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Danish gender equality shifting up a gear

Danish gender equality shifting up a gear

| Tekst: Marie Preisler, Foto: Marie Hald AFP/Scanpix

Denmark’s new Minister for Gender Equality, Manu Sareen, promises to turbo charge gender equality. His main focus will to fight violence against women and a gender-divided labour market. He wants more women in top management and into board rooms.

The Danish government’s programme acknowledges that gender equality has decreased in the past few years, and announces a range of initiatives to change this. Minister for Gender Equality, Manu Sareen, intends to put words into action both in Denmark and on the international stage.

“There is no doubt we can do even better in Denmark. We still face a range of challenges which the government wants to address. We have a long list of initiatives which should shift gender equality up a gear in Denmark,” he says.

The Minister for Gender Equality has just handed in his annual perspective and action plan for gender equality issues to parliament. The plan puts a new and offensive gender equality policy on the agenda, he says. It addresses three challenges to equality which the minister feels strongly about:

“There are three things I feel are particularly important. Firstly we will put violence against women on the agenda. Violence against women is a cultural phenomenon, just like prostitution. Our culture makes i OK to visit a prostitute and OK to hit women. This is clearly something which I want to change. Secondly it is important to get more women into management positions and more women into board rooms.”

The third problem which the minister would very much like to do something about is the obstacles which prevent equality between the sexes.

“On the face of it we are very equal, but many invisible obstacles still remain. One thing I want to do is to change the gender-divisions within the labour market, which is a result of a very gender-based choice of education.”

Bottom in the Nordic region

He feels Denmark is well advanced when it comes to gender equality.

“This becomes quite obvious when you hear about women around the world who lack basic rights and who are far off enjoying anything remotely like the gender equality we have here at home.”

Yet he also acknowledges the fact that in a Nordic setting, the situation for Danish women is not all that great. Denmark is bottom among the Nordic countries when it comes to the number of women represented in top management and on company boards. Denmark also has the lowest number of independent female entrepreneurs in the Nordic region and a lower number than in the EU in general. The minister expects that the government’s promised maternity compensation fund for the self employed will change this. He thinks this will see more women dare start up by themselves. 

The minister is also keen to get more women into board rooms - both in Denmark and elsewhere in the EU.

“It is simply a waste of good resources when so few of the skilled and well-educated women we have in Denmark are allowed to bring their qualifications to the board room. Everyone should have the opportunity to be part of shaping the society we live in, so it is important to have equal access to society’s more powerful positions.”

Silent on quotas

For now, however, he will not be drawn on whether he wants to introduce legally binding quotas on the number of women on company boards, akin to what has happened in Norway:

“We have said that we will consider gender quotas. We are working on this. At the same time we are looking at other models for how to secure more women on company boards. I have been talking to other EU countries to see how they approach this challenge. We are currently looking for a model which will suit Denmark.” 

Last year the EU commissioner for equality, Viviane Reding, told European companies they had one year to increase the number of women on company boards voluntarily. Hardly any companies have done this. That is why Viviane Reding has announced a change to EU legislation. Several media have said she is close to proposing EU regulation which would impose a 30 percent female boardroom quota by 2015. Manu Sareen does not want to comment.

“It is important to get this problem on the agenda and I can only support the commissioner’s choice to focus on this. I cannot comment at this stage on what the Commission is planning to propose.”

While the Danish government does not want to be drawn on the issue of quotas, it is keen to pass legislation on compulsory paternal leave. The government wants to earmark up to three months of parental leave for the father. Manu Sareen does not think this constitutes too much interference into how families choose:

“I am sure this will have a snowball effect on many other things. We want to create a new mindset where we don’t automatically presume that mothers are better parents than fathers.”

A global agenda

Manu Sareen works hard to put gender equality high on the European and global agenda during Denmark’s EU presidency. He has just been representing the EU at the UN’s Commission on the Status of Women in New York.

He welcomes the fact that Norway’s chairmanship at the Nordic Council of Ministers also puts gender equality on the agenda:

“It pleases me to see that Norway’s chairmanship is following up the Danish chairmanship’s pan-Nordic mapping of men in healthcare occupations. Norway also focuses on the two cross-sector priorities in the cooperation programme: the integration of a gender and equality perspective (gender mainstreaming) and the active participation of men and boys. These are important focus areas and I will be following this work closely."

Equal opportunities 

The Danish government minister sees formal gender equality as a step in the right direction. What really counts is to secure equal opportunities for both sexes. 

“Formal equality means women and men enjoy the same rights and are equal in the face of law. In Denmark we have already achieved this. But that does not mean that women and men in reality enjoy equal opportunities. For instance, there is not equal access to management positions and seats on company boards. This shows us we still face certain obstacles which we need to overcome before we achieve real equality."

The most important obstacle to equal opportunities for men and women, says Manu Sareen, are society’s norms which prevent the individual’s free development and choice of education and job.

“Girls are often not expected to be interested in technology and IT, while boys are expected to be less calm and less interested in studying. This limits the individual’s free choice. And it means that we don’t get to use all the good resources which could benefit the whole of society. We will challenge these norms,” he says.

"I don't escape the hoovering"

Sareen portlet


How equal are you and your wife, in your view?

I think we are very equal, as in equally worthy. We very much respect each other and highly value what the other does and is good at.

What does your wife do - is she in full time work?

She is a health visitor and right now she is working part time. She was already doing this before I became a government minister. It is what she always wanted to do.

How have you divided chores between you in your home - before and after you became a government minister?

Right now while I work quite a lot and Anya works part time it’s clearly she who does most. I do do as much as I possibly can to help, though. And we both know that I won’t be a government minister for ever, and that at some stage the division will become more equal again. But you definitely don’t escape the hoovering just because you’re a government minister.

Who cooks - you or your wife?

I love cooking and do it as often as I possibly can. I have actually published a cookery book with Indian food. But I don’t cook as often as I’d like these days.

Did you take paternal and parental leave? 

Yes, I did take some leave, but I haven’t actually taken much paternal leave. And I have regretted it many times. I did, however, taken leave from political life for a while to spend more time with the family. I have also spent quite a lot of time with my children during other periods because I have often had jobs with flexible working hours which have allowed me to for instance pick them up early from child care and school. I have also been able to adjust my work to make it fit in with my leave from political life. I would actually say that one of the hardest things about my current job is to be so much away from my children. I miss them a lot.

Cycling to the Palace

On Monday 3 October the Minister for Gender Equality, Manu Sareen, cycled with his ministerial colleagues from the party headquarters of the Danish Social-Liberal Party to the Amalienborg palace where the new government was presented (picture above).


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