I am looking around the room and thinking something is not right. I am at a meeting on the financial sector in Denmark. Suddenly it strikes me. I am the only woman in the room. I start counting. We are 19 people and everyone except me is male. We joke about it, and I take a picture of all 18 men in their nice dark suits.
The reason why I’m telling this story is not that this is some kind of rare event for the world. In fact, I think most women in business or politics have experienced something similar several times. The reason is that this so rarely happens in Denmark that it was one of the few times that I thought about my gender in relation to my daily job.
Being a female leader is quite normal in Danish politics. We recently elected our first female prime minister. Most parties have had strong female leaders in recent time, and currently three out of nine party leaders are women. Some years back we had an election where it felt like being a young female politician in itself was an advantage. Almost like a fashion trend in politics.
“I stuck out, and therefore people remembered me”
In my years as minister it also seemed to me that I had an advantage in a context of primarily male middle-aged men. I stuck out, and therefore people remembered me. There were situations where I had to act a little tougher in some of the international political negotiations during Denmark’s EU presidency to ensure the respect a presidency needs in order to operate. This was also an eye-opener, since I had never felt the need to act tough in my daily life in order to be respected just because I am a woman.
This is what I experienced. But when I look at the data, the question of gender equality comes out quite differently in Denmark. Sure, we have a high representation of women in the workforce. Sure, women have held all kinds of positions in Denmark. But if we look at top leaders in business, only 10% are female. A similar figure applies for academia. Women take 91 percent of the parental leave available – couples can split the time off between them – which results in women losing the competition for employment or promotions (but winning the hearts of their children, which is of course wonderful).
Men earn 18% more than women in the same jobs, and this is changing so slowly that at the current rate it will take Denmark 534 years to achieve equal pay. If we look at the other end of the spectrum we find that amongst the most vulnerable groups in society – for example, the homeless – 70-80% are male. Denmark clearly has its gender issues.
The interesting thing is the gap between the facts and the experienced reality. When women like me in leading positions do not feel the inequality, we tend to forget that something is not working. Looking into the data has reminded me that I have to be aware of helping women on their way up and letting them into my networks.
“We have to change the culture on parental leave”
It tells me that I should be promoting women more when I look for talent in politics. And it gives me yet another reason to go back to the most important structural factor that keeps women from top jobs: parental leave. We have to change the culture around this so we get more parity in the time men and women leave their jobs for the important task of taking care of their kids.
We have to discuss the perception that still exists that men are better leaders and women make better caretakers. One way would be to legally ensure an equal distribution of the rights for parental leave in Denmark. I normally prefer not to legislate on issues so close to people’s private lives, but sometimes you have to consider it when things are not moving in the right direction. It could be a temporary measure, until the habits have changed. After all – it’s 2015.
The World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report 2016 will be published next Wednesday.
Author: Ida Auken, Member of Parliament, Parliament of Denmark
Image: Janez Potocnik, European Commissioner for Environment (L), president of the meeting Danish Minister for Environment Ida Auken (C) and Matthias Groote , member of the European Parliament and chair of the EP Environment Committee (R), pose for a photo at the EU Informal Meeting of Ministers for Environment in Horsens, Denmark, April 18, 2012. REUTERS/Henning Bagger