Op-Ed: What could the Arctic learn regarding gender equality

This photo it taken during the "State of the Arctic"-session. From left: Katri Kulmini, Ine Eriksen Søreide, Stephen Sackur, Lisa Murkowski, Yun Sun and Stephanie Pezard. (Photo: Terje Mortensen/Arctic Frontiers 2019)

The opening session of Arctic Frontiers 2019 garnered a lot of attention. Among many other reasons, for the fact that this was the first time that a high-level panel, at one of the largest Arctic conferences, was composed solely of women.

The Norwegian Minister of Foreign Affairs, Ine Eriksen Søreide, United States Senator for Alaska, Lisa Murkowski, President of the Sami Parliament of Norway, Aili Keskitalo, and Finnish MEP Katri Kulmuni, together with women scientists and analysts, discussed “The State of the Arctic” and beyond. Stephen Sackur of BBC’s HardTalk, who moderated the discussion, was an apparent outlier on stage.

The afternoon sessions, focusing on smart and resilient Arctic societies, highlighted further questions relating to gender and gender equality, as well as the role that both can play in the sustainable development of the circumpolar North. During this plenary, the audience raised a poignant question: when it comes to gender and gender equality, what can other Arctic countries learn from the Nordic states? An excellent question that, we believe, necessitates a lengthier response than the time allocated within a conference setting.

So, before going any further, let us first ask - why should other countries learn from the Nordics when it comes to gender equality?

The Nordic countries, even if not all of them, frequently rank high in various indexes measuring gender equality. In the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Index, Iceland has topped the ranks as the most gender-equal country in the world for the last ten years, followed closely by Norway, Finland and Sweden (as well as by Nicaragua, Rwanda and Namibia which ranked higher than, for instance, Denmark which ranked 13th) in 2018. When we look at the Nordic region overall, more women have jobs than in most of the rest of the world (here Denmark positions itself at 5th place) and a greater proportion of women than men has higher education, even though  this does not necessarily close the gender pay gap, which remains around 16 per cent (the European Union average). Most Nordic countries also maintain relatively balanced gender representation in their parliaments, with an average female representation of 40 per cent. In many respects, the successes of the Nordics in advancing gender equality over the last decades can certainly serve as inspiration for and sources of important lessons for other Arctic states. There are, however, other important aspects – not all positive – which also deserve our attention when we speak about gender in the Arctic.

What are those lessons, good and bad?

The first important lesson is that change, in terms of ensuring women’s equal rights and the greater participation of women in public life, is possible. Iceland serves as the primary example. Unlike the other Nordic countries, where the rise in women’s political representation has been more gradual, the establishment of the Women’s Alliance in Iceland in 1982 led to a dramatic increase in the number of women elected to Icelandic parliament in 1983 – from five to fifteen out of a total of sixty. The Women’s Alliance not only helped boost the number of female representatives, but its program centered around mainstreaming issues like the provision of childcare to enable women to participate in the labor market.

Second, in seeking to achieve gender equality, the experience of the Nordic countries points to the importance of systemic solutions and state support. It does not necessarily mean that all countries should go out and strive to replicate the Nordic welfare model in its entirety. However, a good start for all Arctic states would be to, for example, provide affordable childcare which, together with flexible working hours, supports both women and men seeking to join, or return to, the labor market. 

Third, successfully promoting gender equality should not be taken for granted, even in the Nordics. Even if advancements in the work force and female political representation have come far in Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway and Sweden, the proportion of women in political life and in top management positions still remains below, and sometimes far below, that of men. As American conductor Marin Alsop remarked at the World Economic Forum in Davos, taking place concurrently with the Arctic Frontiers, “If we take our foot off the gas pedal, even momentarily, the numbers decline.”

Fourth, it is extremely important that we do not solely focus on economic gender equality, which frequently overshadows the darker side of life in the Nordic countries, namely very high ranks of violence against women (including intimate partner violence), significantly higher than the EU average. Disturbingly, and despite different state models, shockingly high rates of violence against women seem to be a unifying factor across all Arctic states.

Fifth, we should not fall prey to assumptions that the high scores of the Nordic countries translate evenly across their territories, especially north of the Arctic Circle. Thus, when speaking about and sharing lessons among Arctic countries, rather than comparing gender equality in the Nordic states to that of Canada, the United States or Russia, we should focus explicitly on the northern regions of those countries, where the realities can often starkly differ from those south of the Arctic Circle. To help address this issue, we must begin to start collecting gender-disaggregated data in a systematic manner across the North, to develop policies that would be better tailored to serve all societal groups, including those who are underrepresented. 

So, while there are, indeed, many lessons that other Arctic countries could learn from the Nordics when it comes to gender equality, some of those lessons are less obvious than common knowledge suggests. What we propose is that, given that the Arctic is at the forefront of significant global change, it is high time that Arctic states begin to do things differently on many fronts – and gender equality should be their landmark, across all societal, political and economic dimensions. Not only would it be timely, but it would also be a great rebranding of circumpolar collaboration. After all, ensuring gender equality is the only certain way to achieve sustainable development in a rapidly changing world. In short, it’s time to make gender Plan A for the Arctic.

Gosia Smieszek & Tahnee Prior, co-leads of "Women of the Arctic"

“Women of the Arctic” (WoA) is a non-profit association registered in Finland. It aims to raise awareness, support, and maintain a focus on women’s and gender-related issues in the Arctic. Its website www.genderisnotplanb.com serves as a digital storytelling platform, showcasing the personal and professional stories of Arctic women while also highlighting and promoting the inclusion of broader gender perspectives in all aspects of northern life.