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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UK Report: Part-Time Work a Major Factor in Motherhood Penalty

UK Report: Part-Time Work a Major Factor in Motherhood Penalty

The latest report on the gender pay gap from the UK’s Institute for Fiscal Studies sheds some new light on precisely how becoming a mother leads women to earn less than men—the so-called “motherhood penalty”—and contributes to the gender pay gap. The BBC highlights the key findings:

The Institute for Fiscal Studies report found by the time a couple’s first child is aged 20, many mothers earn nearly a third less than the fathers. A key factor was women working part-time in motherhood, the report said. …

“The effect of part-time work in shutting down wage progression is especially striking,” the report added. “Whereas, in general, people in paid work see their pay rise year on year as they gain more experience, our new research shows that part-time workers miss out on these gains.” The vast majority of part-time workers were women, especially mothers of young children, the report said.

Other studies, including a previous version of the same IFS report, have identified the motherhood penalty as a major factor (if not indeed the factor) driving the gender pay gap over time. These studies have found that even when women and men start out their careers earning equal salaries, disparities begin to emerge in their late 20s and 30s, coinciding with the years in which women are most likely to have children. Because women are expected to take on the bulk of child care responsibilities, it is mothers who are usually forced to take career breaks or work part-time to make room in their schedules for these obligations, while fathers tend to remain at work.

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