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02 March 2022

Gender equality is central to Norway's national brand – but it is missing from its labour market policies

Mari Teigen

Gender equality is central to how the Nordic countries “brand” themselves internationally, but the pandemic has revealed persistent and deep-rooted inequities

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Essays on Equality – Covid-19 edition: Global and intersectional perspectives

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Mari Teigen is Research Professor at the Institute for Social Research, and Director of the Centre for Research on Gender Equality.

The Nordic welfare state is renowned for its strong focus on gender equality. It has long had policies in place to address men and women’s different experiences of educational attainment, employment, career development and work-life balance. Gender equality is also central to how the Nordic countries “brand” themselves internationally. Despite this, gender-based disparities have proven persistent, and this has been brought into sharp relief by the Covid-19 pandemic, which has shone a spotlight on the inbuilt gender inequality of the Norwegian labour market.

The gender-segregated labour market

The Norwegian labour market is highly gender-segregated. Certainly, the level of gender division has declined in recent years, but nonetheless, there is a clear gender split across certain occupations, industries, and sectors. Women dominate in healthcare, retail, and education, while men are concentrated in construction, industry, and transport. Only 15 per cent of Norwegian men and women work in a gender-balanced occupation – defined as having more than 40 per cent of both genders in the workforce. The Norwegian labour market also has a higher proportion of men in top management positions in most sectors, with business and the military serving as extreme examples.

In the context of Covid-19, the impacts of this segregation were two-fold. First, there was relatively little gender difference in rates of redundancies. Women more often lost jobs within the sales and retail sectors, and men more often in tourism, transportation and construction, but overall gender differences were small. This is because the occupations that were hardest hit by lockdown measures were also the occupations that are most gender-balanced: service, tourism and culture. Due to Norway's relatively favourable economic situation – which allowed for the introduction of measures to protect employers and employees – the outlook for the labour market is good and unemployment low, although the repercussions will still be significant.

Second, the healthcare sector was hit hard by increasing work pressure and a greater contagion risk. Women are severely overrepresented in this sector, making up about 80 per cent of employees. Public sector healthcare is the largest employer of women in the Norwegian labour market, employing as many as a third of all female workers. As a result of their vital role in the fight against the pandemic, healthcare workers have been subject to extensive overtime, including breaches of the Work Environment Act.

The gender pay gap

In Norway, women’s average hourly wages are only 89 per cent of men’s. The gender-segregated labour market explains about 40 per cent of this gender pay gap. What’s more, the gap is actually bigger among those with higher levels of education than among the population as a whole, as women with a three-year bachelor's degree make 83 per cent of what men with the same qualifications earn.

Moreover, the pandemic has stalled the wage development of frontline occupations. Norway has a centralised wage bargaining system and its healthcare system received poorer pay in 2020 compared to previous years, although there were some improvements from 2020 to 2021. Applauding health workers from balconies is a nice gesture, but most of them would probably prefer a pay raise that brought their wages in line with male-dominated occupations with similar skill and education requirements. Indeed, this disparity is about more than just gender equality and has significant consequences for the healthcare sector, as the relatively low salaries and high proportion of part-time positions in the sector result in recruitment challenges and issues with retention, leading to higher staff turnover.

The gendering of working hours

Although the difference in men and women’s employment rates has almost disappeared over recent decades, working time arrangements are still clearly gendered. On average, one in three women in Norway work part-time, compared with just one in ten men and 60 per cent of women working in healthcare work part-time. Part-time work is often just viewed as a childcare solution for families with young children, however women with young children are actually among those most typically working full-time, and part-time work is far more about employer preferences than workers’ care arrangements. In healthcare, many employees have been forced to take on several part-time positions in order to create something vaguely resembling a full-time job. This system posed significant challenges to the healthcare sector's capacity during the pandemic, putting extra strain on workers in an already demanding situation and increasing the risk of Covid transmission due to people working across several locations.

The structuring of work-time arrangements with extensive use of part-time positions may appear beneficial for employers in the short-term, as it offers greater flexibility than traditional full-time positions, but this approach is not sustainable for the workers or for society in the long run. The pandemic shone a spotlight on this problem and significant effort is needed to identify ways to reduce part-time working and establish a full-time standard in the healthcare sector.

Has the issue of gender equality finally reached breaking point?

An estimate from the Ministry of Finance strongly emphasises the need for more healthcare workers to cover the future demands of an ageing population – it says that a third of the entire workforce may be required to work in healthcare over the coming decades. In other words, the female-dominated healthcare sector needs to attract both women and men in the years to come.

The gender-segregated labour market and how it contributes to unequal pay and unsustainable work practices for women is a key part of the problem, but it also provides direction for possible solutions. Improving salaries and offering full-time positions are key.

Gender has not been centrally addressed in the Norwegian authorities’ Covid-19 response, nor has it been a notable feature in the report assessing the country’s handling of the pandemic. Thus it remains to be seen if gender equality will be considered in the ongoing evaluation of the government’s Covid recovery plan, an exercise that is supposed to ensure preparedness for the best possible handling of future crises.

Norway prides itself nationally and internationally on achievements related to gender equality. But when it actually comes down to it, it is often sacrificed in favour of other considerations. Let’s hope one of the few positives to come out of the Covid crisis is a renewed focus on equality between women and men. We need a new platform for change.