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New tack sought in Danish equality debate

| By Marie Preisler

Norway uses quotas and a men's panel to improve gender equality, but in Denmark there is disagreement on how to do it. Yet the Danes do agree there's a need for a gender equality debate which focuses on both sexes.

FriisWhen Denmark's right of centre minister for gender equality, Lykke Friis, used a newspaper interview to suggest the inclusion of men in the celebration of International Women's Day there was a lot of shrugging of shoulders and little applause.

8 March should be turned into a day to fight for equal opportunities for all, the minister said, who went on to announce she wanted to establish a men's panel like the one pioneered by Norway. Her goal is to revive the gender equality debate. The minister for gender equality says we now have nothing but women debating women with other women. There's been a mixed response to her comments from gender researchers and feminists. 

Breengaard"Gender researchers and activists alike have pointed out the dangers of muddling up the image of inequalities. You could be doing just that if the women's day turns into a day mixing up women and men's privileges and you end up with focus on everything and everybody," says Michala Hvidt Breengaard, a research assistant at the Coordination for Gender Research at the University of Copenhagen's Department of Sociology. 

The minister is also wrong in claiming men aren't part of the equality debate, says Mette Bom, a columnist and and author of several books on women's situation and everyday feminism. 

"This is a myth. In my experience many men are already active and serious participants in the debate."

The need for a debate on values

She can think of many reasons why the focus should stay on women's equality. 

Bom"It's necessary as long as there is still a marked difference in what women and men earn during their lifetimes. Men's violence toward women also remains a major problem. And we lack a debate on the sacrifices women must make," says Mette Bom.

She feels feminists in their eagerness to get women into careers and promotions seem to forget to talk talk about how women achieve balance and piece. She knows many women who have failed at combining a turbo speed working life with a clear focus on family life:

"Many hit the wall with stress and are forced to take three years off at home to get back on track. And that of course is the opposite extreme which does not benefit equality at all."

Mette Bom feels the equality debate is full of fruitless confrontations between the right-of-centre feminists who talk about freedom of choice, while the left-of-centre feminists want  tools like legislation and quotas to help get more women into top jobs. The parties should rather meet and discuss the modern woman's values, she thinks. She is a supporter of the quota system. 

Quotas or no quotas

The Danish government opposes legislation to impose quotas to boost female representation in limited companies, like Norway has done. The minister for equality has repeatedly used Norway as an example of what that could lead to; 30 percent of Norwegian limited companies chose to change into limited liability companies (Ltd.) to escape the quota demand. 

"Norway is a great example of what not to do. The solution is to show trust in companies," said Lykke Friis when launching the campaign 'Operation Chain Reaction - Recommendations for more women on supervisory boards'.

The campaign has seen a total of 31 larger Danish companies signing up to working actively yet voluntarily toward a strengthening of diversity in boardrooms. Today only 10.4 percent of board members in Danish limited companies are women. That number falls to 5.6 percent if you take away the boards' employee representatives. Only 5.4 percent of private sector leaders are women. 

Paternal leave rules work

Few Danish equality researchers believe equality can be achieved through voluntary measures. Michala Hvidt Breengaard points to Sweden's maternity rules as an efficient tool to achieve greater gender equality:

"We've heard the minister's arguments for voluntary regulation for many years but seen very few results. In Sweden they've realised attitudes can be changed through legislation and political action. One thing which clearly has led to a more positive attitude to paternal leave has been to earmark a period of leave for men - and attitudes have changed among individual men and women as well as on the labour market."

If the next parliamentary election leads to a change of government, Denmark's limited companies must have 40 percent women on their boards from 2015. The Social Democrats and the Socialist People's Party (SF) presented an equality proposal in January which they'll turn into a bill if they get into power. The two parties also want to earmark 12 weeks parental leave for fathers, companies must narrow the salary gap between the sexes, buying sex would be banned and Denmark would have its own men's commission to investigate why more and more boys drop out of school and why men more than women end up being losers.

Weak boys

The weak boys and men represent a serious problem which is often ignored in the equality debate, thinks Martin D. Munk, professor and leader of Aalborg University's Center for Mobility Research.

Munk"It is a great thing to discuss how to get more women into board rooms, but we mustn't forget that men are the weaker sex in some areas. There are more boys who fail to achieve, who lead an unhealthy lifestyle and men live shorter lives than women. There are vulnerable girls we need to look after too, but studies show that boys more than girls are social losers," says Martin D. Munk.

Girls also clearly beat boys in higher education. Female students are in the majority in long-term higher educations - not only in Denmark but in most Western countries. 

But that does not mean women automatically achieve equality when it comes to securing top jobs, says Karen Sjørup, senior lecturer and equality researcher at the Department of Society and Globalisation at Roskilde University:

"Women still hit an invisible glass ceiling. It's higher up than it used to be, but it's there."

She says one example is women in top political jobs who often are given soft policy areas like social politics, while their male colleagues head for finance and foreign ministry jobs. And while there might be more female than male priests, women are underrepresented as deans or bishops - the church's leading posts.


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