The most important gender equality lesson of 2016 has nothing to do with how or why American voters failed to elect USA’s first female president when they finally had the chance. Rather, it’s about why Denmark dropped from 14th to 19th place on the World Economic Forum’s annual Global Gender Gap Index, the famous GGGI.
Denmark is a tiny Nordic country of 5 million people that you can hardly see on this map.
How it scores on the WEF’s GGGI may not seem important to a lot of people, but consider this: Denmark was ranked the fifth most gender equal country in the world in 2014, while its Nordic cousins – Finland, Norway, Iceland, and Sweden – consistently grabbed the top four spots from 2014 until today. But Denmark has been sliding backwards for two years now. It dropped to 14th in 2015 and, then, all the way to 19th in this year’s rankings.
“How did this happen?” we should all be yelling from the top of Christiansborg Palace. Because if it could happen to Denmark, it could happen anywhere. Unless, of course, it has something to do with some peculiarity of Danish culture. Hint: I don’t think it does.
Is there a snake in gender equality paradise?
Before I identify some of the factors that explain Denmark’s fall from grace, you need to know, first, that a perfect score on the GGGI is 1.00. A perfect score means there’s no gender gap. That is, men and women are equally well (or bad) off. Second, no country has closed all its gender gaps. Iceland has the top score – 0.871. Denmark comes in at a measly 0.754, down from 0.767 in 2015 and 0.8025 in 2014.
Given the above, here’s what happened to explain the tumble. It has to do with growing gender gaps in economic participation and opportunity and in political empowerment, as this diagram from the WEF’s report indicates.
While the other Nordic countries have been showing steady improvements in these areas, Denmark didn’t. The Danish gender gaps in these two areas are getting bigger, not smaller – or only staying the same.
Denmark is especially weak in regards to women in leadership (ranking 78th out of 144 in the world with a depressing score of just 0.366) and estimated earned income (ranking 42nd with a score of 0.667). This is just unbelievable for such a well educated, civil, and creative society as Denmark.
Ah, you wonder: what does Denmark do to distinguish itself so lowly? I think it has something to do with this: it hasn’t adopted any major legislation designed to close gender gaps since it passed anti-discrimination legislation in the 1970s. The other Nordic countries have.
Take legislation that addresses the kind of work/family conflicts that have tended to contribute to gender gaps in the labour market. All the Nordic countries – except for Denmark – have adopted legislation granting employees the right to reduced hours or to flexible working hours to help them reconcile work and childcare obligations.
And when it comes to paid parental leave, Denmark is also the exception. It is also the only Nordic country that does not grant dads their own right to a lengthy paternity leave. In Denmark, moms and dads are allowed to share 32 weeks of leave (while moms get their own 20 weeks). The four other Nordic countries started passing legislation in the 1990s to reserve some of the leave just for dads: from at least 10 weeks (in Norway) up to 3 months (in Sweden). The result?
Take a look at this graph from the Nordic Council of Ministers. Once again, Denmark takes a humiliating last place. Finland started at a lower point than Denmark in 1995 and is now outperforming it by a small margin on this particular indicator. Could it be because it earmarked leave for dads? That was a rhetorical question.
Such results are paradoxical, to say the least, given that the Danish people express strong support for the concept of gender equality – at least that’s what the Danish Ministry of Culture included in its new canon of Danish culture.
The canon is the result of debates about Danish values and traditions held around the country in late summer 2016. The ministry collected 2425 proposals from individuals, school groups, politicians, and various organizations. Six professional curators sorted through all the suggestions and organized them into 10 different categories of general Danish values that were submitted to a vote in November. One of the winners was – you guessed it – gender equality. So apparently Danes think gender equality is an important value in Danish culture, but action is lacking.
What’s the lesson we should learn from this? It’s a powerful one: Believing in the importance of gender equality is not enough to achieve it. We have to pay attention, take meaningful actions and pass meaningful laws in response to changing conditions. If we don’t, the progress we’ve made will start to slip through our fingers. And that’s a lesson everyone needs to learn.