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How lessons from gender equality in the Nordics can be applied to racial equality

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Javad Mushtaq
Sarah Shakour
Project Specialist, Forum Foundations, World Economic Forum Geneva
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Systemic Racism

This article is part of: The Davos Agenda

Though equality for all is an ideal goal, reports continuously show us that issues within the spectrum of diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) are still far from equal. Whilst systemic work on bringing about gender equality has made progress internationally over the last few years, from abortion rights to the #MeToo movement, we have not witnessed the same kind of concerted effort and progress on racial equality.

With a new focus on racial injustice as Black Lives Matter (BLM) became a defining global movement, willingness to make further progress on racial equality has never been greater. Working across dimensions of DEI, we argue that we can leverage on learnings from the work on gender equality in the Nordic countries to leapfrog progress on racial equality.

Acknowledging there is a systemic issue

In order to drive solutions and accelerate systemic change, admitting there is actually a problem is the first step. Whilst Nordic countries are looked on as role models and leaders in gender equality, the same cannot be said about racial equality.

A national barometer in Norway found that 84% of the population believes that discrimination against immigrants occurs in employment, with research showing that those with foreign-sounding names are 25% less likely to get a job interview. A similar study in Finland found similar results about foreign-sounding names, and in Denmark a survey found that 51% of respondents do not believe that racism is a big issue. These surveys illustrate a paradox: on one side, countries seem to not acknowledge that systemic racism exists; on the other, there is a consensus that discrimination based on race or ethnicity is a reality.

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A lack of representation shows this is also true in business. At the management level, less than 1% of employees at Norway’s top 50 companies had an ethnic minority background. In Sweden, just 5% of managing board members at the 30 largest state authorities had an ethnic minority background, including foreign-born employees with Swedish parents. Excluding this group, the number falls to just 3%.

Nordic countries and societies are built on egalitarian foundations with risk-averse cultures. Conversations that are uncomfortable and have negative connotations, such as racial injustice, are rarely discussed. A need to learn from how these countries have acknowledged and initiated the systemic work on gender equality also needs to be implemented to accelerate change in racial equality.

Strong commitment, outspoken leadership

A four-decade Nordic collaboration on collectively promoting gender equality is looked on as a cornerstone of the prosperity of Nordic societies. The effort to advance gender equality was publicly reaffirmed by the five Nordic Prime Ministers last March.

Organizations are increasingly utilizing their market power to push gender equality. When the largest bank in Norway, DNB, announced that it had set a requirement to actively prioritise procuring services from law firms that have a clear strategy and can point to women in leadership and partner positions, it led to law firms following through with clear targets and initiatives.

Thus, organizations should set clear requirements using market forces, consumers should utilise their purchasing power, and investors should use their capital allocation – not only because it is the right thing to do, but also because it is the profitable thing to do.

Political will and policies

Pioneering policies to advance gender equality and reduce discrimination has been key to putting the Nordics at the forefront of gender equality. These include well-paid and shared parental leave, and universal, affordable, high-quality child care.

In 2003, Norway was the first country in the world to put a 40% gender quota on boards of listed companies and public enterprises. Iceland followed suit in 2010, and in 2018 the country passed a bill to make it illegal to pay men more than women.

Although these countries have still not reached their ultimate goals and some of the policies are still being debated, understanding the systemic structures holding women back in the workforce and creating policies to enable a better balance between the genders has been key to the leading position that Nordic countries now enjoy in gender equality.

Understanding how policies can function as a tool to progress and advance racial equality can be key, while also being cautious that policies alone will not solve the challenge, but can work hand-in-hand with market forces that involve companies and consumers.

A key foundation for success is that these policies not only target large corporations and organizations, but actively target and set directions for small and medium-sized ones, too.

Leveraging research and data to measure change

What doesn’t get measured, doesn’t get done. Creating a culture of mapping, tracking and analysing data through standardised taxonomies and frameworks has enabled organizations in the Nordics to create a high degree of transparency on their state of gender equality. National institutions of statistics, centres of research on gender equality, respective ministries of equality, and organizations using standardised frameworks have all played a role.

However, there is a huge gap in data on race and ethnicity because of the lack of a common language, definitions, taxonomy and frameworks for mapping and measuring. The cultural tendency to refrain from openly discussing race makes it even more challenging. But societies and organizations that already have a culture of mapping gender data can utilize the same foundations and systems to map multidimensional data. The key is to ensure good governance to avoid the misuse of data.

MAK, a leading organization working on systemic change around ethnic and racial equality in the Nordics, has initiated multiple projects in collaboration with some of the leading organizations on gender equality in the region. Last August, MAK worked with two gender-equality advocacy organizations on co-launching a campaign called #TakeAction to accelerate and initiate a national effort in Norway to gather data to map systemic discrimination amongst ethnic minorities.


What's the World Economic Forum doing about diversity, equity and inclusion?

Re-thinking partnerships, breaking down silos

Organizations working on one dimension within the spectrum of DEI often tend to work in isolation, with little to no interaction across dimensions. Silos tend to reinforce a tendency of ignorance on the multifaceted aspects of diversity, and viewing only one aspect of identity in isolation can often detract from the varied experiences of exclusion and discrimination a person might face.

In February, the Nordic-focused organizations MAK and ODA (the leading Nordic organization for Women in Tech) will launch a Nordic CEO Commitment, with a structured follow-up programme focused on both gender and ethnicity to accelerate initiatives across dimensions with anchoring from the top and inviting all CEOs across the Nordics to come on board. This collaborative initiative is the first of its kind in the region.

We are at a unique juncture in history, with the COVID-19 pandemic and renewed calls for racial equality. A year into the Decade of Action to deliver on the Global Goals, the lessons from Nordic countries can teach us how to “build back better” in the post-pandemic world, both fairly and equitably, and leapfrog progression on racial equality and ethnic minority inclusion.

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