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Wage discrimination on the agenda in Nordic gender equality policy

Which gender equality issues top the Nordic agenda? Several Nordic countries are updating their guidelines for national gender equality policy. Breaking the gender segregation in the labour market and eliminating the gender wage gap are two prioritised issues in Iceland and Norway.

Eygló Harðardóttir. Press photo
 Eygló Harðardóttir. Press photo

The Icelandic government recently presented a 4-year action plan for gender equality. One focus area is the labour market and the gender wage gap. Other prioritised issues include political representation, men and gender equality and gender-based violence.

‘The purpose of the action plan is to bring attention to the remaining challenges in the area of gender equality. It addresses the need to close the gender wage gap, to ensure equal political and economic power between women and men and to end all forms of gender-based violence. We need to attack these challenges with clear policies and structural changes,’ says Eygló Harðardóttir, Iceland’s gender equality minister.

She points out that although Iceland can be proud of its accomplishments in an international perspective, the country still has a long way to go.

Gender segregation enforces the wage gap

The gender-segregated labour market and differences in pay are issues that Iceland has worked actively with in recent years. In 2012, an action group for equal pay was formed, consisting of representatives from the ministry and the labour market parties. The group has carried out extensive studies of gender wage differences and has also introduced a trial project for the implementation of a standard to promote equal pay for equal work. The standard enables companies to earn a certification proving that their wage structures are free from gender discrimination. The certification process must be carried out by a qualified auditor and consists of a detailed review of factors such as the staff salaries and occupational classifications. The certification will be promoted more widely in the next few years to encourage more employers to implement it. The committee will also present an action plan for the elimination of gender segregation in the labour market.

‘These issues are closely linked to each other. Research shows that the wage gap persists mainly due to the strong gender segregation in the labour market,’ says Rósa Guðrún Erlingsdóttir, senior advisor to the gender equality minister.

Education key to gender equality

Mari Teigen. Press photo
 Mari Teigen. Press photo

The Norwegian government also considers the labour market a prioritised area. Their policy document for gender equality stresses that the gender-segregated labour market has to be dealt with, for example by encouraging children and young people to avoid choosing educational and occupational paths based on gender. The document also points to the importance of increasing the knowledge about gender equality in preschools so that girls and boys will enjoy the same opportunities from an early age. Mari Teigen, assistant director at the Centre for Research on Gender Equality (CORE), agrees with many parts of the document. She says that the real challenge lies at the implementation level.

‘When the schools and preschools try to actually make gender equality happen, then how are they supposed to do it? Where do they turn for support? How do you make employers reduce sick leave among women? Right now I don’t think there is a clear plan for all of this, yet there is pressure on the policymakers to do something about it, and that’s good,’ she says.

The reformation of Norwegian gender equality policy began years ago. Former Prime Minister Stoltenberg and his green-left coalition commissioned two gender equality inquiries. A policy document was also presented – only to be abolished when Prime Minister Solberg’s and her conservative cabinet were voted into power in 2013. Since then, Solberg’s government has presented its own draft document, which was considered in the parliament last spring. During the negotiations, a large number of suggestions by the opposition were added to the document. One item that was added was to look into the possibility of giving preferential treatment to girls and boys who apply to courses and study programmes in which at least 80% of the students are of the opposite sex. Another was for the government to put pressure on the labour market parties and demand a time plan for the elimination of the gender wage gap. The government was also tasked to formulate requirements aimed to reduce the use of part-time employment in the public sector.

‘I think we ended up with several good suggestions,’ says Teigen, who was part of the gender equality committee that was behind the inquiries reported in 2011 and 2012.

Gender equality agency to aid in gender mainstreaming

In Sweden, an inquiry report on gender equality policy was submitted to the national government last autumn. One of its focus areas is how the national gender mainstreaming efforts should be organised. Both Sweden and the other Nordic countries have used gender mainstreaming as a strategy to achieve national gender equality objectives since 1997. The inquiry report finds that the implementation of Swedish gender equality policy suffers from poor governance, sustainability and follow-up measures. It also proposes the establishment of a new agency specialising in coordinating, supporting and analysing national gender equality policy. The agency will also support the government with expert advice. According to Teigen, similar problems can be found in Norway. She says that there is a need for better governance and more competence in order to implement the strategy.
‘I believe the government’s policy document is weak in this respect. The government body in charge of these things needs to have strong competence in evaluation and follow-up in order to be effective. There is also a need for better regional and local support. The propositions in our previous inquiry reports are similar to those in Sweden, for example the one to establish a gender equality agency,’ she says.

Updated 16 April 2020