Photographer: Freya Ingrid Morales

Equality Hits a Glass Ceiling in Liberal Dreamland

Data suggests rules are crucial to eliminating the gender pay gap

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Gender equality appears to have hit a glass ceiling in Denmark.

The country's statistics office recently published a series of figures highlighting the state of play in one of the first European countries to allow women the vote.

The main take away is that while the Nordic nation remains a beacon of progressiveness by international standards, it has grown complacent.

What's more, as the diverging experience of neighboring Sweden shows, dealing with issues like the pay gap isn't best left to the individual alone; it requires legislation.

"Denmark is falling behind because we have stopped worrying" about equality, said Maria Liisberg of the Danish Institute for Human Rights. And the consequences are beginning to show.

In an era of sluggish growth and aging populations across the developed world, promoting greater equality and female labor participation is seen as crucial to maintaining living standards. So for Denmark, where growth struggles to top 2 percent, taking its eye off the ball could be costly. 

After decades of progress, the difference between the proportion of men and women in full time employment steadied at around 13 percent.

A government commission examining equal pay in the public sector concluded in 2010 that Denmark had achieved equal pay for equal work, but recognized that there is still a significant difference in earnings because women who join the workforce tend to be younger, less experienced, work shorter hours, take more leave and retire earlier. Women also tend to prevail in poorly paid jobs, such as nursing and teaching.

The fact that women remain at an economic disadvantage to men is also evident from the next chart, which measures the proportion of couples where the female is the highest earner. Not only has that proportion fallen from its 2010 peak of 32 percent, the situation hasn't got much better for younger women.

The data raises fundamental questions, such as: What is the best way of achieving full equality?

While Sweden, Norway, Iceland and Finland continue to top the World Economic Forum's rankings on gender equality, Denmark has slipped to 19th place, with the organization's 2016 report singling it out as a country where progress has been stalling.

According to Liisberg, the most important difference is in how the Nordic countries deal with parental leave.

While all Scandinavian offer very generous conditions, Sweden differs from Denmark in that it has introduced legislation designed to force men to take longer parental leave.

Liisberg suggests that Denmark's voluntary approach ends up working against career mums, with Danish fathers on average taking out less than 10 percent of the leave available to them.

The previous left-of-center government, headed by Denmark's first female prime minister, Helle Thorning-Schmidt, reneged on a campaign pledge to legislate in this area, while the current center-right coalition isn't keen on red tape.

"Equal rights is about equal opportunities and we think opportunities are equal," the current equality minister, Karen Elleman Jensen of the Liberal Party, told lawmakers this month. "Personally, I don't think we should start regulating these things," she said when asked about European Union plans to regulate gender representation in the boardroom, as they do in Norway.

The lack of progress can also be found in political sphere, perhaps offering a clue as to why gender equality is dropping off the Danish radar.

The proportion of female politicians running for office also seems to have hit an apex, falling slightly in the elections of 2015.

In Denmark "we think that the differences are down to natural causes, to women not wanting to live the same way as men, rather than due to a lack of equal opportunities," Liisberg said. "Obviously, such views do not incite action."

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