Aug 7, 2020

Women in Leadership, Key Learnings from Nordic Countries

Genevieve Montague

f you read the recent article about gender pay gaps, this one follows a similar trend and topic that’s prominence is often unrecognized: women in leadership roles. It’s true that Nordic countries such as Sweden, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, and Norway have fewer issues when it comes to having more women in leadership roles. Why is this the case and how can the rest of the world learn from this?

Nordic Countries Compared to the U.S.

Similar to the gender pay gap that exists in the United States, women are equally (or in some cases more) qualified for a leadership role, however barriers still exist. Yes the number has grown over the years, but women’s representation in board leadership positions barely changed between 2015 and 2019, edging up to 7.5% from 7.4%

Who says women can’t own leadership roles or dominate boardroom meetings the same way men can? Are women lacking certain intelligence traits? Are they incapable of properly managing? Or is it something to do with life interruptions related to motherhood? A recent study by Pew Research notes that childcare surprisingly isn’t considered a main factor to women advancing in leadership. Only one-in-five consider a woman’s mothering responsibilities a major reason there aren’t more females in top leadership positions. So if it isn’t that, what is preventing women from climbing the corporate ladder? With a whopping 0.1% increase over a four-year period, it’s quite clear that women still face considerable barriers when it comes to leadership positions.

The issue is one word: doubt. Believe it or not, America simply holds a doubtful opinion on putting more women in leadership roles. Get this; there are fewer women in leadership positions than there are men named John. You’ve got to be kidding. Think of it like this. As the corporate ladder gets higher, the number of women on that ladder slowly decreases. America is simply not ready to see more women in leadership positions. If major female leaders like Hilary Clinton, Michelle Obama and Oprah Winfrey haven’t made it obvious that American women are more than capable of leading (and killing it), what more does the country need? Let’s break things down with some statistics.

In 2018, women composed 50.8% of the entire US population. Women earned more than 50% of undergraduate and master’s degrees combined. Women earned 48.5% of all law degrees and 47.5% of all medical degrees. To top things off, women account for 47%of the U.S. labor force and 52.5% of the college-educated workforce.

With all this in mind, men are still rapidly on the rise when it comes to leadership representation. The industry doesn’t even matter.

  • Legal: women only represent 22% of partners and 19% of equity partners
  • Medicine: women only represent 16% of permanent medical school deans
  • Finance: women only represent 12.5% of CFOs in Fortune 500 companies
  • Politics: women only represented 24% of members of Congress, 24% of the House and 23% of the Senate in 2019

Hit with a Plateau?

The amount of women in leadership roles has without a doubt increased in the last 50 years, but that increase seems to be sort of stuck right now. In 1980, not one woman ranked under ‘top executive’ of the Fortune 500 companies. In 2011, 11% of those leaders were women. Now, women are only 5% of Fortune 500 CEOs. And we haven’t even talked about race gaps yet, but Indra Nooyi’s resignation as CEO of PepsiCo in October 2018 left just two women of color CEOs in the Fortune 500.

Examining Female Leadership in Nordic Countries

Everything we just talked about, remember that. Now let’s take a look at Nordic country, Finland. When it comes to women in leadership in Finland and surrounding Nordic countries, they are far ahead of the United States re: women climbing the corporate ladder. Finland’s first female prime minister was elected in 2003 and in 2019, women made up almost half (47%) of the country’s parliament. To think America is still doubting if women can succeed in a leadership role leaves us to wonder… what’s the Scandinavian secret?

There are a large number of reasons why Finland and its neighbouring countries have such a spotlight when it comes to gender equality, some reasons dating back to the 1850’s.

  • 1850’s: Finnish women activists spoke about the importance of education for girls
  • 1880’s: The first women’s organisations were established iand the voice for women’s rights grew
  • 1901: Women won the right to study at university
  • 1919: Married women had won the right to paid employment without needing the consent of their husbands
  • 1926: A law was passed on the eligibility of women to hold public office
  • 1970’s: Creation of the Council for Gender Equality
  • 2000: First woman president, Tarja Halonen

According to OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development), Nordic countries are far ahead of other countries and are considered leaders on the gender equality spectrum. Three in four working-age women in Nordic countries are part of the paid labour force and Nordic gender employment gaps remain the smallest. The current world leaders, according to the 2018 Global Gender Gap Report shows the dominance of Nordic countries, which take up the top four out of 10 places: Iceland, Norway, Sweden and Finland. The only reason Finland’s economic gains have partially slowed down in recent years is because gender equal employment was high even in the 1970’s!


