Scandinavian Women Do Well, Except at the Top


In which part of the world should we expect most women to reach the top? The answer has to be the Nordic countries. According to The Global Gender Gap report, for example, Iceland is the most gender equal country in the world followed by Norway, Finland and Sweden. Yet as I will discuss below, this has not translated in women making it to “the top”, as one might expect. This a paradox that I will seek to address.

Around the world, the Nordic countries are often idealized as the most gender equal places in the world. To a large degree, this admiration is warranted. But it is time to realize that the very same system is holding back women’s ability to reach the top.

To begin with, the Nordics have a unusual gender equal history. The tradition of gender equality has roots in Viking culture. For example, Scandinavian folklore is primarily focused on men who ventured on longboats to trade, explore and pillage. Yet the folklore also includes shiledmaidens, women chosen to fight as warriors. Byzantine historian John Skylitzes records that women were indeed participating in Nordic armies during the 10th century. The fact that women were allowed to bear arms, and train as warriors, suggests that gender segmentation in early Norse societies was considerably more lax – or at least more flexible – than other parts of contemporary Europe. Evidence also suggests that women in early Nordic societies could inherit land and property, that they kept control over their dowry and controlled a third of the property they shared with their spouses. In addition, they could, under some circumstances at least, participate in the public sphere on the same level as men.

Medieval law, which likely reflects earlier traditions, supports this notion. Medieval inheritance laws in Norway for example followed family relations through both male and female lines. Additionally, women could opt for a divorce. These rights might not seem impressive today, but they were rather unusual in a historical context. In many contemporary European and Asian societies, the view was that women simply belonged to their fathers or husbands, having little right to property, divorce or inclusion in the public sphere.

Nordic gender egalitarianism continued after the Viking age, particularly in Sweden. In much of the world, women were excluded from participating, at least fully, in the rise of early capitalism during the 18th and 19th centuries. In essence, free markets and property rights were institutions that initially excluded women. Although Sweden and the other Nordic countries were far from completely egalitarian, they challenged contemporary gender norms by opening up early capitalism for women’s participation.

As shown below, the World Value Survey has asked respondents around the world whether they believe that men should be prioritized over women if jobs are scares. In modern market economies, fewer agree with this notion. In Switzerland for example, 22 per cent believe that men should have more right to a job than women, compared to 16 per cent in the United Kingdom and 14 per cent in Canada and Australia. Sweden has the lowest share agreeing with this view, merely 2 per cent. Norway (6 per cent) and Finland (10 per cent) are also amongst the countries with egalitarian views.

In addition, the Nordic welfare states have encouraged women to enter the labor market early on. Still today Nordic countries are ahead of most of Europe in this regard. Child care cost and paid maternity, services provided largely by the public sector in the Nordic welfare states, can in part explain the high labor participation amongst both parents. Such systems are much more extensively funded by the public sector in the Nordics compared to other modern economies, and particularly so compared to the Anglo-Saxon nations. Although even here, the United States, still not a full welfare state, does surprisingly well.

A long history of gender equality, gender equal norms, many women actively participating in the labor market and family friendly welfare policies – surely this should be seen as the recipe for many women reaching the top of the business world? In the new book The Nordic Gender Equality Paradox I show that this is not the case. In Nordic countries surprisingly few women have made to the top echelons.   

The OECD gathers information about the proportion of employed persons which have managerial responsibilities in different developed economies. In the table below the share of women managers in different countries is shown as a percentage of the share of male managers. This calculation yields a measure of the likelihood of the average employed women to reach a managerial position compared to the average employed man. The likelihood of a women reaching a managerial position as compared to the same likelihood for a man in the United States is found to be 85 per cent. This is far higher than any other country in the study. As a comparison, the same share is 60 per cent in the United Kingdom and 52 in Sweden. Norway (48 per cent), Finland (44 per cent) and Denmark (37 per cent) score even lower.

It should be emphasized that this measure includes public sector managers, which inflates the figures for Nordic countries compared to if private sector managers had been studied. The data paints a clear picture: The United States, where welfare state programs do not subsidize women’s parental leave has more women reaching managerial positions than any of the Nordic welfare states.

Why is it that Nordic countries fail to reach their gender equal potential? Shouldn’t these countries be heads and shoulders above the US when it comes to the share of women climbing to the top? Progressive theorists would naturally assume this. But in reality there is a paradox here; the egalitarianism of the Nordics has clear limits.   At the end of 2014 for example, The Economist ran a story entitled A Nordic mystery

“Visit a typical Nordic company headquarters and you will notice something striking among the standing desks and modernist furniture: the senior managers are still mostly men, and most of the women are [program administrators]. The egalitarian flame that burns so brightly at the bottom of society splutters at the top of business.”

As I explain in The Nordic Gender Equality Paradox there is a logical answer to the apparent paradox: policy matters. Numerous studies support the conclusion that the large welfare states in the Nordics, although designed to aid in women’s progress, in fact are hindering the very same progress. Social democratic systems do provide a range of benefits for women, such as generous parental leave systems and publicly financed day care for children. The models however also have features that are detrimental to woman’s careers.

To give an illustrative example, public sector monopolies in women-dominated areas such as health and education seem to substantially reduce the opportunities for business ownership and career success amongst women. Welfare state safety nets in particular discourage women from self-employment. Overly generous parental leave systems encourage women to stay home rather than work. Substantial tax wedges make it difficult to purchase services that substitute for household work, which reduces the ability of two parents to engage fully in the labor market.

The Nordic welfare model has, perhaps unintentionally, created a model where many women work but seldom in the private sector and seldom enough hours to be able to reach the top. For example, it might seem as a puzzle why the Baltic countries – which have much more conservative and family oriented cultures – have a higher share of women amongst managers, top executives and business owners than their Nordic neighbors. As shown below, a key factor is difference in working time. In the Nordic societies the average employed man works fully 22 per cent more hours than the average working women. In the Baltic model, where families have greater choice in organizing their lives compared to the Nordic welfare states, the gap is only 9 per cent. On top of this comparison, which looks at working individuals, many Nordic women also take long parental leaves, paid to do so by the welfare state, and thus fall behind in their careers. Of course Baltic mothers are also much concerned for the upbringing of their children. However, many of them solve the equation by getting help from family, perhaps grandmother, to watch the children or buy services to alleviate household work – something easier to do in low-tax countries.

Thus, for all their gender equal progress, the Nordic countries in fact have relatively few women entrepreneurs, managers and executives. And there is really not a paradox why this situation has developed. It’s all about the policy choices made in the Nordics.

As is clear, an expansive welfare state may be good for some things, but expanding the ranks of managers for women is not one of them. The feminist heritage that dates back to the age of the Vikings needs to be combined with a more free-market and small government approach if Nordic societies are to fulfill their gender equal potential. Perhaps this is also a lesson to the rest of the world, where progressive policies are often seen as the recipe for promoting women’s careers.

Nima Sanandaji is the president of the European Centre for Policy Reform and Entrepreneurship ( and a research fellow at the Centre for Policy Studies and at the Centre for Market Reform of Education. His latest book, The Nordic Gender Equality Paradox, can be ordered here.