Nordic Countries: “Women Friendly” vs the US

Human talent is a very important factor in determining how competitive a country is relative to others (Global Gender Gap Report, v). The Global Index Report defines human talent as the “skills, education, and productivity of its workforce (v).  The way countries utilize its human resource pool is very important in terms of effectively creating a prosperous economy, so with that being said, countries and companies thrive if women are educated and apart of the “fundamental pillar of the economy” as the report states. Diverse leadership helps pave the way for finding new ways of tackling economic challenges and building sustainable growth (Global Gender Gap Report, v). I think it’s important that the government play a role in creating the right policy framework for improving women’s education and economic participation, as the report also hints at. The United States is an entity that needs to implement new and better policies in incorporating women effectively in its economy.

Women serve multiple roles in society. For instance, they are workers, caregivers, mothers and it is spectacular to see how far they have advanced throughout the last 50 years (v). The Global Gender Gap Report of 2011 is a report that “aggregates 6 years of data, keeping track of gender-based disparities overtime”(3).  This report examines the gap between men and women in four categories: economic participation and opportunity, educational attainment, health and survival, and political empowerment. The report as you can imagine, is very extensive and displays a lot of  information about all of the countries. Nonetheless, by looking at the charts and overall message of this report, it is clear that it shows a positive trend countries have taken in closing the gender gap. In addition to the Global Gender Report of 2011, I also looked at 2012 and shown below are the two figures that represent the two different years and  show the regional performance on the overall Index score.

global gender gap 2011 chart        global gender gap 2012 chart

It is clear that the gender gap is closing and we see North America, overall, holding the top spot in closing this gap, but that is measured in population, so it makes sense that the US would hold the top stop (since NA has the most people). When we look at specific numbers, North America is not doing as well as the Nordic countries in closing the gender gap. The next chart clearly displays this and this chart provides the global gender gap index comparisons from 2006-2012.

global gender gap index rankings comparisons 2006-2011

Now, I want to talk a little about the Nordic countries and how they serve as role models for the international community in the way they divide resources between men and women (no matter the overall level of resources they have). These four countries hold the highest position in the world for closing the gender gap and they are:  Iceland, Norway, Finland, and Sweden.  It is rather interesting to see how the United States holds such a low spot (22) in the world, compared to other countries in closing the gender gap.  The US thrives on always being the best and most powerful country, yet when it comes in being the most successful in closing the gender gap and coming closer to gender equality, the US does not hold the top spot. While the US numbers have changed quite a bit, the four Nordic countries numbers, in terms of rank, have remained quite steady. These Nordic countries have closed more than 80% of the gender gap, which is a substantial amount compared to other countries and they have held this spot for five consecutive years.

It is important to understand why these specific countries have been so successful in closing the gender gap and how their economies have thrived because of this, which has led them to hold the title of being called “women-friendly” countries. First, the reason is not a question of wealth because although these Nordic economies are high-income, the Global Gender Gap Index takes out overall wealth, and instead just measures how “equitably income, resources, and opportunities are distributed between women and men.” What’s their secret?

Not only have these Nordic countries obtained 99-100% literacy for both men and women, but girls do just as well as boys in terms of access to primary and secondary education (Global Gender Gap Report, 19). In terms of tertiary level of education, the gender gap has been reversed and women make the majority of high-skilled workforce. There countries have very high levels of enrollment for both women and men at the tertiary level (Global Gender Gap Report, 19).To be exact, the Global Gender Gap Index states that in Iceland, Norway, and Sweden, there are over 1.5 women for every man enrolled in a university (19). For Finland and Denmark, women actually make up the majority at the tertiary level for education. I would say this is fairly impressive, but int he US, there are also more women in all levels of education today.

Yet,  the Nordic countries, unlike other developed economies, have not only closed the gender gap in education, but they have “maximized the returns on this investment“(Global Gender Gap Report, 19).  These economies have made it possible for parents to combine work and family, which has resulted in more women in the work force, shared participation in childcare, “more equitable distribution of labor at home,” and a better work-life balance for both men and women (Global Gender Gap Report, 22). These possibilities Nordic countries give have actually increased fertility rates. These policies include: “mandatory paternal leave in combination with maternity leave, a generous, state-mandated parental leave benefits provided by a combination of social insurance funds and employers, tax incentives and post-maternity re-entry programs” (Global Gender Gap Report, 22). Together, “these policies have lowered the opportunity costs of having children and led to relatively higher and rising birth rates, as compared to other ageing, developed economies” (Global Gender Gap Report, 22). In essence, these countries do whatever they can to accommodate women and help alleviate some of the work that women do so they can better manage their work and family lives. These countries want to create equality between men and women more than the US it seems like to me.

