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Nordic Countries Top Gender Equality List: What Are They Doing Right?

Confident business woman with other employee's at the backBy Melissa J. Anderson (New York City)

The World Economic Forum has just released its Global Gender Gap Report [PDF] for 2010. And for the second year in a row, Iceland topped the list as having the smallest gender gap. The report ranks countries based on gender balance related to economic participation and opportunity, educational attainment, health and survival, and political empowerment.

The report showed that across most countries, the gender gaps in heath and education are nearly closed, but parity is a long way off for economic and political attainment. The report says:

“However, the gap between women and men on economic participation and political empowerment remains wide: only 59% of the economic outcomes gap and only 18% of the political outcomes gap has been closed.”

The continued gap in these areas is a serious problem. When women across the globe are not considered as valuable as men economically or politically, we are ignoring half of our best and brightest individuals. It follows that companies and countries are only performing at half capacity. Vineet Nayar, Chief Executive Officer, HCL Technologies, said:

“The Global Gender Gap Report highlights serious gender inequities that need to be rectified. But just as important, it shines a light on the squandered resources that result from our failure to leverage female human capital. The report’s message is one that businesses must heed — not just out of fairness but because companies are wasting talents and skills that can generate significant competitive advantage.”

Nordic Countries are Leading the Way

“Nordic countries continue to lead the way in eliminating gender inequality,” said Klaus Schwab, founder and executive chairman of the World Economic Forum.

Following Iceland was Norway, Finland, and Sweden in second, third, and fourth place. Fifth and sixth place went to New Zealand and the Republic of Ireland, respectively, followed by Denmark in seventh place. Iceland was ranked number one because of “gains in the area of political empowerment because of an increase in the number of women ministers, a near gender-balanced parliament and the continued tenure of a female prime minister,” as well as near-equal rates of women in the workforce and educational attainment.

With so many Nordic countries in the top tier of global gender equality, we must be able to learn something from them. Recently I had a conversation with Arni Hole, Director of Norway’s General Ministry of Children, Equality, and Social Inclusion (which championed Norway’s gender quota laws). She explained that her country’s success in gender equality comes from a holistic view – not just examining it as an economic or educational issue, but through a number of programs and ideas working in concert to further parity.

She explained, “Everything goes together as a web of systems.”

What Else is Norway Doing to Close the Gender Gap?

Hole pointed out that while a number of other countries in Europe have enacted, or are considering enacting, gender quotas, Norway’s law remains the strictest. In 2003, Norway passed a law requiring at least 40% percent of boards of publicly traded companies to be must be composed of women.

Companies were given two years to comply or face dissolution. Hole explained, for example, that Spain’s companies will not face dissolution, only a fine. She mentioned that the quotation only applies to elected and appointed positions – placing a quota on non-elected jobs would “clash with discrimination laws in the EU.”

And it only applies to Norway’s largest publicly traded companies, Hole added. “150,000 small and medium sized companies are not affected by the quota.”

Additionally, she explained that all employers (except for small businesses which may face inordinate expenses) in the country are required to report annually on the gender, ethnicity, and disability statistics of their workforce. By requiring firms to publicly disclose this information, they are subject to public scrutiny, she said, by a culture which highly prizes equality.

“Nobody wants to be the bad guy,” she explained.

But one of the largest reasons for Norway’s success – and the other Nordic countries’ success as well – is its focus on work/life equality. According to the Gender Gap Report:

These patterns vary across the Nordic countries, but on the whole these economies have made it possible for parents to combine work and family, resulting in high female participation rates, more shared participation in childcare, more equitable distribution of labour at home, better work-life balance for both women and men and in some cases a boost to declining fertility rates. Policies applied in these countries include mandatory paternal leave in combination with maternity leave, generous federally mandated parental leave benefits provided by a combination of social insurance funds and employers, tax incentives and post-maternity re-entry programmes.

By focusing on home and family equality, these countries have managed to improve the status of women and close participation gaps in politics and the workplace.

As Ricardo Hausmann, co-author of the report and director of the Centre for International Development at Harvard University, explained, “Progress will be achieved when countries seek to reap returns on the investment in health and education of girls and women by finding ways to make marriage and motherhood compatible with the economic participation of women.”

Editor’s Note: The FTC (and our own journalistic integrity) requires us to explain that our trip to Norway was funded by the Royal Norwegian Consulate General in New York.