An observation and explanation of the evolution of gender equality
This article has been inspired and written thanks to Oslo’s University’s summer class (ISS) about gender equality in the Nordic countries, and to personal research.
It is a popular belief that the Nordic countries are far ahead of other countries when it comes to gender equality. That belief is indeed, for the most part, a fact.
Scandinavian countries such as Norway, Sweden, Iceland or Finland made it a priority to achieve gender equality, before any other European country.
Image found on the UNwomen website
We’ve come to believe that the Nordic countries became role models in terms of gender equality thanks to a combination of factors. First of all, there is a high female labour rate. Second of all, the salary gap between women and men is very low. On top of that, there are a large variety of opportunities for women to reach positions of leadership.
According to the OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development), almost 3 out of 4 women in the Nordic countries are part of the paid labour force. In addition to that, policy-makers explicitly support gender equality in the work environment, as well as at home and in public.
What is the core of the Nordic model to achieve such success in gender equality?
It has now been a decade since Iceland has been holding its place as the most gender-equal society. As told before, the movement started from below. There was a strong political feminist movement in the 1970s that permitted change in the Icelandic state.
Something that we can find in every Scandinavian country is the progressive childcare policies. Universal childcare is put in place, so that the parents (and more often the women) don’t have to choose between taking care of their family or going to work.
There can also be a generous parental leave policy, as in Iceland, where parents both get 90 days leave.
Regarding the pay gap between genders, Iceland is the country with the lowest difference between men and women.
Image from the Global Gender Gap Report 2018
In Norway, supportive parenting policies and heavily subsidised childcare provision have led to a high percentage of women entering the workforce. It has been mandatory since 2013 that both parents take at least 14 weeks of parental leave after the birth of their child.
In Iceland, the presence of women in the workforce is seen by the numerous positions of power in politics held by women.
Image from the Global Gender Gap Report 2018
Bullets points Norway has crossed to achieve better gender equality
With Norway’s state feminism, a few characteristics have been shown to influence the lifestyle of its citizens and how gender equality is being handled. First of all, Norway kept its tradition of “feminism of difference”. This type of feminism is defined as a feminism that confirms there are differences between men and women, but that no judgment can be placed upon the genders as they are equals as individuals in their moral status. Also, this includes a tempered approach, seen under the spectrum of social-democratic policies, to what can be called “radical feminism” and patriarchal conceptions. The politicians also make sure to include an egalitarian way of doing in their work.
Indeed, there is a strong emphasis on political representation and participation. As we have seen in the last graph, Norway’s score at a political glance is far superior to the average score of other countries.
Since 1945, we have observed a positive change in the Norwegian Parliament’s gender gap. The share of women went from 36.4% in 2001 to 45.6% in 2021, which means an increase of 10 points in 10 years.
For simple information, the members of the Parliament (Stortinget in norwegian) are elected every 4 years, there are 169 seats.
Share of women in the Norwegian Parliament from 1945 to 2021(screenshot from the parliament’s website)
Quotas in the Nordic systems
Quotas tend to be a controversial conversation topic. On the one hand, they seem to push towards a more egalitarian (gendered-wise) representation, but on the other hand, we might question their true utility. Why elect or choose someone based on their gender or their ethnicity for example? That could also be thought of as biassed.
Nevertheless, the instauration of voluntary party quotas permitted grand advances in the representation of women in parliaments in a lot of countries, as it is still now widely used.
Let’s observe the differences between Sweden and Norway considering the seats in their respective Parliaments.
In Sweden, the parliament is unicameral with the use of voluntary party quotas. 47% of the seats (164/349 seats) in the Riksdagen (parliament) are held by women.
Norway, in the same way as Sweden, introduced voluntary party quotas as well in their unicameral parliament. 45% of seats (76/169 seats) in the Stortinget (parliament) are held by women.
Another way of enhancing the gender quotas in politics could for example be to ensure women are obtaining leading positions, rather than simply appearing on electoral lists.
The Scandinavian policies indicate a public-private divide reproduced in the labor market - the public sector is more woman-friendly than the private sector.
The welfare state in all the Nordic countries plays an important role in achieving gender equality. It permits women to thrive and allows them to join or return to the workplace.
Gender equality is a characteristic of the Nordic welfare state. The core dimensions of gender equality are economic equity (money) and democratic parity (power).
What is a welfare state?
A welfare state is a country in which the state or the institutionalised power provides basic economic security for its citizens. In a welfare state, the government has responsibility over the individual and social welfare of its citizens.
In the Nordic countries, the welfare states are mostly characterised by public funding and administered programs that have relatively egalitarian benefit structures. In these states, redistribution of general taxes and almost full employment are common.
