March 08, 2017

Happy International Women's Day from Norway!

On paper at least, Norway is a country with full equality between the sexes. The Prime Minister of Norway is currently Erna Solberg, the second women after Gro Harlem Brundtland to serve in that capacity, and the chairs of the Norwegian Labor Organization (Norwegian Federation of Trade Unions) and the Norwegian Employers' Organization (NHO), Gerd Kristiansen and Kristin Skogen Lund, are women. But as we celebrate the International Women's Day on March 8, 2017, statistics still show that women have a way to go before they are fully equal to men in the workplace. In 2016, the average monthly salary of women was 87.5% of men's. Two thirds of the CEOs and others in leading positions are men, and although the majority of women are in the workforce, 35% of them work part time, as opposed to 14% of men. Women now dominate in law and medical schools and most other fields with the exception of math, science and technology. The workplace, however, is still strictly divided by gender. Men dominate the private sector, where salaries are generally higher, and women dominate the public sector in fields like health and education.

Inequalities in the workplace are the background for many of the slogans seen in Norwegian parades on March 8: "Equal pay now!"  "Say yes to the 6-hour workday!" "Demand 100% jobs!" "Raise the average women's salary now!" "Economic independence is essential to gender equality!" "Strengthen minority women's right to work!" "Defend public pensions!" Others address issues like family policy, research on typically women's illnesses, women immigrants, racism, LBGT rights, rape and violence against women, porno, global abortion rights, education as the key to ending poverty.

But one of the more interesting issues that has risen during the prelude to March 8 concerns developments in Norwegian society regarding education of boys, job prospects for men, and male public health issues like lifestyle and suicide. Men get lower grades, are more prone to drop out of school, more inclined to have an unhealthy lifestyle, more likely to commit suicide, die earlier, and are more prone to violence and its consequences. More boys are diagnosed with ADHD, are in special education, and have problems accommodating to the school environment. Furthermore, fewer men have children; 23% of men over 45 do not have children, as opposed to 13% of women, and fathers are often "recycled". Women who wait to have children often partner with men who have children from earlier relationships.

Camilla Stoltenberg, Director-General of the Norwegian Institute of Public Health, addressed disturbing statistics on men, especially in education, in a widely-read article in the newspaper Morgenbladet. Stoltenberg was born in the 1950s, and during her lifetime, she has seen men go from winners in education to losers. Boys receive lower grades in middle and high school, and only 40% of college and university students are men. They make up 10-25% of those who study medicine, psychology and law, which are very competitive in Norway, and they are also in the minority of doctoral candidates.

Stoltenberg's article has been widely debated in Norwegian media, and the Norwegian Broadcasting Company (NRK) devoted its weekly debate program to the subject on March 3, considering the question of whether boys are becoming society's biggest losers.

Norway has practiced quotas for girls and women in some majors and jobs in the public sector. One participant argued that boys now need to benefit from a similar system to ensure that society will have female and male doctors and lawyers in the future. The Minister of Education agreed that boys often do poorly in school, but the background for quotas for women was that it was proven that women were discriminated against because of their gender, whereas this was not the case for boys. But everyone agreed that the problem is real, that the causes need more study and eventually a strategy to address how to keep boys from dropping out of school and get more of them in professions like medicine and law. However, it was pointed out that men still dominate in the hierarchy of managerial and leadership positions, and it is not clear whether the structure will change any time soon, despite the fact that women dominate many fields at the ground level.

A few decades ago, girls were the better achievers in elementary school, but boys' achievement would normally pass girls' around Christmas in the 8th grade and continued through middle and high school. Now, boys lag behind and girls keep up the steam through middle and high school. There is, however, little indication that more boys do poorly in school than before. What has changed is that most women do better than before, and the weakest boy students are more isolated in the system, and the consequences are great, since the job market no longer offers low-skilled positions in trade and industry. The workplace has also become more "feminized", valuing strong skills in language, communication, and other areas where women tend to excel.

In a theoretically egalitarian society like Norway, the media often question the relevance of celebrating March 8, and that men's issues should also be marked. 2017 is no exception, and March 8 is "balanced" in the press against the problem of the boy losers. But does all this have an impact on women's issues? Issues related to children, parenting, and family life are all intimately connected to the lives of women, so the fact that their sons are lagging behind in Norwegian society is something to be addressed. The debate will certainly continue, but it will not be a significant part of the marking of the International Women's Day.

A greater concern is the fate of immigrant women and their descendants in Norwegian society. The women's movement has often been criticized for not reaching out to minority women. But those who address women's issues in minority cultures often tread into a mine field. Feminists who have spoken out against white men's violence against women are applauded for their courage, but if they are concerned about the fact that some minority cultures are patriarchal, require them to obey their fathers and brothers, deny girls a decent education, arrange for them to marry at an early age, and condone wife beating and honor killings, they are met with scorn and accused of being racist. Another question is whether women's clothing like the hijab and burka have political connotations and are compatible with the fight for women's rights. Up until recently, minority feminist voices were rare. But now, minority women are beginning to organize and establish dialogue with feminist organizations. Shabana Rehman, an outspoken Pakistani-Norwegian woman, objects to the idea that Norwegian feminism is white and one-sided. The only reason it looked that way to some people was that minority women had not gotten organized. But that is now changing rapidly, and many new voices are coming forward to debate minority women's issues.

Nancy L. Coleman, DA Norway