Yet, what is shocking is that the US failure to implement such changes. I found this excellent research paper titled: “Women and Leadership: The State of Play,” written by Deborah L. Rhode and Barbara Kellerman and it specifically discusses the changes the US has failed to take to in order to accommodate women. The authors state that the US is one of the only industrialized nations that fails to provide paid parental leaves, and only about “a tenth of those eligible for the largely unpaid options currently available take advantage of them” (Rhode and Kellerman, 15).  In addition, “quality, affordable childcare and elder care are also unavailable for many women who desire to work their way up a leadership role,” the authors state (15).  They argue that double standards in domestic roles have been “deeply rooted in cultural attitudes and workplace practices” (Rhode and Kellerman, 16). From their research, these women have concluded that working mothers in the US often face more criticism than working fathers when it comes to how committed they are, both as parents and as working professionals (8). Women are seen as being “insufficiently committed” because they are judged either for sacrificing family needs to their workplace duties or vice versa (Rhode and Kellerman, 8). Taking extended leaves or reducing ones schedule is seen, for a woman in the workforce, as “slacking” and “lacking as leaders” as the authors state (9). Moreover, in the international survey the authors talk about, “female executives were more than twice as likely as their male counterparts to delay marriage or starting a family in order to establish a career, and 12 percent of women, compared with only 1 percent of men, decided not to have children” (Rhode and Kellerman, 12). This makes me question about why women have to be the ones to reduce their career aspirations in order to deal with with family concerns? It is not fair at all and the US needs to begin implementing policies such as the Nordic countries have in order to give women an equal opportunity. There is seriously something wrong with the fact that the US society and companies make working mothers, appear less competent than men and less available to meet workplace responsibilities, yet working fathers are not seen in this light. This paper and research these women have done just confirms the gender stereotypes and gender discrimination that still occurs today in the 21st century.

The authors note that fewer than 15 percent of America’s Fortune 100 companies offer the same paid parental leave to fathers as to mothers, and an even smaller percentage of men take any extended period of time away from their jobs for family reasons (10). This simply confirms the unequal assignment of parental structures, which “reinforce gender roles that are separate but by no means equal” (Rhode and Kellerman, 10). This allows fathers to have unequal role in household duties, and pushes work and family issues on the women.

Furthermore, the Nordic countries have made it their goal to promote women’s leadership and this can clearly be seen in their policies. For instance, since 2008 Norway and other Nordic countries have made it a requirement to have 40% of each sex on their boards for publicly listed companies (Global Gender Gap Report, 22). In the US, this clearly is the case because we have not adopted such generous policies to further progress women’s leadership. In fact, from the research paper titled “Women and Leadership,” the authors state that in the US:

  “We have had only limited success in moving women into leadership roles traditionally occupied by men, and even less in moving men into domestic roles traditionally occupied by women. And we have not yet obtained workplace and social policies that accommodate the needs of both sexes on family-related issues.”

Based on all of the information above, I would have to completely agree with this quote, and there are statistics in their research that completely back this statement up.

  • “Over half of college graduates but less than a quarter of full professors and a fifth of college presidents are female” (2)
  • “In management, women account for about a third of M.B.A. classes, but only 2 percent of Fortune 500 CEOs, 8 percent of top leadership positions, and 16 percent of board directors and corporate officers” (2)
  • “In law, women constitute about half of new entrants to the profession, but less than a fifth of law firm partners, federal judges, law school deans, and Fortune 500 general counsels” (2)

These statistics show a clear depiction how underrepresented women are when it comes to holding leadership positions and the US is just not doing as much compared to Nordic countries in trying to promote and empower women’s leadership. Our culture needs to change so women do not need to experience tradeoffs between being a mother or working. Women should be able to have both.

What’s more is that Nordic countries have given women the right to vote way before others: Sweden in 1919, Norway in 1913, Iceland and Denmark in 1915, and Finland in 1906 (Global Gender Gap Report, 22). In the countries of Norway, Sweden, and Denmark, they wanted to make certain that females were represented over the years, so political parties introduced voluntary gender quotes in the 1970’s (Global Gender Gap Report, 22).  In Denmark, these quotas have been abandoned because women simply participate and run for office, therefore this stimulus is not required anymore (Global Gender Gap Report, 19). This is very different from the US, where women are underrepresented in the political realm.

Additionally, today Sweden holds the highest percentage (45%) of women who are in parliament in the world while other Nordic countries are just as successful (Global Gender Gap Report, 22). In fact, all Nordic countries are in the top 10 for the number of women they hold in parliament. This is pretty amazing because these women have a say in changing the way the government works, which has not been the case in the US. Furthermore, Iceland, Finland and Norway are among the top 10 countries in terms of the years that a women has been the head of state or the government. This is impressive given the fact “the world as a whole does very poorly in this indicator” (Global Gender Gap Report, 23).

All countries should try and implement the policy changes the Nordic countries have carried out. Having a combination of high female labor force participation, salary gaps between the sexes the lowest in the world, and giving women plenty of opportunities to hold leadership positions has allowed these Nordic countries to thrive both economically and politically. I was very surprised by reading this report because I did not know much about Nordic countries had closed the gap in trying to obtain gender equality.



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