How to increase equality in Norway

Applause as Norwegian Government`s gender equality action plan is presented in Norway. To the left: Hege Skjeie, to the right Minster of Equality Inge Marta Thorkildsen

From next year Norway increases parental leave to 49 weeks. Yet months of daddy leave and nursery places for all children do not automatically make for a less gender segregated labour market nor does it make the male dominance in top jobs disappear, warns Professor Hege Skjeie, who has been heading the largest report on equality in Norway so far.

Oct 11, 2012 | Text & Photo: Björn Lindahl

When Norway debates gender equality people in other countries often listen keenly. Several Norwegian equality measures have spread across the borders. But the situation is not so rosy as it might appear in the celebratory speeches:

“We often hear we’re living in the country of gender equality. And the history of equality has many examples of Norwegian innovation. The world’s first equality ombud, the world’s first gender equal government, the partnership law, daddy leave and female quotas in boardrooms,” said Hege Skjeie when she presented the report ‘Policy for Gender Equality’. 

“Yet in important social institutions the distance between gender equality as a value to be highlighted and gender equality in practice is still large.” 

Gender segregated labour market

Norway still has a gender segregated labour market with more than 80 percent female representation in many occupations like pre-school teacher, nurse and secretary, while other jobs like builder, mechanic and chauffeur are held nearly exclusively by men.

Three in four bosses are still men. Out of ten sectors, from defence and the economic sector to culture and education, only two fall marginally within the aim of having at least 40 percent of each gender as leaders.

The imbalance between the sexes manifests itself in two ways - partly in the development of female and male jobs, partly in the fact that women are paid less than men for doing the same job. 

But today’s equality politics must address more than gender issues. People are discriminated against for other reasons, like ethnicity, sexual preference, age and disabilities. The report refers to studies from the USA which show black women’s life situations can be more marginalised than what could be expected if you only looked at gender and ethnicity.

The man is not always more powerful

Yet the report also shows that men are not always more powerful than women: a white, Norwegian middle class woman is more powerful in most situations than a male asylum seeker who has no access to the labour market.

So which are the measures the report recommends in order to increase equality?

One of the report’s most innovative statements is that in order to reduce gender segregation in the labour market, there must be measures in place to target people already at the stage when they are choosing their education. That is why the report recommends the introduction of a special equality grant. Those who choose to study for non-traditional occupations should have one third of their student loan subsidised. This would apply for boys and girls. 

In Norway 85,000 out of 228,000 students in upper secondary education attend courses where one gender makes up 80 percent of all students. 17,000 students would have to change courses for that representation to climb above 20 percent across all courses. This also gives an indication of how many equality grants would be needed. The cost is estimated at 100 million kroner (€13.5m) and represents no more than a small percentage of what the report recommends should be set aside to promote equality. 

“We haven’t looked into whether subsidising student loans with 30 precent is enough to make students switch studies,” says Hege Skjeie. Subsidising one single student would cost 8,000 kroner (€1,080) a year for upper secondary education and nearly 17,000 kroner (€2,290) a year for higher education.  


Parental Leave Split Three-Ways

Parental leave in Norway is to be divided into three parts, where the mother and father get 14 weeks each after the birth while 18 weeks can be divided between them as they please. This means the daddy quota increases with two weeks compared to today’s system.

The equality report criticises politicians for often going for costly measures which don’t really do much to increase equality. Parental leave costs 16bn Norwegian kroner (€2.16bn) every year. 

Still, the report’s most expensive recommendation is also about parental leave. Today the man’s benefit is not based on his won wage, but on how much the woman earns.

The equality report suggests men and women get equal rights, irrespective of how much they work and what with. This would cost nearly 2.8bn Norwegian kroner (€377m) a year.







Gender equality policies has been more or less successfully integrated into the following areas: families and relationships; work, welfare and the economy; power and decision-making; education and research; crime and violence; peace and development; culture, media and sports; and health and reproductive rights. Other policy areas: transport and communication; finance; agriculture and food; fisheries and coastal affairs; petroleum and energy; and the environment are still at an earlier phase.

A number of steps have been taken to ensure men and women equal access to higher education, equal opportunities for participation in the labour force and in choice of occupation. Today, women and men have more or less equal levels of education, and women’s participation in working life has increased dramatically since the 1960s. However, work towards achieving equal access to resources is still clearly unfinished. Women’s income still stands at approximately 60 per cent of men’s. This is largely due to the gender segregated labour market in Norway - most women work in the public sector and most men in the private sector. Pregnant women are discriminated against in workplaces, and equal pay is still an unachieved goal. This inequality in what women and men earn is also closely related to the low level of entrepreneurship among women compared to men and the fact that men hold the majority of key political, economic and other decision-making positions.

A number of steps have also been taken by successive Norwegian governments towards supporting two-career families. But the efforts involved in facilitating a reconciliation of work and family life are hindered by what is referred to as the ‘caring deficit’ - the gap between the need for care and the availability of its supply. Care arrangements for children and other dependents are relatively good, but not good enough. In addition, the division of responsibilities within households between men and women is unequal - women still do most of the housework. They also take most of the available parental leave and it is they who utilize the cash benefit scheme.

The diversity of post-modern lifestyles also raises new gender issues, such as childhood dominated by female parenting after separations, or the problems men living in same sex partnerships face in establishing families and having children.

On the question of ageing, women generally live longer than men. The fertility rate in Norway is relatively high compared to other western countries.

Many illnesses are gendered, due, not only to biological differences between women and men, but also to differing lifestyles and the socio-economic conditions in which men and women live. In the area of reproductive health, Norway was quick to recognise women’s right to make decisions about their bodies, including freedom of choice in terms of abortion. There is however more work to be done in other health areas. Many illnesses that women are prone to are not prioritised, and treatments for these illnesses are comparatively under-resourced.

Gender-based violence has gained recognition in Norwegian society as a social problem, demanding the attention and focus of the authorities. However, domestic violence, rape, prostitution and human trafficking continue to be major barriers to gender equality. Perpetrators of gender-based violence are mostly men and those subject to these forms of violence are largely women. Norway has developed a number of measures for the prevention of these forms of violence, for the protection of the victims as well as for responding to the perpetrators. There are shelters for battered women, and men who are violent have access to treatment and counselling.

Norway’s national gender issues are more or less the same as those found internationally. Norway aims to mainstream gender in Norwegian foreign policy, in the areas of peace and reconciliation and development cooperation.

Religion, culture and sports are all areas which present a number of ongoing challenges to gender equality. Population, including issues around immigration and the situation of refugees and asylum seekers, is also an area with a number of challenges to gender equality.