Norway’s equal pay problem

Meet Ellen Ewald, the woman behind the recent lawsuit

Photo courtesy of Ellen Ewald Ewald took on the Royal Norwegian Embassy in court—and won.

Photo courtesy of Ellen Ewald
Ewald took on the Royal Norwegian Embassy in court—and won.

Kari Heistad
Edina, Minn.

Norway discriminating against women? It must be a mistake. That was the first thought that came to mind when Ellen Ewald, a Minnesota woman, first discovered that she was being paid $30,000 less than her male counterpart at the Norwegian Consulate in Minneapolis. Ewald recently won a pay discrimination case against the Royal Norwegian Embassy.

It seemed impossible to Ewald that Norway—a country with a reputation as a leader in the area of human rights—would violate a policy as widely supported as Equal Pay for Equal Work. But as she found out during a nasty four-year legal battle, it is one thing to talk the talk and quite another to walk the walk.

I was fortunate enough to meet Ewald for a cup of coffee in the heart of the Twin Cities to hear the whole story. Having followed her case in the Minneapolis Star Tribune, I knew that she had recently sued the Norwegian government for over $2 million, so you could say I was slightly intimidated. Despite her huge success, however, the woman who sat across from me for the better part of an hour, sipping a latte, was surprisingly unassuming, quick to laugh, and exceptionally kind. In fact, it felt less like an interview and more like a coffee break with a friend—granted, a friend with a highly impressive resume.

Ewald earned the position as director of higher education research for the Royal Norwegian Consulate in Minneapolis in 2008. She and her colleague, Anders Davidson, were given the task of promoting research-based innovation in areas of common interest between Norway and the Midwest—Ewald working in the field of education and Davidson in the field of business. Ewald likened her job to building a bridge, and the Midwest already had a great foundation to start construction.

“There is a lot of goodwill here [among Norwegian Americans],” Ewald noted. She hoped that goodwill would help foster the development of new research collaborations and student exchanges between Norway and the Midwest. “It was my dream job,” Ewald said with an infectious smile spreading across her face.

Unfortunately, Ewald’s dream turned rather nightmarish when she learned the shocking truth that a Norwegian government organization was discriminating against her because of her gender. Ewald first realized that something was wrong when she attempted to register her family for health insurance through the Royal Norwegian Embassy. She knew that Davidson and his family were registered through the Embassy, but Ewald had never been given the opportunity to register her family. It must be a mistake, she thought.

Ewald inquired as to how she could receive the same benefits as Davidson, assuming someone had simply made an error. Much to her surprise, not only was the disparity intentional, no one was going to attempt to rectify the injustice. As she put it, the Embassy “gave her the runaround,” claiming that her husband was not dependent on her and that her children were too old to receive health benefits (both of these claims were later disproved in the lawsuit). It was only after dozens of similar responses that Ewald discovered the extent of the discrimination that was taking place; she was being paid a total of $30,000 less each year than her male counterpart.

“It was the biggest shock of my life that I would be treated differently by the Norwegian government,” she reflected soberly. “I know what [Norway’s] values are and this didn’t make sense to me.”

Ewald asked herself, what am I going to do about this? The answer came to her when she attended a speech at Luther College in Decorah, Iowa, given by Nobel Peace Prize winner Shirin Ebadi, who was honored in 2003 for her human rights work for women and children in Iran. In her talk, Ebadi urged people of “the West” to combat all forms of injustice. Her message was straightforward: if you don’t fight for your rights, they can be taken away from you. “That was kind of my calling,” Ewald concluded. And so she decided to fight for her rights against the Royal Norwegian Embassy in a court of law.

Four years later, on Dec. 31, 2014, U.S. District Court Judge Susan R. Nelson named Ewald the victor of that battle in a massive 191-page decision, which awarded Ewald $82,935 for lost wages, $30,000 for emotional distress, and $1,845,065 to her attorneys for their expenses. The Minnesota Department of Human Rights also charged the Royal Norwegian Embassy with a human rights violation. However, there have been seemingly no consequences for the employees who discriminated against Ewald. In fact, every single person who was involved in her case has since received a promotion within the Foreign Service.

So now the question is, will “Ewald vs. Royal Norwegian Embassy” lead to substantive progress in the pursuit of Equal Pay for Equal Work? “I hope, I hope, I hope that it will make a difference for women in the Foreign Service,” Ewald said.

The case has certainly helped raise awareness in both Minnesota and Norway about the issue of pay discrimination, and Norwegians and Norwegian-Americans alike have celebrated the court’s decision. Furthermore, because the U.S. District Court decision will not be appealed, it can be cited as precedent and will help other women pursuing similar claims.
“Women have so much going for us. We have so many leadership skills,” Ewald exclaimed. “We’re wasting talent by discriminating against them.”

And it takes women like Ewald, who are courageous enough to fight for their own rights, to aid women everywhere in the pursuit of equal rights.

This article originally appeared in the July 17, 2015, issue of the Norwegian American Weekly.

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The Norwegian American is North America's oldest and only Norwegian newspaper, published since May 17, 1889.