We can observe a social-democratic welfare state. Besides that, universalism makes benefits and services accessible based on citizenship. There is individual autonomy, limiting reliance on family or the market.
In the liberal welfare state, the private market provides welfare, the State interferes to relieve poverty and covers the basic needs of the individual.
The women friendly welfare state
The women friendly welfare state that has been in place in the Nordic countries is a result of state feminism. There was a mobilisation from below, and an institutionalisation of gender equality from above.
These states also allow gender differences, as they do not create inequality. They encourage women’s paid labour, and facilitate the combination of parenthood and paid labour as well. Indeed, there is parental leave given to parents that just gave birth.
The general and encouraged family model is the dual breadwinner one. In this model, both parents work and provide for the family, and both parents are also responsible for taking care of the home.
Nevertheless, there are 2 paradoxes in the welfare state as we observed it.
First, in equality orientated welfare states, there are more segregated labour markets than in other more conservative welfare states.
Also, countries that have a higher level of gender equality tend to have less gender balance in fields such as science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) than less gender equal countries.
What is state feminism and how it evolved
State feminism is defined as a feminist program created or approved by the government of a a state. State feminism has first been defined and explained by Helga Hernes with the situation in Norway and its liberal feminism tradition in 1987.
State feminism is particularly linked to what is called the Nordic model (referenced to the Scandinavian countries), and has also been used in the context of developing countries and their governments that want to impose their policies on the matter and prohibit other possible sources of it. We distinguish liberal state feminism (e.g. : Norway) and authoritarian state feminism, often linked to secularism (e.g. : Middle East).
Scandinavian countries have been known to have gender egalitarian policies for the past decades. These policies took on a bigger role during the 70s and 80s, when feminist movements and organizations pushed for women’s rights and for women to enter the work force. That is what Helga Hernes called “state feminism”.
She also noted that a combination of liberal welfare policies and high levels of women representation in the legislative bodies of a government was what defined the characteristics of the Nordic countries.
In the past years, state feminism evolved from a unified women’s movement to fragmented feminism with multiple groups and ideologies.
That doesn’t necessarily mean that the movement has failed. It just evolved in different ways. In Denmark for example, there is a split between gender equality policies and feminists, but in Sweden, the state is used as a vehicle for the feminist agenda and has been challenged by postcolonial feminism.
Nevertheless, the concept of state feminism and women friendly welfare state are not completely accurate. Indeed, the entirety of women do not agree on everything and have the same common interests. With globalization and multiculturalism, differences between groups of feminists expanded. The solution for states could be an intersectional reformulation of the gender equality project to include all identities.
Is this model exportable outside of Scandinavia?
The question is difficult to answer as it is. State feminism and women-friendly welfare states are part of historic traditions in Scandinavian countries, as well as religious and cultural values. Mostly, Scandinavian countries such as Norway have a specific economic situation and a societal organisation that is different from other European countries.
As per say, gender equality has to be understood as part of a context, and not only as a program any country could manage to do the way we observe it in the Nordic countries.
The next big step towards gender equality : intersectionality
Needless to say, feminism in the Nordic countries tends to stand for white women. There is a need to develop feminism towards a more inclusive movement, such as intersectional feminism.
Feminism stands for the equality between sexes, intersectional feminism is feminism that understands how overlapping identities such as race, class, ethnicity, sexual orientation, and gender also impact how women (and men) experience oppression and discrimination.
Inshort, intersectional feminism isn’t only about the differences between men and women, and includes multiple other factors.
As stated earlier, differences among women have expanded with globalisation and multiculturalism (also immigration). Multiple authors, such as Anette Borchorst, have suggested a reformulation of the gender equality project and its relation to the state in order to make it more inclusive to the entirety of the population.
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February, 2nd 2022
“These 4 Nordic countries hold the secret to gender equality” Article written by Johnny Wood on the World Economic Forum’s website
The Global Gender Gap Report, World Economic Forum, 2018
ISS UiO “Gender Equality in the Nordic countries” course, summer 2021
Globalization, Europeanization and the End of Scandinavian Social Democracy? by Duane Swank, chapter “Social Democratic Welfare States in a Global Economy: Scandinavia in Comparative Perspective” (pp. 85-138), edited by Robert Geyer, Christine Ingebritsen and Jonathon W. Moses, 2000
Is the Last Mile the Longest? Economic Gains from Gender Equality in Nordic Countries, report by the OCDE, summary brief, May 2018
Institutionalizing Intersectionality, chapter “Institutionalizing Intersectionality in the Nordic Countries: Anti-Discrimination and Equality in Denmark, Finland, Norway, and Sweden” (pp. 59-88), written by Anette Borchorst, Lenita Freidenvall, Johanna Kantola and Liza Reisel, January 2012