Already during the time of the Vikings, Norse societies stood out by granting women more freedom and power than other parts of Europe. The uniquely gender equal Nordic culture seems to have persisted throughout the Middle Ages to the modern era. Sweden was for example a pioneer when it came to open up early capitalism for women’s participation. The World Value Survey shows that Nordic societies also today have uniquely gender equal norms.
One could expect the Nordic societies to be leading when it comes to the share of women at top. After all, these countries combine a gender equal culture with a high participation rate of women in the labour market and policies formed to encourage working mothers. However various international rankings all paint the same picture: there are surprisingly few women who reach managerial positions in the Nordics, particularly so in private enterprise. For example, while 32% of directors and chief executives in private enterprise are women in Eastern and Central Europe, the share is only 13% in the Nordics.
It is not in Nordic welfare states that we find most women on top, but rather in the free-market systems that exist in the United States, New Zealand, Australia and other Anglo-Saxon economies. The only Nordic country which has relatively many women on top is Iceland, which is the country in the region which has the smallest welfare state. Evidently, something in the Nordic welfare state is holding women back when compared to the more market based American model.
Norway’s gender quotas are admired by many abroad. Yet, researchers have shown that they have been anything but a success. As quotas were introduced, the management of firms deteriorated. The reason is that less experienced people were put on boards. More importantly, the quotas have not been able to have any broader effect on the gender gap in wages. They have merely benefited a small group of elite women who have been given board positions due to the quotas. According to the Nordic Labour Journal Norway had no female CEO:s in its 60 largest firms, even though 8 years had passed since the quotas had been introduced. The Nordic need market reforms, not government mandates, to boost women’s careers.
It can seem as a paradox why Nordic societies – which are the most gender equal in the world in many regards – have few women on top of the business world. As this book shows, research literature points to a simple reason for this apparent paradox: the welfare state is unintentionally holding women back. Public sector monopolies, high tax wedges and welfare state policies such as generous parental leave are limiting women’s opportunities on the marketplace, and encouraging them to work few hours. Privatizations and tax reductions on the other hand have boosted women’s progress in the Nordics.
Nordic societies seem to have it all: a historic tradition of women’s entrepreneurship. It therefore comes as a surprise that Nordic countries, in one international ranking after another, are shown to have few women among top-managers and business owners.
In The Nordic Gender Equality Paradox, Dr. Nima Sanandaji shows that the apparent paradox has a simple answer: Nordic welfare states are – unintentionally – holding women back.
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