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Feminists, but also masculinists

Feminists, but also masculinists

| Text and photo: Berit Kvam

The Nordic region has cooperated on gender equality for 40 years. It has been of great importance for equality’s progress and has improved the lives of Nordic citizens, said Eygló Harðardóttir, Iceland’s Minister of Equality during the anniversary celebrations in Iceland on 26 August. Where is the debate today? Is there a need for a new equality narrative?

“The dream is that we some time in the future no longer need to discuss gender equality, when genders no longer are as important as they are today, that we have equal pay and that girls and boys can choose the job they want without anyone thinking their choice is odd,” said Eygló Harðardóttir, who opened the debate at the anniversary conference alongside Vigdis Finnbogadottir and Margot Wallström.

The debate looked at gender divisions in the labour market, equal pay, unwanted part-time work and boardroom and leadership gender quotas. But new issues popped up too. Professor Hege Skjeie asked whether we need legally imposed quotas for democratically elected bodies. Researcher Steen Baagøe Nielsen showed how campaigns using stereotypical male images lead men away from choosing non traditional educations and jobs. Youth politician Óskar Steinn Ómarsson wanted to see a broader discussion on equality which includes the third gender, which is neither female or male.

100 years of voting rights

“40 years is a long time. It is nearly half my lifetime,” said Iceland’s former President Vigdís Finnbogadóttir, the world’s first democratically elected female head of state.

“Back then it looked like fast men were busy elsewhere when gender equality was being discussed. Today it is a joy to see that the men are interested in equality politics.”

It is 100 years since Nordic women won the right to vote and to be elected. The Finns celebrated their anniversary in 2006, Norway one year ago, Denmark celebrates next year and Sweden will mark the event in 2021.

“A lot has happened in 100 years, but the fear that women would take over now looks exaggerated,” she commented with a smile. 

“Yet nothing happens by itself, it is important to carry on fighting. Major tasks await us; equal pay, equal right to parental leave. This is very important for the relationship between the sexes,” said Vigdís Finnbogadóttir and highlighted more areas where change is needed.

40 working days in front of the mirror

“Rights is something we need to fight for. We need to fight for peace, democracy and balance. Women do not have the same access to democracy and also not the same access to media as men. The Internet has not changed this. Even in 2014 we read a lot about how women look. It is not surprising that women spend a lot of time in front of the mirror. Women spend one hour a day in front of the mirror. Media and advertising do everything they can to try to shape women.”

Vigdís Finnbogadóttir pointed to the importance of power to gain influence:

“Much is being said about power, but you need a lot of power to gain influence. Gender equality is also men’s responsibility,” she continued, and called herself a masculinist:

“I am a feminist, but I am also a masculinist,” she said, and pointed to the danger of young men dropping out of school.

“Men are getting a bit afraid of women, especially when they discover what women are worth and that they are doing well in the education system.”

A need for a men’s conference?

“I think we should organise a men’s conference,” suggested Vigdís Finnbogadóttir. 

“Important men with power in the world should meet each other just to discuss gender equality. I have the impression that men are afraid, that everyone knows that women are able, and that men are afraid of women’s power.” 

Eygló Harðardóttir has been leading the Nordic cooperation during Iceland’s Presidency this year, and sees the benefits of countries that share the same values exchanging experiences.

“Iceland has been at the forefront when it comes to parental leave legislation. Norway led the way on the law on boardroom gender quotas. In this way we inspire each other,” said Eygló Harðardóttir.

“Now we need to talk about how we continue to be even more equal. The best situation is for a workplace to be 50/50. There are many good things in the Nordic region, but there is also a lot to learn from other countries. Norway and Iceland have legislation on boardroom quotas, but other countries have more female leaders than we do. That takes us back to education choices, the fact that both genders now choose very traditionally,” continued Eygló Harðardóttir during the debate.

Margot Wallström, ex-EU commissioner and former Special Representative of the UN Secretary-General on Sexual Violence in Conflict, commented on the idea of a men’s conference:

“A major conference for men with power focusing on gender equality is an interesting thought. That way violence would no longer be a women’s problem but an equality problem.”

Nurseries the most important milestone

40 years of Nordic cooperation on gender equality provided a chance to look both forwards and backwards. Which milestones have been reached and which challenges remain? 

“You couldn’t look back without mentioning the development of child care, like nurseries, and women’s access to education as being absolutely crucial. The building of nurseries has been a completely decisive factor for allowing women to enter the labour market,” said Margot Wallström. Where would women’s equality be if we didn’t have the offer of nurseries? This is also about tax politics, welfare politics, it is about offering women jobs and it is about being able to support yourself. Legislation is an extremely important tool in gender equality politics, she said.

