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Denmark’s gender equality policies: no quotas and a focus on men

Denmark’s gender equality policies: no quotas and a focus on men

| Text: Marie Preisler, photo: Scanpix

Women hold all of the Danish government’s top jobs, but Denmark lags behind the rest of the Nordic countries measured in paternity leave and women in leadership positions.

There are only women around the table when the party leaders in Denmark’s coalition government meet. Women head all of the three government parties - the Social Democrats, the Socialist People’s Party and the Social-Liberal Party. The government’s supporting party in parliament, the Red-Green Alliance, is also headed by a woman. Yet Denmark lags behind in terms of other gender equality parameters, and the Danish government has so far chosen not to change this through the use of force. 

The government’s reluctance to forced gender equality means there is no mention of quotas in the new rules for female representation in company management, which come into force on 1 April 2013. After that date Denmark’s 1,100 largest companies and all state institutions must set aims for how many women they want to have in management and they must develop plans for how to get more women into leadership in general. But they are not duty-bound to increase the number of women.

Each company must have concrete goals for how much it wants to increase the share of women in management by - for instance from five to ten percent by 2015. But there are no sanctions if companies fail to live up to their goals.

Companies will also have to describe what they do to increase the share of women in management and other leadership positions. But they are not being asked to come up with any figures, and they are not obliged to work towards a higher percentage of female representation. The government does expect, however, that because companies are asked to highlight what they are doing to further gender equality, those who do nothing will be exposed and this will motivate more to take action to get more women into leadership positions.      

EU quotas sidelined

Danish industry opposes quotas and predicts the new rules will result in greater gender equality though voluntary means. In the coming years it should become clear whether this will be enough to shift Denmark from its bottom place in the EU when it comes to women in management. Only seven percent of Danish management positions in listed companies are currently held by women, and there are far fewer female leaders than male ones on all levels.

The new Danish rules were about to be overtaken by new EU regulation on female quotas before Denmark’s rules had had a chance to come into effect. EU’s Commissioner for Justice, Viviane Reding, proposed towards the end of 2012 the introduction of quotas as a means to secure at least 40 percent women on private company boards in listed companies by 2020 at the latest. But as it turned out there were many other European anti-quota voices out there along with the Danish government.

The European Parliament supported Reding’s proposal, but large parts of the EU Commission and a range of EU countries were opposed and EU lawyers decided that female quotas would be in breach of EU legislation - including the EU’s principle of subsidiarity, which defines which legislation the EU can pass.

Many experts therefore believe Viviane Reding must abandon her drive for EU quotas when she presents a revised proposal, and that the EU instead will prepare a new kind of positive discrimination of women which would stay in place until they fill at least 40 percent of boardroom seats.

Delayed paternal leave expansion

Denmark is also behind other Nordic countries when it comes to paternal leave. A Danish man takes on average nine percent of the total parental leave and that is too little, says the government. It has therefore promised in its government programme to take a sizeable chunk out of women’s parental leave and give it to the men.

Today two weeks of the total parental leave are reserved the father, while the mother has the right to 14 weeks’ leave after birth. After that each of the parents can choose to take up to 32 weeks parental leave - however only 32 weeks of the total is paid. Mostly women make use of this, and that’s why the government wants to earmark up to three months of the paid parental leave for the father. 

Changing the law will take time, however. The government has sent the issue for consideration by committee, which critics say is putting it on ice. In early summer of 2013 the commission is expected to present a concrete model for how future paternity leave could look like.  

The government is taking a long time over this because making changes to parental leave is controversial. It involves disturbing the way families prioritise and many Danish women do not want to give up any of their maternity leave. It could also send some children into nurseries at an earlier stage, as some men might not make use of their longer, earmarked parental leave. 

While the government is taking its time over changes to parental leave, it does have concrete plans for how to fulfil a different and smaller election promise on gender equality: improving statistic for equal pay. So far Denmark’s salary statistics have not reflected gender divisions, and as a result it has been difficult to identify gender salary gaps. In future, larger companies must provide salary statistics based on gender.

Don’t forget the boys

Another high priority gender equality issue for the government and the Minister for Gender Equality, Manu Sareen, is the special challenges faced by men and boys. On 1 March 2012 the government presented an action plan for gender equality which highlights how the welfare society in several areas does not meet the needs of some boys and men.

Men have lower education, suffer from more lifestyle illnesses and struggle more during a divorce or if their spouse dies. That’s why the government has cooperated closely with municipalities and others to focus on the challenges met by men and boys and to try to find concrete answers. 

The government also wants municipalities to better adapt their public services to reflect that the two sexes do not always have the same needs and do not always behave in the same way. Men and women should be treated differently in order to give them equal opportunities, says Manu Sareen in a new strategy for gender equality assessments. 

The strategy does not mean one gender get offered services which the other does not. But the Minister for Gender Equality wants to use to new strategy to stimulate the public sector to think more about gender in their services - for instance by targeting activation measures either towards men or women or to do something extra to get boys into education, because they fall out of the education system more often than girls.

“For many years the focus of our gender equality debates have been about key issues like equal pay and more women in leadership positions. This is also important. But for me gender equality is basically about the everyday opportunities faced by women and men, girls and boys,” said Manu Sareen as he presented the strategy.

Women dominate Danish politics

Helle Thorning-Schmidt, party leader, the governing Socialist Democrats (in the middle in the picture above)

Margrethe Vestager, party leader, government coalition partner the Danish Social-Liberal Party (to the right)

Annette Vilhelmsen, party leader, government coalition partner the Socialist People’s Party (to the left)

Johanne Schmidt-Nielsen, political spokeswoman and leader of the parliamentary group for the supporting party the Red-Green Alliance, which has a collective leadership


The new rules’ impact on Danish companies:

From 1 April 2013 around 1,100 of Denmark’s largest companies will identify aims for how many of the underrepresented sex they want to get into top management.  

They will also have a policy for how to increase the number of the unrepresented sex in the company’s other leadership positions.

The companies will demonstrate progress towards these aims and for developing policies etc. in their annual reports.

State institutions and companies regardless of size will identify aims, and public companies and institutions with more than 50 employees will develop policies to get more women into management. 

State institutions and companies will demonstrate progress towards these aims and for developing policies etc. to the minister responsible, who will then report to the Minister for Gender Equality and Church.


Women on Danish boards in 2012:

Women in listed companies May 2012: 7 percent

Women in limited companies May 2012: 19 percent

Source: (The Ministry for Gender Equality and Church)

Women in the EU’s largest listed companies in 2012

EU-27: 14%

Denmark: 16%

Sweden: 25%

Iceland: 25%

Finland: 27%

Norway: 42%

Source:, the Danish Centre for Information on Gender, Equality and Diversity, and the EU report ‘Women in Economic decision-making in the EU


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