Leadership and equal opportunities at work

Equal opportunities in the workplace have been high on the Nordic political agenda since the 1970s. Many initiatives have been launched to ensure women and men’s equal opportunities at work and for leadership at all levels. Today the Nordic region stands tall in international rankings on gender equality at work.

The Nordic countries have long encouraged women’s entry into the workforce and striven for a labour market in which women and men can participate on equal terms. All Nordic countries have official gender equality targets, which include specific targets related to the Labour market. Men and women have the right to pursue the same jobs and occupations, and it is illegal to discriminate against people because of their sex or gender identity. Nevertheless, women and men continue to face different conditions and perform different work tasks in different sectors, in different positions and with different pay.

Laws and countervailing measures

As early as 1921, Denmark adopted a law on equal access to employment for men and women, and by the 1970s, the issue of gender equality began to feature on the Nordic political agendas in earnest as all five countries gradually adopted laws and promoted policies to ensure equal opportunities for women and men at work.

Today, all Nordic countries have laws mandating equal pay for work of equal value, as defined by the ILO’s Equal Pay Convention (C100). There is also extensive legal protection against discrimination in workplace. For example, it is illegal to dismiss a woman because she is pregnant or has given birth. Both parents are protected from dismissal because they have made use of or wish to make use of their right to maternity, paternity or parental leave. Sexual harassment is also legally prohibited, both in the workplace and in society at large. In addition, in several Nordic countries, employers are required to actively promote gender equality and equal treatment to prevent discrimination. The details of the regulations vary somewhat across the countries, however.

In Sweden, employers are required to both prevent discrimination and be proactive in promoting equality. They must for example develop guidelines to prevent sexual harassment and carry out annual salary assessments. In the salary assessments, an employer may examine salary criteria or bonus schemes to ensure that no one is disadvantaged due to their sex. Employers must also analyse the causes of any discrimination that is unveiled and then take appropriate action. Icelandic legislation stipulates that employers must take particular measures to protect employees from sexual harassment in the workplace. Finland requires employers to encourage both women and men to apply for vacant positions. For example, an employer may write in a job advertisement that persons of the underrepresented sex are particularly encouraged to apply. According to Finnish law, employers should create working conditions that are appropriate for both women and men, and ensure that staff facilities are equally useful regardless of gender and needs.

Iceland legislating against gender pay gap

Just like in the rest of the world, women in the Nordic countries earn less than their male counterparts. Nordic labour markets are characterised by high rates of women’s employment, but also by high rates of occupational segregation. And jobs in the sectors employing a majority of women, such as the education and care sectors, tend to be low paid, whereas those sectors dominated by men are often highly paid. Thus, it is to some extent the high rates of women’s labour force participation predominantly in the public sector that has led to the relatively large gender pay gaps. In contrast countries with low levels of women’s labour force participation tend to have a small gender pay gap, as the minority of women who do work tend to be more equally spread across the sectors of the economy.

Various efforts have been made to reduce the gender pay gap, without much effect. However, the Icelandic government, in consultation with trade unions and employers’ organisations, broke new ground by developing an equal pay standard and adopting it into a new law. The new law, which came into effect 1st January 2018, requires all employers, public as well as private, with at least 25 employees to annually certify their salary structures according to the equal pay standard. The law will be introduced in stages over a 3-year period. The goal is to eliminate the pay gap between women and men by 2022.

It stipulates that employers must identify the work tasks a position entails and assign a value accordingly. The underlying idea is that salaries should be determined based on position and not the person holding it, and thus the risk for salary discrimination is reduced. The law also makes the setting of salaries clearer and more transparent. As with other standards, the Icelandic equal pay standard has been developed so that it can be replicated elsewhere.

Women in leadership positions

The Nordic countries have been proactive in promoting the equal representation of women and men in positions of power. All have much higher proportions of female members of parliament than the international average. At present, Norway, Iceland and Åland have female prime ministers, while Denmark, Finland and Greenland have had female prime ministers (and Finland and Iceland women presidents) in the past. The Nordic countries have also actively promoted female representation at the highest decision-making levels, such as on Company boards of both public and private enterprises. Similar initiatives have also been taken in the autonomous Nordic areas. Greenland has special rules regarding equal representation of women and men when appointing members to public committees or to the boards of state-owned companies. When the government appoints board members, they must ensure an even gender distribution. As a result, state-owned Greenlandic companies have more women than men on their boards.

Norway was the first country in the world to introduce a gender parity quota law for company boards. According to the law, which came into force in 2008, all company boards must consist of at least 40 per cent women. Several effects have already been observed. When the law was enacted, only around six per cent of company board members were women; today, the share is over 40 per cent. Moreover, the appointment of board members has become more transparent and clearly structured, and the attitudes to gender balance have become more positive in corporate circles. The Norwegian quota law has also contributed to the initiation of a European debate on the male dominance of company boards, and indeed more generally in the business community. Several countries have been inspired by the Norwegian model. By 2016, eight OECD countries had adopted similar quota laws for the boards of listed and/or state-owned companies: Belgium, France, Greece, Iceland, Israel, Italy, Germany and Austria.

Still few women at the top

Despite ongoing efforts, a troubling pattern remains: the higher up the hierarchy you look, the more men you will see. This is particularly true in the private sector. Research from Norway shows that the lack of women in leadership positions in the private sector can be linked to the uneven distribution of parental leave and childcare responsibilities at home. Family policy interventions may be necessary and desirable, but as long as women take advantage of them in significantly greater numbers than men, they can become a gender inequality trap.

Studies of the Norwegian quota law show that the improved gender balance on company boards has not spread to top management. The same trend can be seen in Iceland. However, Norwegian authorities have given priority to monitoring the gender balance at the top management levels through the development of CORE – Norwegian Gender Balance Scorecard, which maps the gender balance of the executive committees of the 100 and 200 largest companies in Norway over time. In 2017 there were 20 per cent women in top management positions in Norway’s 200 largest companies and 28 per cent women on corporate boards. Eighty-six of these companies were covered by the board quota legislation.

The male dominance at the top levels of businesses and other organisations gives men greater access to power and privilege. It also gives them more influence over how workplaces and the entire labour market are organised, which has implications for women’s and men’s opportunities for advancement, salaries, health and life at large. In Sweden, more women than men hold management positions in the public sector, and vice versa in the private sector. However, compared with their male counterparts in the private sector, research shows that female managers in the public sector have higher levels of education and more responsibility. They also have lower pay, despite being in charge of significantly more people.

Nordic challenges

The Nordic countries have come a long way in ensuring equal opportunities in the workplace as well as in promoting women’s leadership, yet several important challenges remain. We want to invite others to a discussion on how they can be effectively dealt with.

Differences in pay. The gender pay gap in the Nordic countries remains stubbornly consistent, despite the fact that the countries have come a long way in a global context when it comes to gender equality in the workplace.

Distribution of unpaid housework. Women in the Nordic countries spend considerably more time than men on unpaid housework, childrearing and elder-care. Research shows that it is easier for women to pursue a career when there is a more gender-equal division of household chores. How can men be persuaded to do more unpaid work at home?

The limitations of quota rules. Studies of the Norwegian quota law show that the improved gender balance seen in company boards has not spread to more women CEOs or other managers. One reason for this is that the business world is characterised by a wide range of leadership standards and traits that are typically (perhaps stereotypically) associated with men. How can we foster an environment where both women and men can hold top management positions?

Did you know that...

In the Nordic countries, data on gender equality is gathered and evaluated. Access Nordic gender equality indicators here: norden.org/statistics

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