Margot Wallström was disappointed over the lack of government ministers attending the event:

“If there is no political will to carry this forward and make it into reforms and change, then not much is really happening. I think that is a sad state of affairs. With EU membership you pull in different directions, but you still see the Nordic countries among the top 10 in gender equality statistics. The development of gender equality has pretty much happened parallel to developments in welfare and in society as a whole. I guess it is this which is about to break up,” she says. 

“In Sweden, for instance, there is no will to regulate parental leave, to say that more fathers must take daddy leave. It is an individualised approach. 

How do you see the Nordic cooperation going forward?

“I think gender equality, education and environment politics are among the areas where we need to cooperate. When it comes to gender equality, working life, education and male participation represent very important issues.”

More quotas?

A comprehensive anniversary programme helped raise a range of problems and challenges for a more equal society. Professor of Political Science Hege Skjeie used her lecture to highlight the fact that we do not have a Nordic policy for gender balance in democratically elected bodies, and threw down this challenge:

“Do we need legislation for quotas in democratically elected bodies?”

Associate Professor at Roskilde University, Steen Baagøe Nielsen, showed that there is strong engagement among men for increased gender equality. But how do you make sure men’s engagement is taken seriously?

“There is a sharp rise in men’s participation in the home. It is not as strong as women’s participation but it is increasing. What is needed for men’s experiences from working with children and in the home to be seen as being relevant for working life? How can men be involved in care work?”

Steen Baagøe Nielsen demonstrated several examples of how campaigns aimed at attracting more men to work in the care sector build on male stereotypes, and asked for more to be done to change stereotypical attitudes.

“We need a long-term drive to inform and influence attitudes, not least among young people.”

One of his examples was from a successful project in Norway aimed at attracting more men to work in nurseries: nearly 10,000 men had been recruited to nurseries over a 20 year period, between 1990 and 2009.

“Remember to listen to these men,” said Steen Baagøe Nielsen. 

Youth panel

The third gender

A panel of youth politicians provided some forward-looking suggestions, raising questions of families, gender identity and gender-based education choices. 

Óskar Steinn Ómarsson from Iceland wanted to see a broader gender equality debate which would include the third gender — people who are neither female nor male.

“What is the danger here? Where is the debate on this? Discrimination of homosexuals and transsexuals? We must not allow legislation which differentiates between different discrimination laws, we need a unified law.

Maria Kristina Smith raised the issue of abortion rights, which she said was politically tabu in the Faroe Islands.

“We have very strict legislation, you must be very physically or psychologically ill or the victim of rape in order to be granted an abortion. But in reality it has all to do with which doctor you see. It’s an extreme sport. To talk about abortion rights from a Faroese rostrum is tantamount to political suicide.”

Swedish Sara Skyttedal said gender equality is something we need to work with across policy areas.

“Feminist Initiativ, FI, doesn’t appear out of nowhere. White middle-class academics talk and talk but never arrive at this. 

“A young anti-racist equality movement is growing in Europe.”

“Iceland’s feminist movement has experienced an enormous growth. It is particularly popular among young people,” said  Óskar Steinn Ómarsson.

“We have had 40 years of this cooperation and 100 years of voting for women, we are tired of salary gaps, tired of the rape culture which exists in the Nordic region, tired of the existing stereotypical ideas of gender. I work in a nursery myself, where three out of 30 workers are men. Girls wear only pink and boys wear all kinds of colours except pink. All the girls are princesses. One of them was a Superman princess. This begins as soon as they are born, boys and girls are put into different boxes. Our governing political parties must show a willingness to act and to get rid of these rape cultures or else we will establish new parties like for instance Feminist Initiative.”

Alexander Blum Bertelsen from Danmark felt it was important that Denmark introduces earmarked parental leave; men and women are different and must be given the same chance to enjoy a career and parenthood.

Li Andersson from Finland agreed. Parental leave divided into 6 + 6 + 6 would help change gender roles, she thought. She also wanted better advice for new students because education choices remain so traditional.

Mathilde Tybring-Gjedde from Norway wanted to help strengthen vocational training, which sees the greatest number of early leavers. She wanted to see a skills report for female-dominated jobs, and more business focus in female-dominated jobs.

Maria Kristina Smith thought the debate on gender equality had stagnated.

“We need a new feminist narrative in order to highlight how useful this is. In the Faroe Islands we are still trapped in the question over full-time versus half-time work and access to abortion, and it feels like we haven’t moved at all in the past 20 years.”

We can do a lot through legislation, but the biggest problem is attitudes, said Óskar Steinn Ómarsson. Nothing much happens unless these are changed. We need to break down the gender structures. This must begin in school. There are no male or female jobs. 

“There will be no change if everybody carries on as usual.”


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