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Women’s Occupations Valued Lower than Men’s

‘There’s a conflict in the trade unions about how different occupations are valued and what’s good for the economy,’ said Tapio Bergholm, senior researcher at the Finnish trade union FFC/SAK, at a Nordic conference on equal pay for women and men.

Paneldiskussion. Photo: Bosse Parbring
 Panel. Photo: Bosse Parbring

The conference was arranged on 13 November in Reykjavik by the Icelandic Presidency of the Nordic Council of Ministers, a Nordic working group for equal pay and a committee working for equal pay in Iceland.

Bergholm said that economists tend to believe that only the export industry is important and that the service sector is a parasite and a burden for trade and industry.

‘In reality it’s the service sector that’s growing, both the private and the public. We should value how we organise society in the Nordic countries and see to it that we also value it economically.

Thorsteinn Víglundsson, Director General of the Confederation of Icelandic Employers, agreed that different sectors are valued differently.
‘Is it unfair? It’s not a matter of fairness. It’s an economic reality we’re facing.’

Gender-equal pay has been a central aim of Nordic gender equality policy for a long time. Yet the progress has been slow and in the last decade the differences in pay between men and women have decreased only marginally. How can equal pay be achieved? Is legislation and other forms of state intervention the right way to go or should we rely on negotiations between the social partners in the labour market? These types of questions were discussed at the Nordic conference.

Valued differently

Like other European countries, the Nordic labour markets are highly gender segregated, and one effect of this is that men and women are valued differently in terms of pay. This was concluded by Daniela Bankier, Head of the Unit for Gender Equality in the Directorate-General Justice of the European Commission.

‘The gender pay gap is a reflection of all inequalities women are facing in the labour market.’

Direct wage discrimination is no longer common, according to Bankier, as there are laws against it. Part-time work among women is, however, and affects not only their income but also their wage level.

‘Part-time work can be good in certain phases of life as it makes it easier to combine work and family life, but we also see problems with it. It is concentrated to certain occupations and limits the workers’ opportunities for education and a career.’

Women work in low-paying occupations

In our gender-segregated labour market, women work mainly in care and education while men are found in the manufacturing industry.

‘It’s very problematic and linked to the roles of women and men in society,’ said Bankier.

Lisbeth Pedersen. Photo: Bosse Parbring
 Lisbeth Pedersen. Photo: Bosse Parbring

‘The biggest problem is that women work in low-paid sectors,’ said Lisbeth Pedersen, researcher from the Danish National Centre for Social Research. ‘We don’t talk about why we have these low-paid occupations. The salaries were set at low levels when women entered these sectors 40-50 years ago, because back then women weren’t primary breadwinners but instead were in charge of taking care of their kids. This pay structure hasn’t changed.’

Don’t want to wait 70 years

It is going to take more than legislation to tackle the pay gap, said Bankier. It is difficult to take legal action since it may lead to layoffs. Wage transparency may be one way to go. Individual employees should be able to know how much other workers make. It is also important to work with businesses to make them receptive to the issue of equal pay. Most of them don’t want the government to regulate the wage setting but instead believe that wages should be negotiated between the social partners in the labour market.

‘Collective agreements may be a powerful tool in the work for equal pay, but it can also be used to maintain status quo,’ said Bankier.

Every year, the European Commission arranges the European Equal Pay Day and seminars on for example part-time work, career interruptions, childcare and the involvement of fathers. The aim of these efforts is to put the issue of part-time work higher on the agenda.

‘At the present pace it will take 70 years to achieve equal pay and we don’t want to wait that long,’ said Bankier.

Splitting parental leave in three parts a good idea

Iceland was held as a role model in two areas related to gender equality in the labour market: the splitting of parental leave into three parts, which was introduced in the beginning of the millennium, and gender quotas for company boards, inspired by Norwegian legislation.

‘We would normally not advocate quotas for company boards, but it has turned out to be very successful,’ said Thorsteinn Víglundsson. ‘We have made great progress in a short time. The tripartite parental leave has also been good. We didn’t want parents’ sharing of parental leave to be determined based on income. But we ruined the system a little during the financial crisis. We reduced the maximum level of compensation and once again the sharing became an economic issue.’

Halldor Grönvold. Photo: Bosse Parbring
 Halldor Grönvold. Photo: Bosse Parbring

‘There was no ceiling from the beginning,’ said Halldor Grönvold, Deputy General Secretary of the Icelandic Confederation of Labour. ‘This meant that men used the parental leave actively for three months. We know from research that it has meant a lot. Employers could no longer assume who was staying home. There was a proposition to extend the parental leave to five months for each parent and two months that the parents can share any way they want. But the government that took office in 2013 didn’t go for it, unfortunately.’

Endure the pain

The Icelandic government and the social partners in the labour market have agreed on a standard for equal pay. Everybody who joins the agreement must work actively for an equal pay structure. The purpose is to put pressure on the parties participating in the standard. Halldor Grönvold said that a lot can be done to make the negotiation system better apt to handle the equal pay issue.

‘It’s a matter of changing the prevailing culture. The negotiation system was created by men. We have to revise it gradually and the trade unions have to raise their expectations.’

Tapio Bergholm called for organisation and persistent, hard work since nothing worthwhile happens by itself, but also concluded what several others also conveyed:

‘We have to endure the pain of the slow transition since changes in pay structures tend to occur very slowly.’

Updated 29 February 2024