It’s said of Winston Churchill that when he wanted a martini he would pour himself a large gin and think of France (in tribute to the origin of vermouth, the cocktail’s usual other ingredient). I sometimes think that in the UK, policies for gender equality are similarly formulated: write the reform you want whilst thinking of Scandinavia. This usually means Sweden, but with a nod to Finland for education, Norway for wealth, and this week’s much heralded Iceland, for overall gender equality.
In the midst of coverage of the World Economic Forum (WEF) Global Gender Gap Index, in the UK we have paid most attention to our own drop in position. Last year, according to the WEF index, we were still in the Top 20, as I blogged in June when looking at how the World Cup countries fared in gender equality rankings. Now we have dropped to no. 26 in the table – the top 5 are all Nordic, with Iceland at number 1. Meanwhile, in the Guardian, a prominent Icelandic gender equality analyst has reminded us, that in spite of its successes, Iceland is ‘no feminist paradise’. Why not? Well, in short, because gender equality remains to be achieved.
In an index like the WEF’s, you’re presented with differences between men’s and women’s positions on economic, political, health and educational dimensions within countries, rather than levels of opportunity in each of these areas. So countries move up and down the index, depending on how they affecting the gaps between men and women’s circumstances, rather than on the actual opportunities available. Many middle-income nations therefore come high up in the rankings. Moreover, as Ms Rudolfsdottir points out in the Guardian article, the gender gap between Icelandic men and women in terms of life expectancy may not be terribly bothersome, when you recognise that both men and women live to be over 80: there’s a gap, but not at a level where it suggests that there are major failings in meeting public health needs.
In other respects, however, even Icelandic figures show that much remains to be done. Iceland is well-known for having amongst the highest female political participation rates in the world. These are boosted by a voluntary quota system for party candidates – so future success is not written in stone.
And although generous parental leave entitlements are a crucial part of Iceland’s picture of success (they have the longest period of dedicated fathers’ leave anywhere) even these measures have not resulted in abolition of the gender pay gap – although women’s participation in employment is very high at 88%. The gender pay gap in Iceland is around 20%, not dissimilar to the UK’s. The explanation for this perhaps surprising finding, is that men and women tend to be employed in different sectors. Icelandic men are more likely to enter relatively well-paid areas such as scientific and technical sectors and construction, compared to women’s greater participation in sectors such as social and personal care, and public sector professions in administration, health and education. Other Nordic countries share this characteristic of high performance in terms of retaining women in work, but having a lesser impact on pay differentials between men and women. Gender parity will come when more girls train for professions which command the highest salaries, and/or when ‘caring’ roles attain higher value. There is, indeed, much to do…
As for the UK, we should be concerned that at a time when we are outperforming many other countries economically, our gender inequalities remain: the gender pay gap is, in fact, increasing. Levels of female participation in politics are poor here compared to our Nordic counterparts: we rank 75th in the world in terms of women occupying ministerial positions, and women still account for fewer than a quarter of MPs.
So we need to take a long hard look at the ingredients for closing gender gaps –we still have to find the perfect policy cocktail to produce gender equality in economics, politics, health and education, anywhere in the world. Whilst women’s employment rates in the UK are increasing, we now rank only 48th in the world, according to WEF. The cost of childcare is an important part of the picture: we pay high fees for a fragmented system, whereas universal, state-subsidised childcare is available throughout Scandinavia. Nordic models may not solve everything, but by paying attention to universal service provision and men’s role in the home, they have progressed further towards gender equality than we have. Let’s be stirred to further action, not shaken by obstacles along the way.