Sleeping on the job

2010-03-03 In the Swedish parliament, horizontal gender segregation has decreased in recent years. In the Norwegian parliament, however, it has increased. What is actually happening?

“The Norwegian members of parliament are sleeping on the job. It seems as if the small steps towards an overall gender balance in the Stortinget have totally drawn attention away from the fact that the gendered division of labour has actually worsened in the parliamentary committees,” says Mari Teigen, Research Director at the Institute for Social Research in Oslo. She was head of the Norwegian arm of the project Gender and Power in the Nordic Countries, which was initiated by the Nordic Council of Ministers and realised by the Nordic Gender Institute – NIKK. 20 researchers from the five Nordic countries surveyed and analysed gender equality – or the lack thereof – in the political institutions and corporate sectors of the respective countries.

Here, the facts of horizontal gender segregation in the Nordic parliaments were clearly revealed.

Stains on the trophy

It is true that compared to other countries, the proportion of women within politics is high in the Nordic region. On an average, 40 per cent of the members of the Nordic parliaments are women, while this proportion is 19 per cent in the rest of Europe.

However, if we look more closely at the areas that the various representatives are engaged in, we find that there are some stains on the gender equality trophy. Finance, transport, energy and defence politics are still male domains, while women predominate in the spheres of social, family, culture and education politics.

In other words, women are weakly represented in fields where a great deal of power and important resources are administered.

In the Swedish parliament, however, something seems to be happening. In the book Folkets representanter (Representatives of the People; ed. by Martin Brothén and Sören Holmberg), which will be published later this spring, social scientist Lena Wängnerud shows that as the number of women in parliament has increased, so have the gender differences, in terms of the domination of various political issues, decreased. In the other Nordic countries, too, the trend is towards an improved gender balance, even if the development is much slower than in Sweden.

It is only Norway which has suddenly taken several steps backward, if we compare the present and the previous parliamentary term of office.

Reproduction and production

In her master’s thesis (2003), the Norwegian social scientist Nina Charlotte Hallberg explored gendered recruiting patterns in parliament and government from 1945 up to 2002. Her analytical tools included the so-called ‘reproduction and production’ scheme which Lena Wängnerud had developed earlier. Reproduction comprises caring work in society in a wide sense, while production includes the activities which are understood by society to involve the making of goods. These two categories were placed as the opposing poles of an unbroken line, where social welfare was put under reproduction and the economy and technology under production. Between these poles Wängnerud placed culture and law, and basic functions (for example, foreign affairs and defence).

Hallberg’s conclusion was that women were relatively well represented within the reproducing areas in politics, and, correspondingly, under-represented within the producing areas. However, development moves slowly but steadily towards a more equal gender distribution in all areas, particularly so after 1993.

Nina Charlotte Hallberg characterises committees with a female representation of under 30 per cent as male dominated, and committees with a proportion of 31–41 per cent women as gender balanced. Danish researcher Christina Fiig questions characterising as gender balanced a committee with so low a percentage of women as 31. Nevertheless, she chooses to apply Hallberg’s classification when giving an overview of the gender distribution in the Danish parliamentary committees from 1991 and up to 2004.

Here, too, there have been changes towards a better gender balance since the early 1990s, in line with the development in Norway. Fiig points out that the male dominated committees in the Danish parliament – those of foreign affairs, finance and defence – mirror the ministerial posts which have never been held by a woman, or only as an exception.

A corresponding pattern is discernible in the Finnish parliament, where women are primarily found in the committees on health, social issues, education, culture, labour, the environment and gender equality.

In the Icelandic parliament, male dominance is most obvious in the committee on fishery – a very important committee for the fishing nation of Iceland. In the 1990s, there was one woman on the committee among eight men, in 2003 there were none, and in 2007 – after the merging of the fishery and agriculture committees – there were two women. From 2009 the number is again down to one, despite the fact that women make up 47 per cent of the members of parliament after the election in April 2009.

Backlash in Norway

So what is taking place in Norway? In the sub-report Gender and Power in Norwegian Politics, social scientist Trude Langvasbråten notes that in the period 2005–2009 there was a backlash in the gender balance. In the period 2001–2005 only two parliamentary committees – foreign affairs and defence – were male dominated, while three were female dominated. The rest were gender balanced. In the following period, as many as five committees were male dominated and seven were female dominated. The proportion of women was particularly low in the committees on finance and defence, while women dominated the committees on family and culture, law, and foreign affairs.

Mari Teigen thinks that the Norwegian politicians focus blindly on the total female representation in parliament, and forget to monitor how the representatives are distributed on the various committees.

“Earlier research has shown that there is no difference between women and men as to where they want to go. The most prestigious committees are most attractive for both genders, with the finance committee topping the list.”

In the Swedish parliament, however, seven out of seventeen members of the financial committee are women. With the exception of the committee on social insurance, all committees have a representation of at least 41.2 per cent of each gender.

Lena Wängnerud has, among other things, conducted questionnaire studies among the Swedish members of parliament about which areas they themselves find important. Her studies have revealed that, for example, social politics, which for a long time has been a typically female area, is now given high priority also by men.

Generation shift

According to Wängnerud, it is difficult to say exactly what lies behind this development. Partly, she thinks, it is a generation shift, where one’s gender identity is of decreasing importance for one’s political priorities. Today it is relatively common for male members of parliament to say that it is very important for them to also represent women’s interests and standpoints, Wängnerud explains.

In addition, those involved in the management of the political parties have become increasingly aware when placing representatives in the various committees.

“There are important differences in what we can call the public space for feminist thinking in Sweden and in Norway. There simply seems to be a more constant and systematic pressure on gender equality issues in Sweden compared with the situation in Norway. At the same time, there are ten per cent more women in the Swedish parliament, and there are, on an average, ten per cent more women in top positions in a number of fields in Sweden compared to Norway, for example within media and academia. There are, in other words, more women to administer a feminist public space”, Mari Teigen notes.

By Siri Lindstad is a freelance journalist specilising in gender and gender policies.

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