By Melissa J. Anderson (New York City)
In 2010, I had the opportunity to visit Norway to learn how the country’s gender equality laws work – up close and in person. Norway is famous for enacting legislation in 2003 that required 40% of all board seats of publicly traded companies to be occupied by women. The law went into effect in 2004 and companies were given two years to comply – and if they didn’t, they were delisted.
But this is only one prong of the country’s efforts to encourage gender equity. Much of the root of gender inequality, legislators believed, comes from deep-rooted beliefs about women and men’s gender roles regarding caretaking and family. Therefore, Norway also enacted its second prong – laws designed to enable women to pursue more responsibility at work and encourage men to take on more responsibility at home.
Speaking at a Royal Norwegian Consulate event in New York on Monday, the architect of Norway’s gender equality laws, Arni Hole, Director General of Norway’s Ministry of Children, Equality, and Social Inclusion, said, “The key to prosperity in Norway is women. We have the freedom to choose work and family – for women and men alike.”
I spoke with Hole in 2010, and today, in 2012, she is no less insistent that Norway’s system should be widely adopted. More importantly, she points out, any efforts toward gender equity cannot simply be applied to the workplace. They must take home into account too.
Choosing Home and Family
Norway is consistently at (or near) the top of “best places to live” lists regarding gender equality and women’s empowerment. One reason is the 40% quota law. A second reason is the country’s year long parental leave law – which includes a 12-week “use it or lose it” period reserved specifically for fathers. A third reason is universal childcare.
Hole explained that women are traditionally caretakers in Norwegian society – and while they may desire to advance at work, their ambition often gives way to childcare responsibilities. Norway’s lengthy parental leave time and the universal child care program enable women to pursue an ambitious career if they desire – or at least avoid the push factor that many women experience when workplaces aren’t willing to meet their needs for work/life flexibility.
The father’s quota, as the 12-week period for new dads has become known, is aimed at changing mindsets around who can and should care for children. The country found that while the lengthy parental leave period can be split between the two parents, mothers were using most of it. Now, if new dads don’t take the 12-weeks off work, the family loses that segment of leave time. And because the 12-week period is mandated, the country believes, companies will be more understanding when men decide to take time off for family responsibilities.
Hole explained that the program ensures the country is getting the most out of the investment it has made in its population’s education. “No society can afford to lose out on its talents. And [without gender equity] we lose out on the large investments we make in educating our daughters as well as our sons.”
Change in Mindset
She has a point – women are graduating from universities in record numbers and surpassing men in number at the recruitment levels in many industries. But they’re not staying in the workforce at the same rates.
Companies and countries lose out significantly when talented women leave work to handle family responsibilities. Companies lose out on the skills, smarts, and relationships these women have built throughout their careers – until their workplace became incompatible with their needs. Countries lose out on the additional wealth women create – for example, Goldman Sachs estimates that closing the gap between women and men’s employment rates would increase GDP in the US by 9%.
Norway’s legislation is working to change mindsets about gender roles and home life – making caretaking a family issue rather than a women’s issue. It also attempts to ensure women and men don’t feel pressured to leave the workforce when family responsibilities increase.
While enacting legislation similar to Norway’s is not likely in the US, we can apply the same forward thinking to how we manage work and life – after all, caretaking should be a family affair, and not solely the prerogative of women. In fact, studies show men are increasingly concerned about work/life issues. They’re beginning to feel the push as well. But it doesn’t have to be that way. When employers apply smart thinking to workplace flexibility, parental leave, and mid-career retention, women and men benefit – and so does the company’s bottom line.
Our trip to Norway was funded by the Royal Norwegian Consulate General in New York.