Gender Equality: Policy and Practice

In 1979 the law of gender equality was ratified in Norway. In the following two decades gender equality policies had high public priority. The increasing numbers of working mothers gave rise to new social challenges that needed a political solution. In addition, women’s low degree of participation in political life, their absence from high professional and managerial positions, and problems of equal pay and discrimination became increasingly visible and were perceived as incompatible with the new norms of gender equality that were supposed to prevail in all spheres of society. An important cultural and political push in the struggle for gender equality came from the Women’s Movement, which mobilised in Norway from the early 1970s as in the rest of the Western world, but also continued on from older and less radical women’s organisations. The Norwegian social scientist Helga Hernes has described the process as a result of ‘state feminism’, a combination of ‘feminism from below’ (the movements and organisations in civil society) and ‘feminism from above’ (the legislation facilitated by feminist bureaucrats and politicians) (Hernes 1987). What especially came to distinguish the Nordic ‘caring state’ from other Western countries was that care for children, disabled people and the elderly from early on was seen as a public responsibility and was given a universal form (Leira 2012). From the 1980s, women’s economic chances were supported by the implementation of gender quotas and other anti-discrimination legislation with regard to education and work, and the expansion of parental leaves and public daycare with regard to families. From the 1990s onwards, the political model of the universal breadwinner was extended to the idea of the universal carer (Fraser 1997). Men’s rights as fathers received increasing attention (Korsvik 2011), and a special and mandatory father’s quota of the parental leave was implemented in 1993.[1] This has created a unique situation for Norwegian fathers when it comes to care, which today they only share with fathers in Sweden, Iceland and Germany. Quotas for men were also introduced in education and jobs related to care for and teaching of children. All this indicates that the Nordic gender equality model not only led to ‘defamilisation’ with its emphasis on women’s economic independence, but also entails elements of ‘refamilisation’ through generous systems of parental leave for both parents, paid absence from work to take care of sick children, and a special cash-for-care allowance introduced in 1998[2] (Ellingsster and Leira 2006; Ellingsster 2012).

Norway represents an interesting case in the Nordic context because it demonstrates more clearly than the other countries the tension between gender differentiation and gender equality that goes back to the beginning of the twentieth century. This can partly be explained by conflicts between different class fractions of women (Sainsbury 2001) and partly by the stronger hold of religion in some regions of Norway and its continuing influence in politics (Korpi 2000; Melby et al. 2008). In 1960 Norway was among the countries in the Western world with the lowest rates of women in paid work, and women’s entry into the labour market came a decade later than in the other Nordic countries. The development of daycare also came very slowly, and even today the number of Norwegian women working part-time is higher than in the other Nordic countries (Kitterod and Ronsen 2012). On the basis of these observations, researchers have described Norway as a more family-oriented and mater- nalist culture than the other Nordic countries (Knudsen and Wsrness 2001; Sainsbury 2001; Borchorst 2008). It is probably more accurate to say that political disagreements have contributed to a dualistic family model (Ellingsster 2012). However, the Norwegian tension between different family models, in combination with the cross-political agreement to prioritise care, may also be seen as having facilitated the track towards a universal caregiver model which may potentially transgress the equal- ity/difference dilemma (Fraser 1997). The long parental leave, the father quota and other generous schemes to improve the care for children can be seen as a recognition of the importance of parental care, including the fact that it does not have to be gender-differentiated.

The middle generation in our sample became parents in around 1970, so when the Women’s Movement and the other radical movements of the 1970s took off, they were already established with families of their own. They are just ahead of what has been called a change of gear in family formation in the mid-1970s where the practice of cohabitation increased and the age for marriage and the birth of the first child went up (Noack and Hovde 2012; Pedersen 2012). Some of the women in our sample participated in marches on March 8 and demonstrations in favour of free abortion, and read the journals from the Women’s Movement, and some of the men remember that their wives became radicalised. The impact of the Women’s Movement is also seen as a frame of reference in the interviews when our informants talk about quarrels of housework and of divorces.

The 1970s was the decade where Norwegian women entered the labour market in large numbers, and during the 1980s this also came to include women with young children.[3] During the childhood of our youngest generation—from 1972 to 1990—the percentage of married or cohabiting women with children under 15 years of age in paid work increased from 43 per cent to 77 per cent[4] [5] (Kitterod and Ronsen 2012: 163). However, what also characterised this period was that the development of daycare was far from following the number of working mothers (Leira 2002). Thus, the women of our middle generation belong to the specific cohorts of young mothers who took up paid work before the state provisions to cater to this was developed: in 1970 the maternity leave was 12 weeks and the daycare coverage was three per cent.11 In the same period (1970-1990) women on average reduced the time they spent on care and housework considerably more than men increased their contribution. The father’s participation in housework depends on how many hours the mother works and how high her income is (Kjeldstad and Lappegard 2010; Brannen 2015). Private help in the house has until recently been


very rare in Norway outside of high-status families and was at the time when we did our interviews associated more with household income than with employment of the woman in the family (Kitternd 2009).

