What About Women in the Workplace in Scandinavia?

The first “National Women’s Day” was first celebrated in 1909, organized by the Socialist Party of America to honor women protesting for better working conditions, especially in the garment industry. A year later, at the Socialist International meeting in Copenhagen, the idea for an International Women’s Day was put forth and received unanimous support from all the women in attendance; nearly 100 activists from 17 different countries. By 1911, March 8th had been chosen in ass fixed date, and over a million women in Denmark, Austria, Switzerland, and Germany protested for universal suffrage and women’s rights.

Since then, International Women’s Day has been celebrated all over the world by women and men of every color, sexuality, and nationality as a day to appreciate and honor the advances made by women in the past and a day to inspire and motivate the next generation of women to build on those advances.

Some change has been achieved since the early 1900s but today, in 2018, women are still protesting for equal rights in the workplace. What does that look like in the Nordic countries?

On the 109th International Women’s Day, we investigate a central feminist issue for Scandinavian women: workplace equality.

A Brief History

Women have always been invaluable to the workforce in Scandinavia and beyond. European women were strongly encouraged to enter the workforce for the first time during World War II. They took on jobs previously held by men who had left to fight as soldiers. Many men, of course, were killed during this time and as a result, the profile of labor in Europe was forever shifted. Further progress occurred during the 1960s, when feminism saturated news and culture, and inspired hundreds of thousands of women to enter the workforce.

In 2018, nearly 60 years after World War II, women have yet to achieve complete equality in the workplace. Sexual harassment, discrimination, and unequal pay are just a few of the issues confronting modern day working women.


Workplace Statistics

Women make up 46.1% of the workforce within the 28 countries of the European Union (Catalyst Group). Within the Scandinavian countries, the percentage is slightly higher. Sweden and Norway have a nearly 48% female workforce, while Denmark has around 47.4%. Iceland boasts a 47% workforce. Fortunately, there’s good news: while men continue to be hired at a more frequent rate than women, the gap in employment rates is decreasing.

Women in Scandinavia are more likely to hold board seats than women in other European countries, tend to have have slightly higher levels of representation in government, and outnumber men in higher education programs, increasing the percentage of women who graduate with a higher level of education than their male classmates (Catalyst).

The Wage Gap

In terms of wage equality, Scandinavian nations do rank higher than other countries and boast smaller wage gaps between men and women. In 2013, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) conducted surveys all across the world to chart the wage gaps between countries. OECD found that full-time female workers in Denmark made 5.8% less than their male counterparts, in Norway 7.1% less, in Iceland 9.9% less, and in Sweden 13.4% less. All Scandinavian countries fell under the OECD world average of 14.4%. In addition, The World Economic Forum rankings for their Gender Gap Annual Report (2017) puts Iceland, Norway, Finland and Sweden as positions 1, 2, 3 and 5 respectively (Rwanda sits at #4), with Denmark ranked 14th. Of all gendered gaps worldwide, health and education gaps have largely been closed (96% and 95%, respectively), while only 53% of the economic participation gap has been closed.

Steps have been taken in Scandinavia to correct this problem. Denmark, Sweden, and Norway all encourage private companies to conduct their own surveys in order to uncover and eradicate any salary discrepancies between the genders (Business Insider). Iceland has taken it one step further and become the first country in the world to outlaw a wage gap in both the public and private sector.

Other measure being taken to close the wage gap include breaking up traditional notions of gendered jobs, which has often seen women being steamrolled into work that is considered “feminine” and is, as a result, paid less. For instance, the Swedish government has allotted money to initiatives encouraging men to work in areas typically seen as feminine, such as elderly care, and encourage women to work in traditionally male sectors like tech and engineering (Business Insider).

While these steps can certainly be seen as progress, they often dovetail with an overall sense of denial that there is any kind of wage gap problem in Scandinavia. The idea of Scandinavia as a socialist utopia is, in some senses, rightly earned. There is universal health care, a wonderful welfare program and a living wage. It does not, however, preclude the Scandinavian countries from falling victim to the same gendered notions of work, and what and who is valuable, that pervades societies around the world.


Harassment Inside and Outside the Workplace

In 2014, Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) conducted a number surveys worldwide to research levels of violence against women. These surveys assessed the legal framework available for victims of assault, the percentage of women who have experienced abuse at the hands of partner, and the attitude of women towards violence from a husband or partner. Unfortunately, not every country participated in every survey.

