• 6 November 2014

What can we learn about gender equality from Scandinavia?

Hidden amongst the publicity created last week when it was announced that Britain fell to 26th in the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report rankings, was some significant speculation as to why Scandinavian countries topped the charts. Iceland, Finland, Norway, Sweden and Denmark quite amazingly hold all top five positions.

It’s very fashionable to be Nordic – with TV programmes keeping the chattering classes entertained on Saturday nights and much speculation about just what made Denmark top the happiness league in 2013 (my money’s on the pastries). But it’s the Scandinavian success in steps towards gender equality that is currently the envy of the world.

Key differences between Scandinavia and Britain are the use of quotas for company boards, subsidised childcare and parental leave that is more evenly split between mums and dads. It seems clear that all are having an effect.

Quotas are inevitably controversial: effectively making the appointment of women compulsory leads to arguments of discrimination against men, charges of tokenism and objections that lower quality candidates leads to lower quality decision making. There can be no doubt however that the use of such quotas in Scandinavia is having a dramatic positive effect on moves towards gender equality in the workplace.

The Scandinavians also lead the way in sharing parental leave, with Sweden becoming the first country in the world to introduce gender neutral paid parental leave 40 years ago. Britain is of course to introduce Shared Parental Leave in 2015 but with limited take-up of the Additional Paternity Leave introduced in 2011, there is much doubt as to whether it will provide a revolution in shared parenting.

Key features of Scandinavian schemes are long periods reserved for the father – incentivising men to take time out whilst their partners go back to work. This won’t be a feature in British Shared Parental Leave. Unless attitudes change rapidly, women are likely to remain primary carers for some considerable time to come. And for so long as they are, they are likely to be disadvantaged in the workplace.

So the question is to what extent we want to adopt Scandinavian style social engineering. Statistics seem to show that it works; without it, will we continue to fall behind in gender equality?