Norway - world leader in gender equality

Norway - world leader in gender equality


Norway is highly rated with respect to international comparison of equality between women and men. Within education, labour market and political life, Norway is among the countries in which women do very well in relation to men. In two of the United Nations indexes for gender equality, Norway was ranked as the most gender-equal nation in 2001. There is however room for improvement in other areas before full equality is achieved in Norway.

It is problematic to compare equality across different countries. Finding good indicators on equality is difficult and indicators that depict the situation for men and women can differ from country to country and from culture to culture. It is equally difficult to find comparable statistics in the respective countries. Data collection methods and definitions can vary significantly. The purpose of this article is not to present a complete picture of equality in Norway compared with other countries. The objective is to present the situation in three areas of significance in the lives of men and women: education, work and political positions. The comparison will mainly be restricted to countries in Europe and North America. Finally, I will try to present some of the attempts made by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) to map out common global objectives for equality.


The data for this article have been obtained from the publication "Women and men in Europe and North America 2000", published by the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE). This publication also has various references. Some of the data are from the United Nations, some are taken from national offices of statistics. The problem with international comparison is the fact that definitions and data collection methods very often differ between countries. The overview here however presents the situation for women and men in the European Union, the rest of Western Europe and North America.

Few men in higher education?

Many western countries have a clear over-representation of women among university graduates. Table 1 contains data for several years but illustrates that in many western countries the proportion of female graduates is between 50 and 60 per cent and in some cases above 60 per cent. Norway leads this group with 66.6 per cent women among those with university education. Denmark, Finland, Sweden and Portugal also have figures over 60 per cent. The Nordic countries are highly placed when it comes to women in education.

Education is one of the few areas in which the question of equality has been turned on its head. The objective of equality is often presented as a division of 50-50 per cent. In education, women are above men and one can ask if measures should be put in place to recruit more men into higher education.

However the picture looks different when specific areas of study are considered. In most countries men still dominate subject areas such as mathematics and natural sciences, computer science and engineering. Norway is among the countries in Western Europe with a low proportion of women in these areas. Within mathematics and natural sciences, Norway's proportion of 16.9 per cent is one of the lowest compared with available data from countries presented here. Norway is followed by Switzerland with 29.3 per cent. The highest proportion of women in these fields of study can be found in the southern European countries of Portugal and Italy with 54.5 and 52.8 per cent respectively. Within engineering, none of the countries are close to an equal representation of women and men.

The highest proportion of women in engineering is in Portugal and Greece with about 30 per cent. Austria has the lowest share at 13 per cent. Norway is doing slightly better at 17.1 per cent.

Study areas in which women dominate include the arts, humanities, social sciences and health sciences. Within health sciences, Germany and Switzerland are the only two countries in table 1 where there is no over-representation of women among the graduates. In many countries eight out of ten graduates in health sciences are women, e.g. the USA, Sweden and Norway. In Denmark, over 90 per cent of graduates in health related sciences are women.

Women work more than men

Division of labour is a central theme in equality. The division of both paid and unpaid labour between women and men varies from one country to the other. The total amount of time spent on paid and unpaid work in Norway is higher for women than men, 28 per cent against 27.7 per cent. For most countries in table 2, however, unpaid labour represents a much larger portion of total labour for women than for men, whereas paid labour represents a much larger portion for men than women.

In Norway the total time spent on work for women is 0.3 percentage points higher than for men. In most countries the difference is considerably higher. In Italy women seem to work much more than men. The total time spent on work for women is 6.4 percentage points higher than that for men. Latvia and Austria also have relatively big differences with figures for women 4.7 and 3.4 percentage points higher than figures for men. The Netherlands is one of the few countries where it appears that men work the most. The difference is 2.9 percentage points. Our neighbours in Finland and Sweden have greater differences than Norway: Women work the most and the difference is 1.3 and 1.2 percentage points higher than for men respectively.

Male majority in the labour force

It is no surprise that there are more men than women in the labour force. However there has been a development with more women entering the labour force and a reduction of the difference between women and men in most countries. All the countries in table 3 have seen an increase of women in the labour force. In Norway the difference between women and men in the labour force was reduced from 25.1 to 10.1 per cent between 1980 and 1998. Finland is in the lead with a difference of 7.4 percentage points. Among the countries that still have a relatively low proportion of women in the labour force are Greece, Ireland, Italy and Spain.

