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Gender or general equality – what is more important?

| By Björn Lindahl, acting editor

On the 8th of March, the entire world focuses women’s rights. The NLJ’s gender equality barometer mirrors a small part of the gender balance in the Nordic region; whether there is a man or a woman in 24 positions of power. This year saw a modest increase in the number of women, but the trend is nevertheless clear. Gender equality is on the rise, even though things are moving slowly.

Gender equality is not only about women’s rights. Men, too, have started to demand the right to things like spending some time at home with their children. Denmark is the only Nordic country that has not earmarked parts of parental leave to the father. When authorities do not make that decision, women end up taking nearly all of the parental leave. Now, new EU rules might force Denmark to change its legislation.

The wage gap between men and women is falling in Sweden. But LO warns that there is also a growing gap between women in blue collar and white collar jobs. Where should the priorities lie? A gender equal society does not mean it has achieved general equality, although a non-equal society usually hits women the hardest. 

Many issues come to a head at an earlier stage in the Nordics than elsewhere, because the five countries are quick to bring about change. This in turn is helped by a high level of trust, between people and between voters and politicians. 

Yet some groups of people fall outside of the welfare state in the Nordic region too, when it comes to health, education and work. The basic belief is that the state has a responsibility for these groups, although families, voluntary organisations and faith groupings also play important parts.

Researchers in Finland have had the opportunity to find out what happens if citizens are given access to a basic income, without having to work or study.  2,000 long-term unemployed people were given 560 euro a month for two years, tax free, rather than unemployment benefits or a daily allowance.    

The basic income was also given to those in the group who took up work, or who got other benefits on top. The hope was to make it easier to find a job for those who participated in the experiment, since they no longer had to spend time on sorting out red tape.

The resulting impact on unemployment rates was very modest, but those receiving the basic income experienced a better quality of life than people in the control group. They also did not have to worry about fighting a benefit system which has become difficult to navigate. 

The International Labour Organisation asked the Nordics for help to prepare for its centenary celebrations later this year, because of the countries’ willingness to innovate. Four Nordic conferences about the future of work have been organised. The last one is being held in Reykjavik on the 4th and 5th of April, and will focus on the rapid changes in the labour markets. The conference will also look at how to increase gender and general equality in an increasingly globalised world.

The host will be Iceland’s Minister of Social Affairs and Children,  Ásmundur Einar Daðason, and Prime Minister Katrín Jakobsdóttir will also address the conference. She is the only prime minister in the world, as far as we know, who has taken on gender equality as part of her ministerial portfolio. Here, the Icelanders have been innovative. They were the first to divide parental leave into three equal parts, the first to introduce a gender equality certification for salaries and they got through a deep crisis while avoiding negative impacts on children or widening social gaps. 

That is why the ILO’s Director-General has chosen to travel to Reykjavik before the organisation celebrates its centenary in Geneva on the 19th of June.


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