SJFE : Women and Law in Europe


                September 1997 (English, French)

Kevät Nousiainen and Anu Pylkkänen (University of Helsinki)
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In all Scandinavian countries, the rate of women's employment is about 80 %. In Finland and in Denmark, the vast majority of women in waged labour (80-90 %) work full-time. Especially in Finland, the working patterns of men and women are relatively similar. In Norway, Sweden and Iceland, the average percentage of women working part-time is between 40 and 50. Unemployment of women has increased during the past years due to cuts in the public sector and welfare services where the labour-force is predominantly female.


The wage gap between men and women has remained almost the same all through the 20th century despite equal pay provisions and regulations against wage discrimination. The recession has in fact even widened the gap. According to a recent survey, on the average Finnish women earn 82 % of men's earnings. The difference is biggest in the private sector and smallest in the municipal occupations. In other Scandinavian countries, the difference is less significant but also the number of women working full time is smaller. The explanation of the differing wages can in general be found in the gendered occupational segregation of the labour market. But even in branches where men and women have the same education, their careers differ from the very start. In academic positions, wage differences between men and women are often considerable.

Unpaid work

Women perform between 65 and 70 per cent of the unpaid work, even if they are in full-time gainful employment. Marriage or cohabitation immediately increases the amount of housework for women, whereas it does not make much difference for men. There is a clear generational distinction in the caring patterns, as men of younger generation share more responsibility for housework.

Family Support and Services

The Scandinavian family support systems include parental leave programmes, day care, public allowances for children and housing, medical and dental care, and support for lone parents.

Parental leave programmes include wage compensation during maternity, vary from 64 weeks (Sweden), about 50 weeks (Finland and Denmark) to 26 weeks (Iceland). Fathers are in general entitled to a share of the parental leave, but very few of them actually use this benefit. Attempts at an obligatory leave for fathers (as is the case in Norway) have not been on the agenda in Finland.

Care of children under the age of three at home is subsidized in all countries. In Finland, parents can choose between kindergarten and subsidized care at home. All children under school age are entitled to full-time day care irrespective of their family status or parents' employment situation. Both forms of care are in the hands of women, as women form the main labour force in the caring professions and they are the ones to stay at home taking care of their children. The subsidized care at home does not, however, mean the same income or social security level as when being employed in caring occupations. Because of the recent poor employment situation, more and more women choose the subsidized care and thus end up in a weaker position in the labour market.

In all Scandinavian countries, between half and 80 % of children aged 3-6 are enrolled in some type of day care. The rate of full-time care in groups is the highest in Sweden, and in general it is possible to choose between group care and family day care. In most countries but especially in Sweden, it is possible to negotiate working hours when having young children. In Finland this has not, however, often been made on women's but on the employers' terms.

Regulation of work

The characteristic feature of the Nordic countries is the strong position of trade unions. A large majority of employees are union members, and wages are regulated through collective agreements. Unemployment compensations is wage-related and thus relatively high. They are paid by the unions. Those without a regular employment or union membership are assisted by the state, but the level of this compensation is considerably lower. Wage and other forms of discrimination in working life is forbidden by the Equality Act, but so far the impact of these rules has been moderate.


The percentage of women who are high school and university students, including graduates, is around 60 % except in the polytechnical universities. Almost 50 % of all doctorates are by women. In the younger generation, women are thus equally if not even better educated than men. However, a gendered pattern can be discerned in the choice of subjects : men choose technical subjects, women social studies. Law is one of the very few faculties with similar numbers of male and female students, whereas a large majority of medical and veterinary students are women. Only about 12 % of professors are women.

Women and Power

Despite a good education and long traditions of waged labour, women face discrimination in their working careers. Even when the number of women in middle stage management is relatively high (about one quarter), very few women reach top positions either in public or in private hierarchies. Women perform, men lead. Women are relatively well integrated into political power in all Scandinavian countries. Women hold about one third of both parliamentary posts and cabinet posts. In reality, the actual decision-making is restricted to male party leaders and inner circle male ministers. In municipal decision-making, a quota system is applied.