Greece, Ireland and Spain have however seen the largest reduction in labour force participation differences between women and men from 1980 to 1998. Greece and Ireland have reduced the difference by approximately 20 percentage points and Spain by approximately 30 percentage points. Norway has a relatively large labour force compared to other western countries, especially for women. In 1998 the proportion of women in the labour force was 68.1 per cent. Among all countries presented in table 3, only Denmark has more than 60 per cent women in the labour force with 60.4 per cent.

Large share of women working part-time in Norway

In addition to the fact that there are normally more men than women in the labour force, it is equally common in most countries that more women than men work part-time. Table 4 illustrates the distribution of women and men in the age group 20-29 years working part-time in 1990 and 1998. For both women and men there has been a tendency towards an increase of part-time workers within this period, but the changes have been more significant for women. This development should be looked at in relation to the general increase in the labour force in this period, especially for women.

The proportion of women working part-time has gradually declined during the 1990s. For the age group in question, however, the proportion of women working part-time has remained stable at 42.2 per cent from 1990 to 1998. Only the Netherlands with 58.5 per cent, Iceland with 45.6 per cent and Switzerland with 44.2 per cent had a higher part-time percentage than Norway. Sweden had almost the same proportion of women part-time workers in this age group as Norway with 37.3 per cent. Denmark and Finland had a significantly lower proportion of women part-time workers at 12.3 per cent and 25.9 per cent respectively. Denmark had an exceptionally low percentage of women part-time workers, but it is worth noting that Denmark also has a lower proportion of women in the labour force than Norway.

Denmark is also the country with the smallest gender difference for part-time workers in 1998. The difference amounted to 3.8 per cent, 12.3 per cent for women and 8.5 per cent for men. Other countries with minor differences are Portugal and Greece with a difference of 4 per cent and 4.8 per cent respectively. Some possible explanations may be that these countries have few women in the labour force and that they normally work full-time. Greece has an extremely low proportion of women in the labour force with 36.7 per cent, whereas the figure for Portugal is 52.1 per cent.

Norway has a relatively big difference between women and men working part-time: 32.5 per cent, 42.2 per cent for women and 9.7 per cent for men. The gap has become smaller since 1990, but it is still considerable compared to most other European countries.

Three countries in table 4 have greater differences, the Netherlands with 45.5 per cent, Switzerland with 36.8 per cent and Iceland with 35.3 per cent. The figure increased in the Netherlands and Switzerland in the 1990s.

Huge differences in unemployment

In the last few years there have only been minor differences in unemployment between women and men in Norway. In 1998 the figures were 3.2 and 3.3 per cent respectively. Few countries in Europe and North America have higher unemployment rates for men than women. Of the countries in figure 1, this only applies to Great Britain, Sweden, Ireland and Canada. Some countries have relatively small differences between women and men, with only a small majority of women among the unemployed. However Spain, Greece and Italy all have a noticeable higher share of unemployed women. Explaining these differences is difficult, but the segregation of the labour market probably plays a crucial role. If typical male or female professions are affected in times of economic recession, this will have an impact on unemployment figures. In the early 1990s there was a higher share of unemployed men in Norway, due to the fact that more men were employed in manufacturing industries and construction, industries that were more affected by the recession than other industries.

The Nordic countries have the most gender equal political institutions

An important aspect in gender equality is access to and representation in administrative and political key positions. When examining the share of women in the Legislature, the Nordic countries score high. Compared with other European countries and North America, Sweden has the highest share of women with 43 per cent, followed by Denmark and Finland, both with 37 per cent. In Norway 36 per cent of the representatives in the Legislature are women. In the European Union only Germany has a figure above 30 per cent, with 31 per cent female representation. In comparison, Great Britain has 18 per cent and Italy and France have 11 per cent. In 2000, seven countries in Europe and North America had a share of women higher than 30 per cent. This is an increase from 1990, when only the Nordic countries had figures over 30 per cent. In 1980 no countries had reached this level. Commonly a share of 30 per cent is considered a necessity for women to be an influential force in politics.

