Almost Nearly Perfect: The Importance of Nuance when analysing Gender Equality

Iona Holmes analyzes the case study of Denmark, a nation with progressive policies that don’t always achieve their desired effects. For TWSS #16, ‘Crossing the Border’. 

Denmark, along with the rest of Scandinavia, is often idealised by other nations. Its progressive politics are admired, particularly their gender equality policies, and it’s known for being home to some of the happiest people on the planet. When I moved here in August, I was intrigued to learn the reasons behind this and hoped to incorporate some of the Danes’ habits and outlooks into my own lifestyle. However, I have come to realise something that perhaps should have been obvious to me before – that once one engages with the nuances of a system across the border, the illusion of a perfect nation fades.

Don’t get me wrong, there are aspects of Danish institutions and attitudes that deserve the praise they receive. Danes seem to be of the opinion that they are well reimbursed by the state for their high taxes. On a general level, their intensive welfare state ensures that citizens are well-looked after in all areas of their lives, thus the lowest standard of living is higher than average and there is less income inequality. More specifically, while we graduate in thousands of pounds of student debt, Danish students do not have to pay tuition fees and are paid (not loaned) approximately £720 per month to attend university. In turn, this creates a more equal society with greater levels of happiness across the board. The emphasis on maintaining a healthy work-life balance, evident from their shorter working hours and the enjoyment of ‘hygge’ activities, also contributes to this greater life satisfaction.

In terms of gender equality, the Danish paternity and maternity leave policy springs to mind as being particularly noteworthy. Overall, parents are entitled to 52 weeks leave with maternity subsistence allowance. The mother is entitled to four weeks leave prior to giving birth, and 14 weeks after, while the father is entitled to two weeks leave after the birth. The remainder of the time can be divided however the parents wish. This flexible system should prevent women’s career progress being hindered upon having children, because it breaks the assumption that men will promptly return to the workplace after starting a family, while women remain at home with the baby.

This all contributes to the image of Denmark as an aspirational nation. However, closer inspection reveals that not all aspects of Danish society are so desirable; their glowing policies do not necessarily translate into practical results.

nuance 2-page-001Firstly, Danish society seems to be rather insular. Hostile attitudes towards immigration are rife, as are casual racist and Islamophobic remarks. This could perhaps be an unfortunate by-product of having such a comprehensive welfare state funded by the people, along with a racially homogenous demographic. What is particularly problematic about this from my perspective, and has put me in some rather uncomfortable situations among my peers, is that such comments are just as likely to come from young people as they are from the elderly. This suggests that these perspectives are likely to remain prevalent for the foreseeable future, whereas in the UK we tend to associate them with older generations.

Harking back to the previously mentioned parental leave system, it appears that doesn’t actually result in men taking more time off work, and women are still failing to progress to leadership positions in their professions. Figures show that on average, the father takes approximately 30 days paternity leave, while mothers take a considerably larger 297. Furthermore, Denmark ranks 80th in the world for the gender leadership gap, and the number of women in top roles has only increased from 10% to 15% in the past 20 years (1995-2015). Therefore, customs are still prevailing despite the law allowing for change, meaning women remain trapped below the glass ceiling.

More shocking, are the archaic rape laws which still form part of the Danish criminal justice system. The legislation is not consent-based: according to the legal requirements, rape only occurs if sex is forced through violence or under the threat of violence. This creates two main issues – firstly, such a limited definition of rape restricts access to justice for those who are forced to have sex against their will. Secondly, it can have a concerning influence on the attitudes of society at large towards sexual relationships, by devaluing the importance of communication between partners.

Acknowledging Denmark’s reality has brought me to the realisation of the importance of fully engaging with a country’s laws and societal attitudes before simply classifying it as ‘progressive’ or ‘good’ at gender equality. This need to consider intricacies extends beyond the analysis of countries – it should be the approach taken to assessing businesses, cultures, individuals and soon. We need to consider what works, what is ineffective and the actual impacts of policies in order to conduct balanced evaluations, which will help us facilitate substantive change.

Illustrations by Becky Armstrong. 


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