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.

This may reflect a combined set of gender dynamics, with women feeling pressure to put motherhood first and men being penalized for making their home lives a priority. In some of the qualitative research I’ve done in the past, I found that men face very strong normative pressures against taking paternity leave. One man I interviewed, who worked in the oil and gas industry, said he was ridiculed for taking leave when his child was born and that the decision basically ended his career. Many men work in environments where they know this is a line they can’t cross.

Apart from the social pressures, we also have the problem of the pay gap, where as Ismiris notes, Denmark still has a lot of work to do. If a heterosexual couple is going to put one of their careers on the line to have a child, it’s much less likely to be the one with the higher earning potential (i.e., the man’s). Added to the social stigma, these earnings considerations undoubtedly push women to take advantage of parental leave at greater rates than their male partners. This is one way in which the gender pay gap replicates itself, by making it financially untenable for couples to balance responsibilities in their children’s early lives.

This is one reason why achieving pay equity should be a priority for companies. It is one type of gender disparity that a company can fully control and it is one step that will go a long way to signaling that an organization is truly committed to gender equality in the workplace. Inclusion is a non-starter if we can’t at least agree that women and men have equal worth.