It has been argued that the Nordic gender equality policies have been more attuned to the life form of families where both parents have fulltime and attractive jobs and where the women can benefit from schemes to promote women’s careers in work and politics. Support of gender equality both in attitude and practice are related to education and job status, especially for women (Crompton et al. 2007; Kjeldstad and Lappegard 2010). This tendency is also reflected in the middle generation in our sample, where most of the middle-class women had full-time jobs, or close to full-time, and most had stayed home only during periods of parental leave, whereas some of the working-class women worked parttime and had stayed at home for some years when their children were small. Working-class women and women from certain ethnic groups tend to be sceptical of middle-class women’s career orientation and prefer to spend more time with their family, and some may also prefer more distinct gender roles in the home and regarding childcare. However, the majority of them support the idea of gender equality and especially political measures for equal pay and statutory rights against sexualised violence (Walby 1997; Skilbrei 2005; Melby et al. 2008; Andersen and Aarseth 2012). Discrepancies between attitudes to gender equality and the practised gender equality, especially with regard to housework, are also within all social groups, but in different forms. Generally, for women practice is less equal than their attitudes to gender equality, whereas for men it is the other way round (Kjeldstad and Lappegard 2010). It is also the case for all groups that structural forces may increase the dissonance between attitudes and practices: in working-class and immigrant families, who in general are more in favour of a traditional division of work, economic and practical conditions often make their actual practices more gender- equal. In middle-class families, especially those where the husband has a high salary, structural conditions make it possible for the women to work less. Thus, somewhat paradoxically, a positive attitude to gender equality may still be drawn towards a more gender-traditional practice. A contributing factor here is also the increasing demand of long work hours in high-status professional jobs, especially in the private sector (Andersen and Aarseth 2012; Kavli 2012; Brannen 2015). This picture is reflected by the fact that the men who use the father quota the least are those with either very high or very low incomes (Ellingsster 2012).

Gender equality as a norm and value has a high degree of support across the Norwegian population. Today 70 per cent of the Norwegian population has a positive attitude to the family model where both breadwinning and domestic work are shared between the spouses (NOU 15 2012). However, there is also a rising critique of the pressured lives of families with small children and double careers, and younger people have voiced their opinions about more freedom of choice and individual solutions (Melby et al. 2008; Andersen and Aarseth 2012). Still, the political discussions of gender equality are mainly limited to questions like ‘how far’ gender equality should go, to what degree it should also focus on men’s situations or include other dimensions of discrimination, and to what degree gender equality in the family and in private enterprises should be a private choice or a target of state intervention. Arguments for a return to the old gender contract with distinct roles for women and men or even to the housewife model of the 1950s are rarely seen outside the contexts of extreme political or religious groups.[6]

  • [1] The quota earmarked four weeks of the by then 42-week-long parental leave for the father. Sixweeks (plus three weeks before birth) were earmarked the mother, so 29 weeks were left to bedecided by the parents themselves. The father quota was expanded after 1993, almost in parallelwith the expansion of the total parental leave. In 2011 the father quota was 12 weeks (and the totalparental leave 47 weeks). In 2013 the social democratic government decided to expand it to 14weeks, but the following year a new right-wing government reduced it to 10 weeks. Before thefather quota was introduced in 1993, very few fathers took out any of the joint parental leave. Afterit was introduced, a very large majority of fathers took out their quota, but only a few took outmore than their earmarked weeks. It is the fathers with the highest and the lowest income who takethe shortest leave (Ellings^ter 2012).
  • [2] This reform gave a cash-for-care allowance for families with children under the age of three whodid not attend publicly subsidised daycare, which was by then still in demand. It was introducedby a centre-right government, headed by the Christian Democratic Party, and the declared aim wasto give families the choice of deciding the best care for their children and to contribute to moreequal state remittances for childcare regardless of the chosen form of care. The proposal was held instrictly gender-neutral terms, but the effect of the reform was gendered since almost no fathers tookout the allowance. The number of women in paid work was not reduced by the cash-for-carereform (the allowance was small), but the increase stopped for a few years until more public daycarehad become available. Working-class and immigrant families are overrepresented among those whouse the cash-for-care benefit today. But as more of the non-immigrant mothers than the immigrantmothers combine the allowance with paid work, the reform has to an increasing degree been seenas a problem for the integration of immigrant women and their children (Ellings^ter 2012).
  • [3] In the UK mothers with small children entered the labour market a decade later, in the 1990s. In2000 full-time employment among women with children in the UK was still much lower than inthe Scandinavian countries (Fagani 2007; Brannen et al. 2004). Nordic women have on average thehighest labour force participation in Europe and also when part-time is taken into consideration(den Dulk and Doorne-Huiskes 2007).
  • [4] During this period, however, half of the women worked part-time, and the differentiationbetween part-time/full-time followed levels of education: the longer the education, the more fulltime work (Skrede 1986; Kitterod and Ronsen 2012). In 2010 the number of mothers in paid workhad increased to 87 per cent. The numbers also include women on parental leave, and as the leavewas considerably prolonged in the same period of time (from 12 weeks in 1970 to 28 weeks in1990, and to 46 weeks in 2010), the numbers are not directly comparable (Kitterod and Ronsen2012; Ellings^ter 2012).
  • [5] In 1990 the daycare coverage had increased to 35 per cent, which was still far behind the numberof working mothers with young children. In particular, the coverage for children under three yearswas a problem until the beginning of the 2000s. The coverage in Oslo was much higher than theaverage in the entire country (Myhre 1994). There was also a social differentiation as middle-classchildren more often attended public daycare than children from working-class families (Ellings^ter2012). Only in 2009 did public daycare become a right for children from the age of 12 months.The public daycare coverage in the Nordic countries is much higher and much cheaper than inmost other European countries. For instance, in 2005, childcare costs represented 12 per cent of afamily’s net income in Norway and 27 per cent in the UK (den Dulk and Doorne-Huiskes 2007).
  • [6] In recent years, the changing gender contract has provoked some very negative and even violentreactions in Europe and the USA among people belonging to the extreme political right or religiousgroups who see modernisation as a threat to ‘God-given’ values. One of the worst incidents tookplace in Norway in 2011, where a right-wing terrorist killed 69 people and legitimised it as a waragainst modern gender relations and Muslim immigration.
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