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Nordic men blind to women’s working life challenges

| Text: Gunhild Wallin

The Nordic countries stand out with higher levels of well-being than anywhere else in the world, explained by the fact that women are expected to be active in the labour market and make an important contribution to household income. Yet men do not understand that women are facing a harder time in the labour market than themselves.

“The more women contribute economically to the households, and the more obvious it is in a society for women to have paid work, the more content they say they are. Their well-being reflects the level of gender equality in society,” says Andrew Rzepa from Gallup, who presented the survey ‘Gender Equality in the world of work: Nordic Perspective’ at the conference ‘Global Dialogue on gender in the World of work’ in Helsinki in late November.

Part of a global study

The survey has been a special assignment on commission from the conference hosts – the International Labour Organisation (ILO) and the Nordic Council of Ministers. It forms part of a global study covering 140 countries which will be presented on International Women’s Day on 8 March 2017 in Washington. The idea is to give the countries’ leaders some facts to turn to when they discuss gender equality in the labour market and which challenges they should address.

Andrew Rzepa highlights several issues he finds worth mentioning from the survey. The first is the fact that there is such strong support among both men and women for women’s paid labour in the Nordic countries.

“The Nordic countries stand apart when it comes to female empowerment. It is not only commonly accepted that they work outside of the home – 99 percent believe it is OK. This might seem obvious, but it is not in the rest of the world,” he says.

The survey asked whether it was completely acceptable that the woman in the family took paid work outside of the home if she wished to do so. In the Nordic countries, 99 percent answered yes, compared to 87 percent in Eastern European countries. Age also influenced the answers given – younger men and women are generally more positive to women working away from home. Higher education also plays a role.

Few Nordic men dream of housewives

The survey asked women whether they preferred paid work, staying at home to look after children and housework or combining domestic work with paid work. Men were asked what they preferred their wives to do. It turned out that among Nordic men, four percent wanted their wives to be housewives, while 31 percent of men in Eastern European countries wanted their women to stay at home. Nine percent of Nordic women said they would consider staying at home, while 25 percent of women in Eastern Europe wanted to do the same. 

The survey also shows a clear link between participation in the labour market and perceived well-being. The Nordic countries have the world’s highest scores for well-being. 65 percent say they are happy with life. 33 percent say they are struggling and two percent say they are suffering. There are some differences between the Nordic countries. In Denmark, Finland and Iceland, 69 percent of the respondents say they are happy, while 65 percent say the same in Norway and 60 percent in Sweden. 

“Individuals who have the chance to work express more contentment with life. Research also shows that long-term unemployment has an even more negative influence on people’s well-being than loosing a partner,” says Andrew Rzepa. 

Women are important providers

He also describes another result from the survey as very important – who do people consider to be the main provider? Around one in three women in all of the Nordic countries say that they themselves are – with the exception of Iceland. 82 percent of women say they fall into the two categories “the main provider” and “a significant provider”.

“This shows that women play a significant economic part in society and that there are different social norms in the Nordic countries,” says Andrew Rzepa.

But there is still a way to go. There are considerable differences in how men and women answer the question whether men and women with the same education and experiences have better, the same or worse chances of getting a good job. 60 percent of men and 48 percent of women believe the chances are equal, while 31 percent of men and 47 percent of women believe the chances are worse. 

“Men don’t acknowledge or understand the reality which women face in the labour market, they don’t see the difficulties women have to deal with and there is a big gap between how women and men see this. This is a problem,” says Andrew Rzepa.

Low level of work engagement

With the high degree of well-being in the Nordic countries in mind, the last part of the survey comes as a surprise. It shows 75 percent of the Nordic respondents do not have high levels of work engagement. The results come from adding up the answers to a range of questions about being able to influence your work situation, if you have the right working tools and whether you understand what is demanded from you. On average 13 percent in the Nordic countries say their work engages them, compared to 32 percent in the USA.

“This is about how efficient companies are when it comes to engaging their employees, so we see there is still a lot of work to be done. And this has nothing to do with well-being, but it has to do with individuals who don’t give it their all. It is an issue between the leader and the employee, people want to be engaged,” says Andrew Rzepa.

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