Nordic myths: Gender gaps persist at work

28 Apr 2014

OECD data has had Norway at the top of the list for women in work for the last three years, and the country is front of mind for most people when it comes to gender equality. But is Norway really an equal opportunities utopia? Reidar Henriksen, Human Capital Partner in PwC Norway, took a look behind the numbers and discovered that Nordic equality is something of a myth.

The rise of women in Norway followed a similar pattern to women in the rest of Europe. Though they were historically homemakers, women were able to take on greater roles with the introduction of, for example, contraception, legal abortion and washing machines. And their rise has continued since then, including in the political sphere. Gro Harlem Brundtland became the first female Prime Minister of Norway in 1990 and Erna Solberg became the second in 2013.

This year’s OECD statistics put Norway in first place for gender equality in the workplace for the third year running. But what’s so special about Norway that women there have a significantly better working life than their European sisters? We looked at the data behind the national rankings, and discovered that the answer to ‘What’s special about Norway?’ might be ‘Nothing at all’...

High employment rate

Norway is often congratulated for its high general employment rate. Standing at 73.8%, this is a great deal higher than the EU-wide average of 58.6%. The share of women actively looking for work in Norway is considerably lower than the EU-wide average too, standing at 2.7% to the EU’s 10.6%. But a lot of women in Norway work part-time. In 2012, 41.5% of women worked part-time, compared to 8.4% of men. Also, the part-time working hours, as a share of full-time working hours for women, have decreased from 59.6% to 52.9%. Norwegian women in part-time employment today are working fewer hours than Norwegian women working part-time in 2002. Experts say that this affects their income and contributes to the ‘gender pay gap’.

Though a lot of Norwegian women tell surveys that they work part-time by choice, there are also a lot of positions that are not available full-time. In 2011, 25% of all part-time workers in the healthcare sector wanted more hours. In some cases, women are being under-utilised.

Then there are the childcare services – the guaranteed service to all families with children between one year and school age is seen an important enabler of gender equality. Even though a large number of women work part-time, 77% of Norwegian children between three years old and school age are in childcare for 30 or more hours per week, and 35% of children below three years of age are receiving the same amount, or more, of care. This number has increased significantly in the last six years, rising 25% between 2005 and 2011. Clearly, the high percentage of children in full-time care is not reflected in a high percentage of mothers being employed full-time.

High tertiary education

Norwegian women receive a longer education than European women on the whole. Although the number of people in secondary education in Norway has decreased in the last decade by 6.1%, the number for those in tertiary education sits well above the EU average, at 31.4% to Europe’s 17.1%. If you break down those numbers, you will find that women have higher rates of secondary and tertiary education than men. So why isn’t this reflected in the workplace?

A glance at the gender spread across different fields of education has the answer. As in many other countries, Norwegian women typically study more ‘female’ subjects, such as humanities and the arts.

Gender segregation across occupations in Norway is correspondingly high – and in fact higher than the EU average. Women marginally dominate in education and public administration; professional and scientific activities are dominated by men.

There remains the option for women in Norway to choose what they study, and how they earn their money, but social expectation – borne out in surprisingly segregated statistics – exerts a negative pressure. So whilst women appear to be more educated, their choices are more restricted when it comes to picking university courses and applying for jobs.

High number of women on boards

In 2003, the Norwegian government mandated that corporate boards should be made up of a minimum of 40% women. The data show that the legislation has been successfully implemented, with 44% of corporate board places being taken by women. But this hasn’t trickled down. The share of women in management positions in large companies has only increased by 2%, and still stands at 20% overall.

Gender pay gap

Female employees in Norway earned on average 15.9% less than male employees – and this is largely unchanged since 2006. The status of many women as part-time, and the likelihood of them being in certain sectors of the labour market, contributes to this difference.


As many legislators, campaigners and businesses are discovering, there’s no simple answer to the gender disparity across Europe. It may be particularly concerning for some that Europe’s ‘best’ country for women isn’t so great after all. But there are lessons to be taken from the statistics:

  • If educators and others raise awareness about gender ‘atypical’ fields of study, then the workforce is likely to be rewarded with better gender segregation across employment sectors
  • Encouraging more fathers to take the full paternity leave allowance – although this stands at 68.1% and is rising – could have a direct effect on the number of women in part-time work, and the number of women who feel that their career has been slowed by a longer break. When breaking from your career becomes the norm for both sexes, progress for women in middle management may be improved
  • All companies should take a look at remuneration. To attract and retain women at all levels, they need to be paid the same as men in equivalent positions.