Gender equality in the workplace

What can the we learn from looking at the Nordic countries?

Nordic gender equality

Photo: Maria Antvort / NACC USA
The Norwegian American Chamber of Commerce USA presented a program on “Gender Equality in Business: Best Practices from the Nordics.” The presenters, from left, were Ewa Staworzynska, president of NACC’s Young Associates; Kristi Birkeland Sørensen, senior VP & head of corporate banking, DNB North America; Elizabeth Calkins Kvelland, consultant, Deloitte Consulting; and Angela Goulovitch, consultant, International Labor Organization.

Victoria Hofmo
Brooklyn, N.Y.

An important and practical topic, “Gender Equality in Business: Best Practices from the Nordics,” was sponsored by the Norwegian American Chamber of Commerce on April 4 at its WeWork Grand Central location. The panel was the brainchild of Ewa Staworzynska, president of NACC’s Young Associates and program moderator. It was geared toward young professionals.

The event was described as a “discussion on Nordic business culture and how it promotes equality. Learn ways of handling challenges in the workplace that can help accelerate your career.” The panelists were Elizabeth Calkins Kvelland, a consultant at Deloitte and former HR specialist and global programs manager at Norsk Hydro; Kristi Birkeland Sørensen, senior VP and head of corporate banking at DNB North America; and Angela Goulovitch, a consultant for the International Labor Organization. Staworzynska highlighted the key points made by the panel.

(Phrases in italics were paraphrased by Staworzynska.) 

Equal pay and place

Women, especially if single and caring for children or parents, have a rougher time making ends meet. Even in high positions, a pay discrepancy exists between women and men. Equitable pay is essential.

Goulovitch noted that while most companies have anti-discrimination policies in place, there is still a long way to go in terms of equal pay, equal representation of women in managerial and board positions, and equal care responsibilities. Discrepancies among men and women’s responsibilities at home have a significant impact on gender equality in businesses; women pay the price for doing more care work.

I am optimistic, because you can see that in one or two generations in Scandinavia, as well as in the States, many men have taken on more of the caregiving and domestic responsibilities. This has another positive consequence: the bond between fathers and children is blossoming, which in turn boosts self-confidence, especially in daughters. Might this result in the latter being more assertive in advocating for pay raises and promotions?

Changing the culture

In terms of finance being a man-dominated field, Sørensen highlighted that such dominance varies greatly from team to team within DNB. She said that the best way to combat this is to speak up when condescending comments or other instances of gender bias occur (for example, when a man calls a woman “sweetie”). She underscored that one should not only speak up for oneself, but, more importantly, for others, as this has a strong impact on the working culture.

Norsk Hydro & DNB: Stellar examples

Kvelland said that Norsk Hydro’s flexible working hours and family-friendly environment allowed both men and women to work around their care responsibilities, such as picking up their kids from school. Sørensen added that this is also the case at DNB. Working parents may leave work early to pick up their kids, and there is an assumption that they will continue the work at home. This helps level the playing field to some extent.

For companies that have the staff and structure to allow for flexible hours, it should be encouraged.

Where we are today

In terms of trends over time, the increased awareness and transparency in the business world have helped raise gender equality to the top of the agenda. The #MeToo movement has also impacted perceptions within companies. While Nordic businesses have been leading on gender equality for decades, it is positive to see strong improvements and an overall positive trend. Yet, the change should be accelerated.

A surprising—or not surprising—find

Goulovitch mentioned that the latest research from the ILO confirmed that there is a lot of work to be done to achieve equal pay and representation in top leadership. An interesting finding was that it takes women less time to reach managerial positions compared with men. This can be due to various factors, but these women are on average more educated than men. The phenomenon seems to be a symptom of the problem; women typically have to work harder than men to achieve the same. Those women who reach manager positions are not the majority of women, but only the best of the best.

Are there specific markers from Nordic policies that could be defined and serve as goals for U.S. companies, as well as companies worldwide? Goulovitch highlighted that the most successful Nordic companies have the following policies in place: parental leave for both parents; a family-friendly working culture; equal pay audits; and transparency and publishing of company-wide equal pay numbers, methodologies, external gender audits, and internal surveys of workers’ perceptions. The latter is particularly important. While all company results on paper may be fine, workers may still be subject to gender bias and subliminal discrimination.

Kvelland and Sørensen agreed with Goulovitch’s findings and highlighted that shared parental leave was critical to improving gender equality. While more women than men use parental leave, the push to let both parents take leave has fundamentally impacted company cultures. It is clearer than before that men and women’s equality in business is dependent on equality at home. Nordic companies have been able to lead on this, thanks to their company culture, including shared parental leave. This has ingrained company norms on gender equality, and it is why Nordic companies are uniquely positioned to “reach” gender equality.

In conclusion, the Nordic countries’ workplace policies are good models of how to achieve gender equality. The United States and other countries could learn from Nordic practices, which have now been in place for decades. There is empirical evidence of their success and concrete proof of what is working.

This article originally appeared in the May 3, 2019, issue of The Norwegian American.

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Victoria Hofmo

Victoria Hofmo was born, raised, and still lives in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, the historical heart of Norwegian New York. She is 3/4 Scandinavian: 1/2 Norwegian and 1/4 Danish/Swedish. Self-employed, she runs an out-of-school-time program that articulates learning through the arts. Hofmo is an advocate for arts and culture, education, and the preservation of the built and natural environment of her hometown, with a love for most things Scandinavian.