Gender-related Development Index (GDI)

The GDI is a parallel measure to the more known Human Development Index (HDI), and assesses the same dimensions, however the GDI incorporates differences between women and men. GDI is a measure of human development in a society, where distribution of welfare between women and men is taken into account. The GDI uses the same variables as the HDI. GDI has four indicators and these are life expectancy, literacy, education and expected income. These indicators have been evaluated and combined into a single index.

Most countries in Europe now have specific measures for increasing female representation in most areas in society. However, these measures vary from loosely formulated rhetorical objectives to specific targets. Hence it comes as no surprise that the development over the past 10 years has been clearly diverse in the region. Whereas the Nordic countries in particular have seen a substantial increase in female representation, in other Western countries the reform process has been somewhat slower. In 1990, three of the fifteen member states in the EU had a female representation above 25 per cent. In 2000 the figure had increased to six. Most countries had experienced an increase, however moderate in some countries. Only Italy had a fall in female representation. In 1990 the share of women in the Legislature was 13 per cent, in 2000 it had fallen to 11 per cent.

Room for improvement in Cabinet

In Norway, as in many other countries, the share of women in the Executive is higher than in the Legislature. In 1999 there was a 42 per cent representation of women in the Norwegian Cabinet. At the same time there was full equality in the Swedish Cabinet, with an equal share of men and women. Also Finland had a higher share than Norway, with 44 per cent female representation. Iceland stands out from the other Nordic countries with a share of only 10 per cent. In Western Europe, Greece, Spain and Portugal have a particularly low share, whereas Germany is close to the Nordic countries. Although some countries have a high share of women in the Executive, female Cabinet members are often in charge of softer ministries such as Health, Culture or Education.

A long way to go in the administration

Political power is not only found in the elected positions. Equal access to higher positions in public administration is just as important. The share of women among Secretary Generals indicates gender equality in the ministries. In this department Norway still has a long way to go. In 1999 only 10 per cent of the Secretary Generals were women, whereas the Swedish share was 34 per cent. Austria had 33 per cent and the USA had 29 per cent. Also Finland was better than Norway with 15 per cent. More surprisingly even Italy was better than Norway with a share of 12 per cent. Of the Western countries Denmark was ranked lowest as none of the Secretary Generals were women. Common for all the countries is that the share of women in high positions in public administration is lower than in the political sphere. One of the reasons for this might be that the length of service and experience probably counts more in the administration than in political elections.

The increase in female representation in politics might be followed by an equal increase in the administration but at a slower pace. As more women participate in working life, more women will probably compete for higher positions in public administration.

Gender Empowerment Measure (GEM)

The GEM measures the participation of women and men in political decision-making. This index also has four indicators: female members of the Legislature, female participation in selected positions in public and private sector, female participation in academic and technical work, and estimated income. Both indexes are based on data collected by the UN and are processed to enable comparison.

Norway tops the UN equality indexes

Presenting a thorough assessment of gender equality in all countries is not a straightforward task. Many aspects are not easily captured by statistical measures and it is equally troublesome to weigh the different indicators. Popular attitude towards women and equal rights is an important indicator, however difficult to measure and compare in cross-national studies. The UNDP has created two indexes aiming to compare differences between women and men in a country. These are the Gender Development Index (GDI) and the Gender Empowerment Measure (GEM). Both have their weaknesses, but are uncontested as the most ambitious attempts to measure and compare gender differences between countries.

In 2001 Norway scored highest of all countries on the GDI (see box), followed by Australia, Canada and the USA. Four of the ten best countries were Nordic, with Sweden in fifth place, Island sixth, and Finland ninth. Denmark ended up as number thirteen. It is only on rare occasions that the GDI differs from the HDI (which is not gender-specific). Luxemburg stands out with a position seven places lower when gender equality is considered. Besides that there are small differences.

GEM (see box) aims to measure differences in participation in society between men and women. Also this measure puts Norway on top. According to the UN, Norway is the best country in the world when it comes to gender equality. Norway is followed by three other Nordic countries; Iceland, Sweden and Finland. Again Denmark is further down the list, ranked as number twelve. Especially one indicator separates the Nordic countries from the other, namely participation in political life. No other countries have as many women in the Legislature as the Nordic countries.

References :

UNDP (2001): Human Development Report 2001 . Oxford University Press, New York.

UNECE (2000): Women and Men in Europe and North America 2000 . United Nations Publications, Geneva.