Most recently, Finland elected 34-year old Sanna Marin as Prime Minister. Reported by the New York Times, Marin is the world’s youngest prime minister; now that’s something to celebrate, and more importantly, learn from.

Yeah.. it’s safe to say Nordic countries, Finland in particular, is far ahead of the rest of the world and is clearly doing something America isn’t. That doesn’t mean America can’t look up to the Nordic countries as an inspiration though.

What’s being done and what can be done?

Obviously we can’t go back in history and change the way the US supported gender equality at home, work and public life. We can’t rewind 100 years and provide women voting rights with hopes the US will also be considered for a place on the Global Gender Gap Report. But what we can do is learn from our neighbours; Finland and surrounding countries being a key player.

As other international players have stepped up the female leadership representation, the United State’s ranking has actually gotten worse, believe it or not. According to the Inter-Parliamentary Union, America currently ranks 76th of 193 countries in women’s representation… which is less than it was 20 years ago. If this rank doesn’t increase, the US is 90 years away from equal representation of both genders in Congress. Can you say embarrassing?

The thing is, it doesn’t need to stay like this. There’s always room for improvement and change. The Noridc policies have been proven to be extremely effective in equal gender representation, so let’s take a quick history lesson and see exactly where America (and other countries) could learn from.

  • Nordic countries were some of the first to establish comprehensive public early childhood education and care services and introduced “mother and father quotes” as part of paid parental leave systems
  • Gender equality is considered the heart of the wider Nordic social policy model
  • Nordic countries provide family and gender equality policies in different forms of support
  • Both Finland and Norway provide “home care” allowances to parents with young children when at least one parent stays home

So the US is considered one of the top dogs when it comes to international wealth, and any form of paid parental leave doesn’t exist. Question mark(s)????????????

An International Support System?

As a major leader on the gender equality spectrum, Finland is first to establish the International Gender Equality Prize. This prize recognizes the entire world needs to pull its pants up and work as a community to fight for gender equality; persistence being the key factor. If everybody takes a stance and sets specific examples, gender equality can finally be recognized in the light it should have been many years ago.

The best part about this award? The 2019 award recipient of EUR 300,000 was not awarded the prize money; instead they had to assign the money to a cause they have chosen that strengthens the position of girls and women. The most recent International Gender Equality Prize was awarded last December to a global women’s rights organisation, Equality Now.This award acts as a way to champion gender equality efforts worldwide. Go Finland go!

There’s Always room for Improvement

The first step to coming to terms with any problem (big or small), is realizing it is, in fact, a problem. Gender representation in the United States remains prevalent, and the country is aware of this.

Quota systems are becoming a widely recognized strategy to get gender parity. This is where a country’s federal legislature is legally required to be from 20-50% women. Countries like Tanzania and Rwanda have seen great success since adopting this system. Apparently quotas have been adopted by half of the countries worldwide and many of these countries rank higher than the US in gender representation.

Good news; the US is slowly on its way to achieving a system like this. California recently implemented a new law where publicly-held companies whose principal executive offices are located in the state are required to have at least one female board director by the end of 2019. Several California companies have also started to require one diverse board member, with a focus on women.

We’ve talked a lot about Finland and its neighbouring Nordic countries a lot. Yes, these areas of the world are great to look up to and learn from, but there’s still a lot of improvement for Finland.

Unfortunately Finland still sees high rates of gender-based violence and is actually considered a leader in the violence category with 47% of women reported having experienced physical or sexual violence. Certain indigenous women in Finland unfortunately face discrimination and immigrant women are considered less likely to be employed than Finland born women. Immigration from Russia and Iraq hasn’t slowed down in Finland, so this is another topic to consider.

All in all, Finland is doing a considerably good job at helping women climb the corporate ladder, but no country is perfect. It takes a community (an international one) to ultimately reach ‘perfection’, and that’s why it’s important to learn from our neighbours and help them in return. Electing a female prime minister in Finland was an amazing historical milestone, and the best part about it, was that it just seemed ordinary. Let’s hope we can get to this point sooner than 90 years in the United States.

No items found.
No items found.