What makes Nordic countries a gender equality model?
I had the great privilege to have lived in the Nordic region for 6 years, 4 as a post graduate student in Helsinki and 2 as Ambassador of Cyprus to Sweden, with concurrent accreditation to the rest of the Nordic countries, which I visited frequently and regularly.
Throughout my career as a diplomat and later on as Minister in two government cabinets, I followed very closely developments in the Nordic countries, which for me represented and still represent a model not only for gender equality, but also for strong social cohesion, a product of what became known as the Nordic welfare model, which is based on a common set of basic values, of equal opportunities, social solidarity and security for all.
Before we look at the other substantive issues, let us try to understand what this Nordic model of gender equality is, how it is manifested, how it has evolved over the years and why it is so unique and special.
First, I will utilise the Global Gender Gap Report 2013, published annually by the World Economic Forum since 2006. This report measures the national gender gaps of 136 countries, on economic, political, education- and healthbased criteria. The index also identifies potential role models by projecting those countries that are leaders in gender equality, regardless of the wealth of the country.
The 2013 findings reveal that four Nordic countries that have consistently held the highest positions of the Global Gender Gap Index, continue to hold such privileged positions. Iceland continues to be at the top for the fifth consecutive year and the country with the narrowest gender gap in the world. Finland ranks second, Norway is third and Sweden fourth. Denmark is in eighth position. Thus, although no country in the world has succeeded to achieve full gender equality, all Nordic countries, with the slight differentiation of Denmark, have closed over 80% of the gender gap and therefore serve as models for the rest of the world.
As far as educational attainment is concerned, all Nordic countries reached 99-100% literacy for both sexes several decades ago and display gender parity at both primary-and secondary-level. At the tertiary level, in addition to very high levels of enrolment for both women and men, the gender gap has been reversed and women now make up the majority of the high-skilled workforce.
On economic participation and opportunity, which is captured through three concepts – the labour force participation gap, the remuneration gap and the advancement gap – few have succeeded in maximising the returns from this investment. The Nordic countries are leaders in this area too because of a combination of the following factors: the labour force participation rates for women are among the highest in the world; salary gaps between women and men are among the lowest in the world; and women have abundant opportunities to rise to positions of leadership.
On the whole, these economies have made it possible for parents to combine work and family, resulting in high female employment, more shared participation in childcare, more equitable distribution of labour at home, better work-life balance for both women and men and in some cases they have also resulted in a boost to declining fertility rates. Policies in some of these countries include mandatory paternal leave in combination with maternity leave, generous parental leave benefits provided by a combination of social insurance funds and employers, tax incentives, and postmaternity re-entry programmes. Together, these policies have lowered the opportunity costs of having children and led to relatively higher and rising birth rates, as compared to other ageing, developed economies.
There has also been success with policies aimed at promoting women’s political and economic leadership. In Norway, since 2008, publicly listed companies have been required to have 40% of each sex on their boards. Other countries are adopting similar measures.
Historically, the Nordic countries gained a head start by giving women the right to vote before others did, starting with Finland in 1906. In Denmark, Sweden and Norway, political parties introduced voluntary gender quotas in the 1970s, resulting in high numbers of female representatives over the years. In Denmark, this quota has since been abandoned as no further stimulus is required.
Today, Sweden has among the highest percentages of women in parliament in the world (44.7%) while the other Nordic countries are almost as successful.
These countries have a similarly strong record on the percentage of women in ministerial level positions, with Norway, Sweden, Finland and Iceland the four best countries in that category out of the 136 covered by the report. In fact, these countries have reached or surpassed the 50-50% female to male ratio in Ministerial positions. Finally, Iceland, Finland and Norway are among the top ten countries in terms of the number of years with a female head of state or government.
I had the honour and privilege to meet Norway’s Prime Minister Gro Harlem Brundtland in Beijing and as a young diplomat I was impressed by what she had to say in her speech during the Fourth World Conference on Women in September 1995. I often use the following quotation from that speech when talking about gender equality: “When I first became Prime Minister 15 years ago, it was a cultural shock to many Norwegians. Today, four-year-olds ask their mommies: ‘But can a man be Prime Minister’?” How true indeed for Norway and for the rest of the world!
Sweden is the only Nordic country that has never had a female Prime Minister. Yet, it is considered by many as the best place in the world to be a woman for many good reasons! Since 1994, 50% of the cabinet members have been women, irrespective of the party or coalition in power.
The Nordic experience is not just important for democracy, human rights, individual advancement and the wellbeing and prosperity of families and society. It remains primarily important for higher labour activity and a more robust economy. Both emerging markets and other developed economies have much to learn from the “Nordic Model.” So, what is the secret of their success? One of the key instruments for this success cooperation.
During the recent global financial crisis, the Nordic countries also demonstrated through their economic performance that gender equality is far more sustainable in times of recession, contributing to growth and continued welfare.
Despite the considerable progress that has been made over the past few decades as regards gender equality and while it is true that the participation of women in employment in the EU has reached approximately 60% and also 60% of university graduates are women, however at the level of the decisionmaking process, i.e. in leading positions in the political and to a greater extent in the economic sector, the participation of women remains at unacceptably low levels.
If we examine the participation of women in decisionmaking positions in the economic field, the situation is disappointing all over the world, but some significant improvement have been observed in some countries. The most recent data published by the European Union covering 2014, which include the 28 member states and the European Economic Area (EEA) countries, including Iceland and Norway, point to a European average of 19% of directors on the boards of the largest publicly listed companies being women.
Nevertheless when we look at individual European countries there is great diversity in the relevant data.
For example, in Iceland 46% of such positions are held by women, the highest percentage among the EU and EEA countries, Norway has 40%, Finland has 29%, Sweden 27% and Denmark 23%. Nevertheless, on an average only 3% of CEO positions are held by women among the EU and EEA countries.
I do hope that the European Commission action to break the glass ceiling that continues to bar female talent from top positions in Europe’s biggest companies, adopted in November 2012, targeting a 40% representation of women by 2020, will be successful and implemented throughout the EU.
Women and the society as a whole should continue to exercise pressure until gender equality becomes a reality. Until that goal is achieved at a global level, there is no room for complacency and the struggle must continue. One thing we should have in mind: if the Nordic countries have achieved this goal why not the rest of the world?