The Nordic Gender Effect at Work
Investments in gender equality in the labour market have made the Nordic region one of the most prosperous areas of the world. The share of women who work in the Nordic countries is larger than the global average – partly the effect of commitments to equal workplaces, subsidised childcare and generous parental leave. With The Nordic Gender Effect at Work briefs, the Nordic region seeks to share its collective experience in promoting gender equality at work, and enable more knowledge sharing and progress towards the UN’s 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.
A large share of the world’s women remain excluded from the labour market. In fact only half of all women participate in the global labour force, compared to three-fourths of men. And there are wide regional variations. The employment rate for women in the Nordic region stands out globally at 70 per cent. When it comes to care responsibilities, the uneven sharing between women and men, compounded by absence of maternity protection and affordable childcare, is a big driver of gender inequalities in the labour market the world over. In the European Union, a region with relatively high wages and labour force participation for women, working men spend less than half as many hours on housework as working women.
Globally, women earn approximately 77 per cent of what men earn. Women are far more likely to be in low-wage jobs, and often in the informal economy. The International Labour Organization (ILO) has noted that, at the current rate, pay equity between women and men will not be achieved until 2086. The pace of change is simply too slow. These inequalities constitute serious barriers to women’s economic empowerment, and indeed to international development at large. It is economically inefficient and ultimately costly for companies and countries alike. In order for the world to progress socially and economically – so as to fulfil the overriding 2030 Agenda objective of leaving no one behind – the entire population and its collective talents must be utilised.
Together we are stronger
The Nordic countries have collaborated in promoting gender equality for over 40 years. Each of the Nordic countries has extensive experience in advancing initiatives and legislation that facilitate gender equality in the labour market. While there are differences between the countries, the Nordics have been, and remain united by a proactive and wide-ranging policy platform on promoting equality between women and men.
Solutions for parental leave, childcare, flexible work arrangements and equal opportunities in the workplace have not evolved organically. The Nordic countries’ favourable position internationally in relation to these issues is the result of targeted policies by governments, backed up by well-organized civil society organizations, and a private sector that also benefits from social trust and equality.
Over time these models and measures have been key to progress on gender equality in the world of work. The most visible result is that the majority of women in the Nordic countries are in paid employment, almost on a par with men. Nordic efforts have also led to a more gender-equal distribution of power, influence and resources in the region, from politics to businesses. This is “the Nordic Gender Effect”.
Despite the strong and consistent focus on gender equality in the Nordic countries, gender inequalities do persist. The Nordic countries are grappling with high levels of occupational segregation in the labour market – both vertically and horizontally – as well as a substantial gender pay gap that is narrowing far too slowly. The region does not have all the answers, and in a number of areas (occupational segregation being a case in point) countries in other regions are performing better.
As part of the Nordic ambition to contribute to the UN’s 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, both globally and at home, the Nordic prime ministers have launched “The Nordic Gender Effect at Work” initiative. It is closely linked to the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (hereafter SDGs), which are to be achieved by 2030, and in particular the goals and targets concerning gender equality and the empowerment of women and girls (SDG5) and economic growth and decent work for all (SDG8). This series of briefs describes how the Nordic welfare model and solutions to ensure women’s participation in the Nordic labour markets came about, and it seeks to further the international debate on gender equality and serve as a basis for our common efforts towards the SDGs.
Historical overview and key milestones towards gender equality at work
The Nordic countries are known to be economically strong welfare states with well-developed social protection systems and high standards of living. However, just 100 years ago, this was not the case. Like much of nineteenth century Europe, the Nordic countries had been involved in several wars and have a long history of poverty and epidemics. Large changes came in the wake of the Industrial Revolution, which created a large working class with poor working conditions and long working hours. Child labour was common.
During the second half of the 19th century, trade unions were formed and a labour movement fighting for better conditions emerged. Trade unions grew stronger by joining forces and they soon began to break new ground. Consensus building through collective bargaining between trade unions and employers began to result in better working conditions.
