lot of time making themselves look good and carry the primary responsibility for family and household work.

‘Women and men don’t have the same opportunities to exercise their citizens’ rights.’

Wallström noted that women continue to stay at home with young children more than their men despite focused efforts in the Nordic countries to even out the balance.

‘The parental insurance in the Nordic countries is very generous, but men don’t take advantage of it nearly as much as we would like them to. There are economic reasons for this, but it’s also a matter of attitudes. So how can we achieve change? Through legislation, change in attitudes, tax and insurance reforms and positive discrimination. Sometimes the implementation of quotas is necessary to achieve change that otherwise would take decades to materialise, if ever.’

No miracle cure

Iceland has pushed the issue of parental leave quotas further than any other Nordic country: one-third is reserved for the father, one-third for the mother, and the parents are free to decide what to do with the remaining third. Sociologist Ingólfur V. Gíslason has followed the effects of the Icelandic work and concludes that men have developed closer relationships with their children and take more responsibility for their families and households than in the past. However, women continue to struggle in the labour market.

Sociolog Ingólfur V. Gíslason
 Ingólfur Gíslason

‘We still can’t see that the quotas have led to any improvements in the salary gap. Women are still taking out a vast majority of the parental leave days, so it hasn’t been a miracle cure by any means.’

Kerstin Alnebratt, director of the Swedish Secretariat for Gender Research, discussed the focus on men in the gender equality work in a new perspective.

‘We say that we want the men on board and get frustrated when they don’t understand that. Of course both women and men should be involved. But there is a risk that the focus on men diverts attention from the fact that the great development we have seen would not have been possible without the hard and persistent work of our strong women’s organisations.’

Need for knowledge

All Nordic countries have institutions that document and distribute research-based knowledge related to gender equality. This, said Auður Styrkársdóttir, director of the Icelandic women’s history archives, is a great asset in the Nordic gender equality cooperation.

‘I believe we would not be where we are today without this research. And for the Nordic cooperation to keep making an impact, we need continued research.’

Nina Groes, director of KVINFO in Denmark, agreed.

‘The issue of gender equality tends to stir up emotions, since it often gets to people at a personal level. It is therefore important that we have knowledge that puts things in a context. Research per se isn’t enough – we need research that is communicated and made accessible.’

‘We need research-based knowledge, but we also need politicians who are willing to implement it. We’re trying to achieve this by inviting them to various events,’ said Minna Kelhä, development manager at Minna – Centre for Gender Equality Information in Finland.

Does the cooperation exist?

The need for engagement at the political level and the necessity of breaking the Nordic consensus culture  were two themes addressed by several conference participants. Kerstin Alnebratt pointed out that one important role of research is to offer a critical perspective, even if it may generate tension.

Panel med representanter från insitutioner i Norden som förmedlar forskning om jämställdhet.
 Discussion between institutions that convey information on gender equality research: Auður Styrkársdóttir, Women’s History Archives, Iceland, Kerstin Alnebratt, Swedish Secretariat for Gender Research, Sweden, Linda Marie Rustad, KILDEN, Norway, Minna Kelhä, Minna – Center for Gender Equality Information, Finland, and Nina Groes, KVINFO, Danmark.

‘We keep discussing the Nordic gender equality cooperation as if it really exists. But does it really? We only have one gender equality minister here today. It’s remarkable that we still after 40 years know so little about each other. We have changed our focus to the European cooperation. And the Nordic countries have chosen some different paths. We just assume that the Nordic cooperation is something we agree on, but we don’t talk about it.’

Hege Skjeie, professor in political science at the University of Oslo, said that clear differences may lead us forward.

‘The stronger the consensus about gender equality policy, the more we lose momentum. When the parties have to compete about defining the gender equality policy, it leads to progress and has a mobilising effect. We can see this happening in Sweden around the Feminist Initiative party.’

Updated 30 August 2020