Gender Equality: Key To Wealth & Happiness In Nordic Countries

Gender Equality: Key To Wealth & Happiness in Nordic Countries

The Nordic nations have gone much further down the road to gender equality than anywhere else in the world. By comparison, some of G8 nations, especially France, Italy and Japan, have a lamentable record. But few countries are emulating the Nordic models.

On June 11, 2013, it will be 100 years since Norway became the first independent country to introduce the vote for women. There will be tremendous celebrations all over Norway, a country which is proud of its egalitarian society.

All five Nordic countries – an area with a collective population of 26 million - were among the first nations to give women the vote. Finland – though not yet an independent country then – was the first in 1906, followed by Norway in 1913, Iceland and Denmark in 1915 and Sweden in 1919.

The spirit of gender equality has thrived and the Nordic countries are officially the best places in the world to be born a woman. In the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Index (2012) Iceland took the top spot, closely followed by Finland, Norway and Sweden. With the exception of Denmark, they have all closed over 80 percent of the gender gap. 

The Nordic countries are benchmarks for the world. Salary gaps are among the world’s lowest and they have the world’s highest rates of working women. In Denmark the figure of 72 percent is only slightly lower than the 79 percent of men. In Denmark, Sweden and Norway, political parties introduced voluntary gender quotas in the 1970s, which saw a rise in female MPs. In Sweden 45 percent of MPs are women and the other Nordic nations do not lag far behind.  

“As women, we are very, very fortunate to have been born in these countries at this time of history. It’s not yet a gender-equal paradise but we are way ahead of many other countries,” said Unn Elisabet Rogg, a lecturer at the Centre for Gender Research, in Oslo, Norway.

The Nordic success is even more impressive when compared with the failures of some of the world’s wealthiest countries to achieve the same results. Three of the G8 nations - Japan, Italy and France - have particularly lamentable records in promoting gender equality. In contrast to the Nordic countries, all three got off to a slow start by being tardy in giving women the vote. In France it took until 1944 and in Japan and Italy women belatedly earned the right in 1945.

In the gender gap index, France ranked 57th in the world for gender equality, well behind the UK in 18th place and the US in 22nd, but also behind much of Eastern Europe, Mongolia, Venezuela and Uganda. France was ranked almost last on the wage equality index – 129th out of 135 countries.

But France is not even the worst offender in Europe. Italy has slipped to 80th in the world rankings. On measures of female participation in the labour force and equality of rights, the European Commission says Italy is 30 years behind most of Western Europe.

Of the world’s wealthiest nations, however, Japan has the poorest performance of all; placing 101st. Bangladesh ranks 15 points higher. In Japan, women have the same life chances as women in Tajikistan and Gambia.

History & Gender Equality

The gulf in gender equality between these three giants of the global economy and the Nordic nations is partly explained by their different social histories, according to Christine Ingebritsen from Washington University’s Scandinavian Studies department. She says Nordic equality is deeply rooted in the past.

“Going way back to the Viking age, men went off on raids and so women were empowered to run the farms. They had to map out what everyone’s roles were and so were seen as equals, rather than caretakers, or subordinates,” she said.

“Viking women even had the right to divorce if they felt they were not being treated properly. So, they had a level of autonomy that didn’t exist anywhere else in the world at that time.”

Unn Elisabet Rogg agrees that the origins of Nordic egalitarianism are found in the distant past, but she offers an alternative interpretation, emphasising the influence of religion.

“One plausible hypothesis for our more egalitarian society in Norway is the practice of Lutheranism, which was imposed on us from 1653 by the Danish king. In Lutheranism, individuals can address God directly. We don’t need to reach God by praying to St Joseph, or St Augustine, or the Pope. So we don’t have the same notions of hierarchies that exist elsewhere. We are more equal before God than the Catholics,” she said.

Enlightened Social Policies

Wherever its origins, the egalitarian mindset has had a major influence on government policies to help women. Sweden, for example, is rated one of the best places to raise a family because of its childcare facilities. Each child is guaranteed a place at a public pre-school and no parent is charged more than 3 percent of salary, with fees capped at SEK1,260 (US$197) a month. All other costs are covered by the state, which spends SEK56.6 billion (US$8.9 billion) a year subsidising preschool services, more than Sweden’s annual defence budget.

Swedish parents divide up 480 days of leave at 80 percent of salary, up to a maximum of 935 kronor a day (US$132), for 390 days, and 180 kronor a day (US$26) for the rest. A gender equality bonus provides about US$225 a month per parent from the third month of the father’s leave. 

In Norway, parental leave is state-paid with full wage compensation up to a high ceiling. In recent years, the quota for fathers has been expanded to 12 weeks of a total of 47. Norwegian fathers are also entitled to two weeks of paternity leave.

“Studies show the benefits for both men and women of these enlightened social policies,” said Ingebritsen. “You get greater sharing of tasks in the home and men see more of their children.

There’s a simple recognition that family is going to happen. You can’t just drop the baby in the fields. But to have such welfare policies, citizens have to be willing to pay more into the system and that means trusting the Government. If we trusted the Government more in the U.S., we might be willing to pay more to get better roads, schools and childcare.”

Paradoxically, the largesse of the benefits’ systems benefits the Nordic economies, which are all among the world’s most competitive. Female brainpower does not go to waste and more people pay taxes. The desire to help women fulfil their potential is enshrined in a Norwegian law which reserves a minimum of 40 percent of boardroom seats for women.  

“Women’s strong presence in the labour market in Norway has meant as much for the growth of GNP as petrol,” said Ingebritsen. “Day-care facilities, or care homes for the sick and elderly don’t just cost something, they also make the economy work. Two wage-earners consume more and pay more taxes to finance these things.”