Around the same time, the Nordic women’s movements started to grow, advocating for equal rights regardless of gender, and they have paved the way for current levels of gender equality in the region. As similar issues were discussed and pursued across the Nordic region, the national women’s movements could benefit from each other’s successes and develop their argumentation and negotiation skills. Both the Nordic women’s movements and the trade unions started collaborating early. Support was also offered by some Nordic political parties in pursuing progressive legislative reforms, the most notable being the right to vote – achieved in all five countries between 1906 and 1919.
Women’s economic independence
The issue of women’s economic empowerment and independence was discussed at different levels of society in the Nordic region throughout the 20th century. Chief among the political reforms were the new marriage laws, introduced in the 1920s. The laws removed men’s guardianship of their wives and gave married women full rights to own property. This, alongside the right to vote, was one of the most important issues to the women’s movements. In effect, it removed the last male advantage in family law. At the same time, however, women typically had to stop working when they got married. It was a commonly held view that it was unnecessary for married women to work, as there was a risk they would push men out of the labour market. In 1939, Sweden became the first European country to forbid employers from firing women because of engagement or marriage. This was an important reform that affected married women’s opportunities to participate in the labour market.
Taxation was another large impediment to gender equality. The joint taxation of spouses meant that spouses’ incomes were combined and taxes calculated on the basis of the total household income. The taxes were often so high it hardly made sense for the wife to work. In addition, if both spouses worked, they often had to pay for childcare and a domestic worker to take care of the housework. The introduction of individual taxation, in 1971 in Sweden and Denmark, changed this and created a stronger financial incentive for married women to join the labour force, effectively ending the housewife era.
Women’s broad entry into the labour market
Denmark, Norway and Sweden experienced a severe labour shortage in the 1960–70s. In response, they started to admit labour from other countries and began introducing policies that would increase women’s participation in the labour force more forcefully. In Iceland, married women also entered the labour market in the 1960-70s, joining the unmarried women who were already in paid employment. The situation was different in Finland at the time, where a large share of women were already working full time. World War II had been a turning point for the Finns in this respect, causing a labour shortage and seeing more women enter into paid work.
It was in the 1960-70s that the Nordic countries began to introduce specific solutions for childcare. In 1964, Denmark became the first country to legislate on childcare, followed by Finland, Iceland and Sweden in 1973 and Norway in 1975. Childcare was mainly made available to families in which both parents worked full-time. The laws were important components of Nordic family policy at the time, and the intention was for the childcare services to be both affordable, flexible and of high educational value to the children. The public sector was dramatically expanded around the same time, creating a large number of job opportunities in education, healthcare and other care services – sectors that came to employ mainly women.
Since the 1970s, the Nordic countries have created a societal and economic structure that enables women and men to participate in the labour market on equal terms. Nordic solutions such as subsidised and quality childcare, generous parental leave schemes for both parents and flexible work arrangements are all rooted in this ambition. The Nordic childcare model has contributed to a dual-breadwinner structure where both parents can work. Most Nordic parents put their young children in childcare. It has become a societal norm to do so, and as a result the share of working women is significantly higher in the Nordic region than the global average. The established system, with subsidised childcare for every child regardless of parental income and the parents’ employment statuses, has paved the way for this development.
‘The Nordic Model’
Descriptions of life in the Nordic countries often involve references to the Nordic model, which is characterised by a political ambition to reduce inequality. All Nordic countries use the tax system to redistribute wealth and reduce economic inequalities. This is inextricably linked to the expansion of social democracy, and the idea that citizens should be able to maintain their standard of living in times of sickness, incapacity, unemployment and when having children. The Nordic countries have a well-developed public sector, and the public services and social welfare systems are inclusive and universal. The individual pays relatively little for medical care and education as all citizens engaged in paid work help fund the social welfare system through taxes.
Autonomous labour markets controlled through well-functioning collaboration between the government, employers’ organisations and trade unions are a key component of the Nordic model. The Nordic countries are characterised by strong, independent and representative organisations for employers and employees. Trade union membership is more common than in other regions of the world, and as a result of the high membership numbers, the organisations can act independently and negotiate agreements adapted to the conditions in their respective sectors. In addition to legislation, working conditions are regulated sector by sector through collective agreements, establishing the rights and responsibilities of employer and employee in the workplace. Thus, the collective agreements guarantee decent working conditions, employee security, and indeed employee productivity in the labour market.
