Why Denmark’s Progressive Policies Aren’t Closing the Gender Gap in Leadership

Why Denmark’s Progressive Policies Aren’t Closing the Gender Gap in Leadership

Like other Scandinavian countries, Denmark has a robust social welfare system that supports gender parity in society and the workplace through benefits like subsidized child care and a generous parental leave entitlement for working mothers and fathers. Yet women still make up a small minority of top-level executives in Denmark’s business community, while Danish women’s earnings still lag well behind those of men performing similar work.

In a recent piece at the Harvard Business Review, Bodil Nordestgaard Ismiris, VP at the Danish Association of Managers and Executives, shed some light on this disconnect and suggested some reasons why Denmark’s progressive institutions have not automatically resulted in gender parity.

One problem is that Danish women suffer a motherhood penalty just like women in other countries: Their earnings drop after the birth of their first child and never recover, whereas fathers’ earnings hold steady. Other scholars have pointed to this paradox in the Scandinavian system, wherein working mothers are offered generous parental leave entitlements, but end up harming their lifetime earning potential by spending lengthy periods of time either out of the workforce or in part-time “mommy track” jobs that pay little and offer no room for advancement.

To help correct this imbalance, Denmark and other Scandinavian countries offer fathers generous parental leave as well. In the case of Denmark, Ismiris explains, new parents get 52 weeks of leave with at least partial pay, which they can divide anyway they like; new mothers are also guaranteed 18 weeks of this at full pay, while fathers are guaranteed two weeks. Despite the law encouraging couples to share parental leave, however, in practice women take the bulk of that leave: 300 days on average, compared to just 30 days among men. That means women are still taking on the majority of household and child care duties—and making greater career sacrifices to do so.

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The Motherhood Penalty Is About the Choices Women Don’t Have, Not the Ones They Make

The Motherhood Penalty Is About the Choices Women Don’t Have, Not the Ones They Make

The motherhood penalty refers to the negative impact becoming a mother has on the lifetime earnings of working women compared to their male colleagues. Whereas men who become fathers can actually see their earnings increase relative to their childless peers, mothers often see theirs stagnate or decline and never recover, contributing significantly to the earnings gap and wealth gap between men and women.

Responding to a recent sponsored study by Merrill Lynch and Bank of America on financial wellness issues specific to working women, Washington Examiner columnist Hadley Heath Manning objects to calling the motherhood penalty a “penalty,” arguing that it’s more of a tradeoff for women who just want to spend more time raising their children:

Among all demographic groups, who makes the most money? Married fathers. This isn’t because society values them more, but because they often make sacrifices to try to earn more to support their families. And who shares household earnings and the associated wealth accumulation with married fathers? Married mothers, of course. The term “motherhood penalty” fails to capture this. Married motherhood comes with great benefits, both financial and non-financial.

The reality is that mothers are paid less than non-mothers (and accumulate less wealth as a result) not because employers or “society” penalize us, but because, on aggregate, mothers make trade-offs that result in less money.

Manning’s argument is one we often hear from gender pay gap skeptics and critics of gender equality initiatives in the workplace. More importantly, it’s just plain wrong. Nobody expects women who freely choose to take multi-year career breaks to earn as much in their lifetimes as those who don’t.

The problem is that these choices are not always made freely, and when men and women make the same choices, the outcomes are very different.

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