Related: The Economics of Women in the Workplace

Related: Women At Work: Moving Towards Parity

Related: Infographic: Have We Bridged the Gender Wage Gap?

Nordic Countries vs. G-8

Japan’s waste of female brainpower provides a dispiriting contrast. The OECD says Japanese women receive the highest level of education in the world, but their rate of employment of around 60 percent is 15 percentage points lower than the average of the five top Nordic countries. Female political representation in Japan is also low. Only around 17 percent of the House of Councillors and 9 percent of the House of Representatives are women.

Professor Barbara Hobson, who teaches Comparative Gender Studies at Stockholm University said:

“Scandinavian countries allow women to have a choice. In Japan, women don’t have a choice. They either work and don’t have families, or they leave work and start a family.

“After you have children, it becomes very difficult to re-enter the workplace as a full status worker. The example of Japan illustrates how institutions and policies shape women’s agency and capabilities. It’s clear there are lots more possibilities to make those choices in the Scandinavian countries.”

In Italy, too, many women are educated to a high level, but the state fails to translate that fact into economic participation. In terms of advanced degrees and qualifications, Italian women surpass men, but the country has the EU’s lowest percentage of women working outside of the home – 45 percent.  

Professor Hobson said: “Countries like Italy, Spain and Greece have very underdeveloped welfare states so the family is left to fend for itself. As a result, there’s a real gap between the ability of wealthier women to succeed in their working lives and poorer people.

The wealthy have the resources that allow them to be employed and hire people to take care of their kids. But women who can’t afford private solutions, either don’t have kids, or drop out of the labour market, and come back in a marginalised way,” she said.

Hobson said the relatively high fertility rates in the Nordic countries – above 1.7 babies per woman – were correlated with strong welfare states. Countries that forced women to sacrifice family for career had lower fertility rates. This is borne out by Japan’s rate of 1.39 babies per woman and Italy’s of 1.4 babies per woman.

Among the rich countries struggling to achieve gender parity, France is in many ways an exception. It has a strong welfare state, spending more than 5 percent of GDP on family benefits, such as paid maternity leave and childcare, and the Government’s policy of paying women to have more children has proved spectacularly successful. France’s fertility rate of more than 2 is Europe’s highest and has been dubbed “le miracle Français.” 

Yet, assistance for families has not translated into equality in the French workplace, which suggests that strong welfare policies are a necessary, but not sufficient element of gender parity. The egalitarian culture of Scandinavia is also a prerequisite and it has not taken root in France. Frenchwomen earn 27 percent less than men in the same job, one in three Frenchwomen has only part-time work and pensions are 40 percent below men’s. Women do the vast majority of household chores, while only 27 percent of French MPs are female.

Related: EU Women Quota Set To Be Blocked: Report

Related: Italy To Impose Minimum Quota For Women In Corporate Boardrooms

Combining Cutting-Edge Capitalism With Generous Welfare States

The economic and social success of the Nordic countries should make them a model for the whole world. But there is a dated perception that the Nordic model is too “socialist” to fit the more neo-liberal agendas of countries such as the US, or the UK.

“Scandinavia is written off as socialist, which is a dirty word in the U.S.,” said Ingebritsen. “There’s a notion that they are forever marching in the streets.”

“But the reality is we have a great deal to learn from them. In the U.S., the gap between rich and poor grows ever wider and in Europe they are mired in austerity and cutting welfare budgets. The Scandinavians have figured something out, but not enough people are listening,” she said.

The notion that Scandinavia is socialist is also an over-simplification. As The Economist recently pointed out, Sweden has reduced public spending as a proportion of GDP from 67 percent in 1993 to 49 percent today. It has also cut the top marginal tax rate by 27 percent since 1983, to 57 percent, and scrapped a host taxes on property, gifts, wealth and inheritance. This year it is cutting the corporate-tax rate from 26.3 percent to 22 percent. Its budget deficit is 0.3 percent of GDP, whereas America’s is 7 percent. All four Nordic countries have AAA ratings and debt loads significantly below the euro-zone average.

The Nordics manage to combine cutting-edge capitalism with generous welfare states, something that the Americans and British are told is nigh on impossible. About 30 percent of their labour force works in the public sector, twice the average in the OECD.   

There is some evidence however that some other countries are taking note of Nordic methods. Germany has earmarked two of 14 months’ paid parental leave for dads and France, Spain and the Netherlands are phasing in boardroom quotas. But there is still a reluctance to embrace Nordic ways in many nations as though it would mean sacrificing individualism.

Sociologists express the aversion to Nordic egalitarian impulses by speaking about the law of Jante, a concept created by Scandinavian author Aksel Sandemose. The ten rules of the law of Jante are all variations on the idea that, “You’re not to think you are anything special”, and “You're not to convince yourself that you are better than us.”

But Unn Elisabet Rogg disagrees with the notion that Scandinavians are a little bit sheep-like in discouraging high achievement in favour of the collective.

“A French student recently said to me ‘you are really very individualistic in Norway’. And we are. It’s true that we have a generous welfare state, but we learn early on that everything comes to us as individuals after we have reached 18 years old.

“Each of us is an individual tax subject. When you are an individual tax subject you have to work in order to have your pension rights and sick leave rights. It all depends on your own paid work so it’s not as collective as some people abroad seem to think.

“In my view, the Scandinavian countries are characterised by very individualistic and responsible citizens living in a generous welfare state. The structures around us are organised so it’s possible to do all these things on an individual basis. This is a major factor in bringing about greater gender equality.”


By David Smith,

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See also: The Economics of Women in the WorkplaceSee also: Women At Work: Moving Towards Parity