The manner in which the Nordic countries have come relatively far on their path to gender equality is not therefore without a broader context. It is part of a movement since the late 1960s toward social justice, equality and rights. And a big part of this was an ambitious family policy. Nordic family policy has aimed to actively facilitate behaviour change, with an expressed goal of gender equality through increasing women’s participation in the labour market, as well as facilitating an increase men’s involvement in the care of their children. In short, Nordic family policy has encouraged a sharing of household and child-rearing responsibilities between parents, implying a transition away from the traditional pattern where women are expected to carry out these tasks alone. Efforts to change the traditional and stereotypical gender roles at work and at home, as well as changing people’s views of what is masculine and what is feminine, have been an important part of this work.
Key solutions enabling gender equality
Gender equality in the labour market requires more than just a battery of initiatives aimed at enabling women to engage in paid work. There is also a need for laws and policies facilitating gender equality within workplaces. Since the 1970s, all Nordic countries have established a set of national gender equality goals covering a wide range of areas, including the labour market. The right to equal pay for work of equal value as per the ILO’s Equal Remuneration Convention (C100) is enshrined in law, and gender-based discrimination as per ILO’s Non-Discrimination Convention (C111) is prohibited. It has also been deemed important to ensure equal distribution of power and influence in the labour market, and to increase the number of women in management positions.
The various interventions and initiatives promoting gender equality are closely linked and interdependent. The availability of childcare allows both parents to be employed. Both parents taking parental leave enables women to return to work sooner, helps to reduce long career interruptions for women, and normalises men taking care of children on their own. Anti-discrimination laws contribute to preventing negative career consequences of parental leave, and proactive initiatives to break men’s dominance at the top of workplace hierarchies help to correct imbalances caused by men previously having had better opportunities to work and pursue a career.
The multitude of Nordic solutions for gender equality is also present in the autonomous regions of the Faroe Islands, Greenland and Åland. These countries have similar social protection systems to the five Nordic countries, meaning they are tax-funded and universal, as well as gender equality policy objectives, subsidised childcare and parental leave systems in place. The labour markets in the Faroe Islands, Åland and Greenland diverge from the other Nordic countries’ labour markets in significant ways, among other things in terms of size and geographic and demographic conditions.
The Nordic model has undoubtedly increased the share of women participating in the labour market and women’s economic independence. However, the labour market remains characterised by a high degree of occupational segregation. The work that has traditionally been carried out by women – often unpaid work in the home – is now being undertaken by women in the public sector in the form of childcare, healthcare and eldercare. A large share of Nordic women work part-time – in many cases not by choice – at the same time as they continue to carry out the majority of the unpaid work at home.
Another challenge is that society and the rest of the world have changed since the Nordic model was established. Today, the labour market is characterised by greater mobility, digitalisation and competition from low-wage countries. Publicly subsidised welfare systems and universal solutions for all residents have been challenged by ideas of a more market-oriented system. There is a trend toward insecure jobs, precarious work and a growing number of workers lacking the protections offered by collective agreements. This is increasing differences in people’s working conditions, often depending on factors such as age, gender and immigrant background. For instance, migrant women from outside of Europe continue to face real barriers in accessing and entering into the formal Nordic labour market.
The promotion and development of decent working conditions in the Nordic region co-evolved with an expansion of people’s access to social benefits. The challenge is to maintain sound working conditions for all workers, even in a rapidly changing world of work, and to continue to stand up for social protection systems, as a means of combatting inequality.
Timeline on gender equality in the Nordic labour markets
Women gain legal right to engage in commerce
Women gain the right to obtain an academic degree
Ratification of the ILO’s Convention on Equal Remuneration for Women and Men Workers for Work of Equal Value (C100)
Ratification of the ILO’s Convention on Non-Discrimination (Employment and Occupation) (c111)
Introduction of individual taxation of incomes earned by husbands and wives
Introduction of paid parental leave for both parents
Introduction of legislation prohibiting employers from firing women due to pregnancy, childbirth or parental leave