The Platform


The ‘Nordic model’ has hampered women in the workforce throughout Nordic countries.

The Nordic nations of Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, and Sweden have been applauded for the equalizing properties of their government policies. With public services dedicated to child and senior care and universal paid parental leave, Nordic residents are entitled to government-mandated social benefits comparable to none. However, as the “Nordic model” has evolved as a seemingly utopian blend of market economy and welfare state, one key group has been left in the dust: women.

On the one hand, Iceland, Norway, Finland, and Sweden placed first through fourth, respectively, and Denmark placed fourteenth on the World Economic Forum’s 2020 Global Gender Gap Index, meaning that they had the lowest magnitude worldwide of gender-based disparities. On the other hand, Nordic women comprise a surprisingly low percentage of those in corporate leadership positions, entrepreneurs, and self-employers and are less likely to experience career development. The root of the majority of these disparities for Nordic women is an unlikely culprit: the very welfare state designed to combat social inequality.

After World War II, the Nordic welfare state was adopted as the result of a compromise between workers and employers after a period of economic struggle and heated class relations. Central to the Nordic welfare states are the tenets of universal healthcare and education, economic equality, high taxes, unemployment benefits, and post-retirement government support. Welfare programs such as paid parental leave and child care were designed in order to enable women to participate more in the labor force, as mothers were given a helping hand that allowed them to not miss out on job opportunities due to time spent taking care of their children. Despite that, government monopolies on healthcare, childcare, and senior care have been detrimental to the women they attempt to uplift. A report by the International Labor Office found that the labor market in Scandinavian countries was disproportionately divided by gender; women worked in the public sector and men worked in the private sector.

The catalyst for this separation was the implementation of exclusively state-owned healthcare, childcare, and senior care. Since, according to the CATO Institute’s Nima Sanandaji, females historically dominated the employees of these industries, the government’s takeover of them as public enterprises limited the development of women in the labor force. In the public sector, this development is impeded by stagnant wages and promotions based on seniority rather than merit. Meanwhile, the continuing privatization of male-dominated industries, such as forestry, mining, and manufacturing, benefit their majority male workforce and their development. According to the Confederation of Swedish Enterprise, unlike the public sector, industries that were privatized experienced wages increase up to 5 percent, and their employees “benefitted from a stronger foothold in the market and reduced risk of unemployment.” Thus, Nordic women’s career development stagnates due to the growth-stunting nature of the public sector while their male counterparts experience wage boosts and job stability due to private sector employment.

Another measure of female career development in the Nordic region is their success in climbing the corporate ladder. Even when they are employed by the private sector, Nordic women tend to not occupy high-ranking and leadership positions. In 2014, Nordic countries averaged a proportion of women among directors and chief executives of 13 percent, which was 19 percentage points lower than East and Central Europe’s average of 32 percent. The Nordic country with the highest proportion of 17 percent, Norway, implemented a legislative quota in 2005 that requires corporate boards to have at least 40% of their directors be female. Finland and Iceland have since then implemented similar measures, but the Nordic countries still continue to fail in uplifting women to the same status as men in the labor force.

An impediment of women’s ability to climb the corporate ladder and achieve executive positions is the familial benefits that the Nordic model provides. Catherine Hakim of Oxford University finds that parental leave policies and other family-related benefits encourage women to reduce their working hours from full-time to part-time. Gender roles that encourage women to stay home and take care of their children are amplified by the tendency of Nordic women to take the majority of the parental leave entitled to them and their husbands if that is the case. This predisposition impedes women’s ability to climb the corporate ladder as they spend less time working, resulting in a disproportionate number of women in executive positions. Welfare programs designed to promote gender equality continue to have a back-handed effect on the women they attempt to empower.

The Nordic model has been a key example pointed to by progressives worldwide in order to illustrate the success of a social welfare state. As much as the Nordic region likes to point to their numerous legislative conquests designed to even the playing field for everyone, no matter their class or gender, their welfare policies have proved to further perpetuate the gender division of the labor force and leave women in the dust. In order to solve these discrepancies, the Nordic governments must first encourage women to join the private sector and seek leadership positions.

Although Norway’s quota for female board members proved to show little success, Nordic governments could offer capital incentives for private companies with gender-balanced leadership. The career woes of public sector employment could be eliminated with a merit-based promotion system, which would encourage employees to seek full-time work. When looking at parental leave, parents should be encouraged to split the time equally so that both parents can continue to pursue their career goals without having to compromise for the other. The Nordic model has the potential to create a gender-balanced society, but true gender equality can’t be achieved without equal opportunities in the labor force.

Elena Hubert is a rising senior at Henry W. Grady High School in the heart of Atlanta. She is the Editor-in-Chief of her school and Georgia’s top newspaper, the Southerner. Elena’s work on the Southerner catalyzed her love for the field of journalism and helped her develop a strong connection to the city of Atlanta.