In OECD findings on legal protection against sexual harassment in the workplace, countries were ranked based on a 0-1 index, 0 indicating that there is legislation in place to protect women from violence in the workplace and 1 indicating that there is no legal protection for this kind of situation. Sweden and Norway both claim rankings of .25 when it came to legal protection against sexual harassment in the workplace. In cases of legal protection from rape, Sweden and Iceland had .25 index while Norway had an index of .50.

As for Scandinavian women who report that they have experienced physical and/or sexual violence from a partner at some point in their lives, Iceland had the lowest at 22%, Norway and Sweden came in at 27% and 28% respectively, and finally Denmark, with 32% of Danish women reporting having experienced some form of abuse from a partner. As with any statistic, it is important to keep in mind the numbers that don’t always make it onto the graph, such as the number of women who were too afraid or unable to report abuse.


Fighting for Every Woman

Where do women of color, the LGBTQI+ community, immigrant women and refugee women figure into these statistics? Unfortunately, there is less research done on these groups in Scandinavia and therefore fewer current and relevant statistics to cite.

A 2015 study “The Gender Earnings Gap Among Immigrants in Sweden” attempted to compare earnings between, first, immigrant vs. native Swedes, and second, immigrant women vs. immigrant men compared with native women vs. native men. The study found that while immigrants earned, on average, less than Swedish natives, the wage gap according to gender per immigrant group was actually smaller.

Scandinavia has been considered progressive overall in the area of LGBTQI+ rights, with Sweden leading the way. In particular, Sweden has been a world leader in trans rights and is the first country in the world to allow people to legally change their gender after sex-reassignment surgery. Since 1987, workplace discrimination against LGBTQI+ people has been illegal in Sweden. In addition, Denmark was the first country in the world to legalise same-sex marriage, and workplace discrimination on the basis of sexuality has been illegal since 2004. Although these protections do not, of course, mean that discrimination doesn’t occur, they are an indication of both legal and social progress at the very least.

If we look to the United States, more research has been done to observe historically oppressed groups in the workplace. For example, studies have been created to observe and record the wage gap based on gender and ethnicity. The National Women’s Law Center found that on average, a working woman of color makes less than her white female coworker. An Asian woman working full time will make 87 cents to every dollar made by a white woman, while a black woman will make 63 cents to every dollar, and a Latina woman will make 54 cents. These statistics are not representative of women of color working full time in Scandinavia, but they are helpful in understanding that not all women are on equal footing to begin with.

Another important note is that, in terms of the US labor force, white women have historically been able to work because women of color have taken over childcare and housekeeping duties in those homes, often for very little pay as they were not protected workers. The fact that childcare is widely available and subsidised across Scandinavia means that this is less relevant to the the region’s pay gaps.


In Summary

Women in Scandinavia continue to receive smaller paychecks, experience harassment at home and at work, and are outnumbered in boardrooms and parliaments. Steps have been taken in both the public and private sector to correct the inequalities in pay, address workplace harassment, and encourage young women to enter into fields previously thought to be old boys’ clubs, but we cannot stop there.

We have experienced more than a centennial worth of International Women’s Days and still we find ourselves protesting and debating what it means to be an equal in society. We have not achieved what our foremothers had hoped we would, but that does not dishearten me. It only motivates me to work harder.

The #MeToo movement, the Time’s Up initiative, ongoing conversations of what it means to be a feminist, increased scrutiny on companies who discriminate against their female employees, increased investigation and research into marginalized communities facing higher levels of inequality, and massive protests in major cities all over the world filled with women of different ages and backgrounds gives me hope. Times are changing, just as they did in 1909, and while we may have very far to go, at least we have started. I don’t see us stopping any time soon.

Sources & Further Reading

United Nations on International Women’s Day

National Women’s Law Center: The Wage Gap: The Who, How, Why, and What to Do (September 19, 2016)

Women in the Workforce in Iceland

Europa: Pay Gap in the European Union

Eurofound: Violence and Harassment in the Workplace in the European Union

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Claire McLoughlin

Claire is an American journalist currently pursuing a Master's degree in journalism in Denmark. She has a background in English language and literature, as well as ethnic studies.