What makes Nordic coun­tries a gen­der equal­ity model?

Financial Mirror (Cyprus) - - FRONT PAGE -

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?

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