Men and Gender Equality in the Nordic Countries

In order to achieve gender equality, men need to get involved in the efforts and masculinity norms need to be challenged. The policy area of men and gender equality is given high priority in the Nordic countries, and a number of measures are implemented accordingly, focusing on everything from men’s violence to parenthood and a revision of the male gender role.

Nordic gender equality reforms have often focused on the situation of women. They have usually aimed at making the unfair distribution of power and resources between the genders more even. The changes have typically been instigated by the women’s movements, yet in order to achieve the goal of gender equality, men, too, need to step up to the task and be included in the gender equality work. Attitudes about gender that affect and limit women also influence the lives of men. Restrictive masculinity norms affect the male gender role and the conditions men face in life. Men are overrepresented in leadership positions, but also in for example the suicide, substance abuse, violence and crime statistics. Changed male gender norms would have positive effects for both the men themselves and society at large.

These issues – which concern men and gender equality – are of central importance in Nordic gender equality policy. Some issues in this area have been assigned particularly high priority, including efforts to end men’s involvement in violence, both as perpetrators and victims, finding ways to help men balance family life and work and challenging destructive masculinity norms.

The Evolution of Masculinity Research in the Nordic Countries

The Nordic countries are often mentioned as a strong region when it comes to gender equality and gender equality policy. Investments in research have been of key importance to the development of these fields, and one research domain that has made many important contributions is masculinity research. In contrast to the research on men, which had almost been a paradigm in social science research, masculinity research is a relatively new phenomenon.

The field emerged in the 1970s when the view of masculinity and manhood started to be problematised and discussed more deeply. Inspired by Simone de Beauvoir’s view that ‘nobody is born a woman; you become one’, masculinity researchers became interested in how masculinity is constructed socially and culturally. In the Nordic countries, the masculinity research has largely been developed in close cooperation between national and Nordic networks of activists, researchers and policymakers. The work has centred around the Nordic welfare state, with its strong emphasis on gender equality-oriented family policy. Fatherhood has long been a recurring theme in the research, as all Nordic countries have worked hard for several decades to increase fathers’ utilisation of the national parental insurance.

Differences between the Countries

Although the Nordic countries have many things in common, there are also some differences when it comes to research and the emergence of the field of men and gender equality. Denmark was a Nordic pioneer in masculinity research. In fact, the first seed was planted already in the 1920s through the publishing of academic degree projects focusing on the topic of homosexuality and manhood. More recently, the research has been revitalised through a number of studies concerning for example ethnicity, social marginalisation and the underperformance of boys in school.

The Norwegian masculinity research has been of key importance to the development of the field in the Nordic region, through a large number of publications and studies. In both Norway and Sweden, research themes have evolved in line with the needs and family policy reforms of the welfare state.
Until relatively recently, Swedish studies largely focused on for example men’s responsibilities in the household sphere, divorced men’s parenthood and the development of fatherhood-related policy. Lately, however, the integration with the field of gender research has become increasingly clear in both Sweden and Norway.

In Finland, researchers in the field have had a stronger focus on violence and social marginalisation than in the other Nordic countries. The fact that Finland has a higher prevalence of interpersonal violence than the other Nordic countries may be a possible reason for this, although the connection is much more complex than that. Studies of men who have problems with for example alcohol and isolation have been common in the area.

Even if the Icelandic research in the field has not been very extensive, it is pointed out as being of great importance. One key theme in their research is fatherhood and parental leave, and Iceland has also implemented the most progressive political reforms in this particular area.

Central Theme in Gender Equality Policy

The strengthening of women’s financial independence was a central issue in the Nordic countries throughout the 20th century. In recent decades, gender equality policy has had a strong focus on getting women to enter the labour market, and thereby create solutions for family life. These efforts to create a dual-breadwinner model in the Nordic countries also increased the focus on men. In the 1990s, the role of men in the gender equality work started to receive increasing attention in all Nordic countries. Men’s committees were formed in Denmark, Iceland, Norway and Finland, and special officials in charge of men’s issues were appointed in Sweden. Family laws were amended to ensure that children would have the right to be taken care of by both parents. In addition, reforms were implemented to encourage fathers to take more parental leave.

Since the turn of the millennium, the field of men and gender equality has continued to grow and has increasingly gained a foothold in the policymaking arena. Several countries have made active efforts to recruit more men to care-related occupations, and Norway’s work to increase the share of men in the preschool sector has been particularly successful in this respect. Boys’ risk of becoming marginalised in the educational system has been another central issue. At present, all countries are to varying degrees addressing the field of men and gender equality in their national policy objectives and have appointed special committees and working groups to this end.

Focus on Men’s Violence

Efforts to prevent men’s violence is one dimension of this work. All Nordic countries have actors and organisations, often crisis centres, in place to help men who resort to violence against people in their surroundings change their behaviour. Their work is often based on the Norwegian so-called Alternatives to Violence model, which focuses on psychiatric treatment of perpetrators of violence.

The questioning and challenging of norms related to masculinity and a macho culture are recurring themes in the interventions made. Several of them aim to bring attention to both explicit and widely accepted and invisible and more implicit attitudes and expectations regarding gender. Many focus on boys and young men in particular, with a goal of changing patterns early in their lives. Examples include the teaching and coaching of norm-critical ways of thinking and efforts to prevent the vulnerability of young people to violence. The initiatives are implemented by both government agencies and organisations. Some are of a one-shot nature and others are more continuous. Sweden and Norway have large, partly state-funded non-profit organisations that work actively with these issues: MÄN and Reform – Resource Centre for Men.

Fatherhood and Men’s Participation

The Nordic countries have launched many initiatives to increase the focus on men in the gender equality work, and to make gender equality an issue of stronger concern to men than in the past. This work has largely focused on the issue of parental leave. Central topics include how changes in the parental insurance, such as making a certain number of months of parental leave non-transferable to the other parent, affect men’s use of parental leave and what fathers’ use of parental leave looks like in the Nordic countries. Reviews and statistical comparisons are commonly occurring initiatives. The central aim of the more qualitative work is to encourage men to utilise a larger portion of the parental insurance when they become parents.

Challenges

The view of men can sometimes become a bit too generalising when gender equality issues are discussed. One problem in the field of men and gender equality is that boys and men are described as a homogenous group. By talking about the group in this way, the large diversity in the conditions men face in society is neglected. There is for example a risk that LGBTQ persons, men with disabilities, older men and racialised men fall between the cracks. This in turn affects the interventions made and makes it more difficult to achieve gender equality. The work against men’s violence is an example of an area where intersectional perspectives are often lacking and men and women are treated as homogenous groups. As a consequence of this, factors such as age, where financial independence may be an important factor among older women, may be ignored or violence in same-sex relationships overlooked.

Another risk is that interventions targeting men as a group may reproduce perceptions of gender differences rather than challenge them. According to research, it is therefore important to question and work against norms related to gender – only then is it possible to redefine the predominant male gender role.

Logotype Nordic Council of Ministers Logotype Swedish Secretariat for Gender Research Logotype University of Gothenburg