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40 years of Nordic gender equality cooperation

40 years of Nordic gender equality cooperation

| Text: Björn Lindahl, Photo: Heidi Orava,

There are two ways to compare different countries’ gender equality policies. You could look at the number of women reaching power or you could look at current policies. The two don’t necessarily tell the same story.

It was a male government minister, Ansgar Gabrielsen, who finally decided to introduce female boardroom quotas in Norway. Historians point out that this was an issue which had long been championed by female politicians. But you cannot deny that Gabrielsen played a crucial role when he ignored his own Conservative Party’s stand and launched what is the Nordic region’s most radical change for gender equality in recent years

When the Director for the Norwegian Nobel Institute, Geir Lundestad, wants to explain why the Peace Prize has got such a high standing in the world, he usually says it is because it belongs to a family of other prizes. As a result, the awards have gained a higher status than they would have had as individual prizes.   

In the same way you could say Nordic gender equality benefits from the fact that the Nordic countries are one family. Gender equality can increase or decrease in one individual country, but there is always something which the other countries can take inspiration from. Looking at the five countries as a group, the differences are evened out and it becomes easier to see that the trend towards a more equal society has been constant since the 1970s.

40 years of cooperation

Gender equality is also one of the issues on which the Nordic countries have cooperated the most. This has been going on for 40 years. The Nordic Council of Ministers decided as early as 1974 that each Nordic government should appoint one person who would be in touch with the other Nordic administrations over gender equality issues.

Participants at the contact group’s first meeting the following year were Edel Saunte from Denmark, Pirkko Kiviaho from Finland, Kari Vagnsnes from Norway and Ingemar Lindberg from Sweden. The first seminar on gender equality in working and family life was held in Glumslöv in Sweden. There, the Nordic countries agreed to send a joint delegation to the 1975 women’s conference in Mexico.

An action plan for Nordic cooperation on gender equality issues was ready by 1978 and a committee of senior officials was established. 

The dream: gender equality around the corner

This was a time when the dream of gender equality was stronger than ever before, and where the new and equal society seemed to be just around the corner. The cover illustration for the first national plan for gender equality in Sweden in 1979 shows male lawyers feeding milk to babies and female joiners teaching their daughters how to handle tools like screwdrivers and pliers.


Steg på vag

 Some of the plan’s conclusions included:

  • Students’ subject and career choice is highly gender based. The labour market is still divided into male and female occupations.
  • Women have continued to enter the labour market in large numbers during the 1970s, especially women with children under seven.
  • Women are still doing most of the housework.

Certain goals have not been met - and might never become reality:

  • It is important to instigate a general shortening of the working day, aiming for a six hour day.

Other goals have been met, like offering all children a nursery place. In 1979 this was available to only a third of all preschool children.

Few women with a driver’s licence

Some of the problems seem foreign to us today:

“The concentration of service facilities together with the spread of housing has in many instances led to unreasonably long walking distances for consumers. Physical strength and access to a car has become necessary, and a majority of consumers are women. Women, however, do not have the same access to cars as men, and many do not have a driver’s licence. Women are twice as likely as men to use public transport to travel to work. Long distances and poor public transport between home, work and service facilities make them time-poor and and limit their amount of spare time.”

But there was still great optimism. As long as the school curriculum was changed, children would grow up to become gender equal citizens. But gender roles would prove to be more difficult to change than many had thought.  

Løn Køn

 A 2008 Danish report on the gender divided labour market concludes:

“In Denmark men and women do not do the same work. Just 15 percent work in occupations with approximately 50/50 gender distribution, and there is no doubt this gender division is a main reason why men and women still do not get equal pay.” 

World leaders in gender equality

Nevertheless, the Nordic countries have many reasons to be proud over their achievements on gender equality. They stay in the top 10 of global gender equality indexes. 

Nordic cooperation has increased its focus through prioritised and pan-national projects like the 1987 cooperation on More women to the computer sector and Muslim immigrant women.  

If you read the chronological overview of all cooperation projects, which are found at the back of the cooperation programme for 2011-2014 Gender equality creates a sustainable society, it is striking just how many gender equality issues are now the subject of Nordic cooperation. With greater globalisation the important issues become more sombre: in 2007 Nordic gender equality ministers discussed trafficking. There is increased awareness that gender equality can no longer be seen as something which can be achieved isolated in the Nordic region. Immigration means we are also influenced by how women are treated in other cultures.

Looking at one of the major recent gender equality studies, Norway’s ‘NOU: Gender equality policies 2012:15’, there are many things which are less self-evident than they were in the 1970s. The study, led by Professor Hege Skjeie, discussed “why Norwegian society needs a gender equality policy and what its aim should be”.



The study’s cover is a collage of hundreds of small images. If you squint you can make out a woman’s face. 

The study answers the question with pointing out that gender equality is needed because it is a universal right: 

“A society which does not guarantee its citizens the respect and the rights and the citizenship which follow, is an unjust society.”

Gender equality cannot be motivated by the fact that it increases growth:

“Productivity and other utilitarian considerations can tie in with gender equality policies, but cannot be used as a fundamental reason for having them.”

The Norwegian study talks about the need for a multi-dimensional gender equality policy, which also takes into account the fact that immigrant women are being doubly discriminated against.

The latest decade has also seen an increased focus on the role of men. Masculinity is the theme for one of the conferences planned for 2014, during Iceland’s Presidency of the Nordic Council of Ministers. Other dimensions include how gender equality is developing in autonomous regions. During the Council’s 2006 Copenhagen session the debate heated up when the Faroe Islands’ independence within Nordic cooperation was being discussed. Opponents pointed to the discrimination of homosexuals as one reason for saying no to such independence. 

Will we be surprised if gender equality is still an issue for Nordic cooperation in 40 years from now?

Nordic ministers for gender equality

From left: Eygló Harðardóttir, Iceland; Manu Sareen, Denmark; Solveig Horne, Norway; Dagfinn Høybråten (Nordic Council of Ministers' Secretary General);  Maria Arnholm, Sweden and Paavo Arhinmäki, Finland. (Picture at top)


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