The Nordic Paradox – Scandinavia and Gender Equality

The Nordic Paradox Scandinavia Essay

Our Sleep No More masks that whittled the audience down to a unified, anonymous mob were strung around our necks, falling into frightening figures that hung on our backs post-show. “So, Iceland has equal pay?” A friend asked my boyfriend, leaning across the bar, tipsy from a third absinthe cocktail.

“Yea. The women marched in the 1970s. They were very organized, all leaving work on the same day to protest. My mom did and it had a lasting effect. It wasn’t equal before but not it is part of the Icelandic law.”

“Wow,” she said, her eyes glassy. Anne worked at Morgan Stanley, making god knows how much money. Attempting to date on such a busy schedule had proved difficult for her so she had accepted a couple of post-work drinks with a male colleague who sat in the neighboring cubicle.

Anne had told me and our other friend just before Sleep No More that this man had been asked to attend a female empowerment in finance convention in Dallas. While Anne and this man held the same position at Morgan Stanley and, even though Anne is, in fact, a woman, she had been passed over for the opportunity. The female empowerment convention landed for one reason or another in the lap of her male co-worker.

“YES!” he had screamed. “I’M GOING TO GET SO MUCH PUSSY!” He had high fived his co-workers. Naturally, Anne had pledged not to go on another date with him or any finance man again.

“Wow,” she said again, clutching the bar top to steady herself. “It must really be something to come from a country that respects women.”

Scandinavia: Not Quite a Woman’s Paradise

American women, such as myself, have held this idea of Iceland for quite a bit of time now. Scandinavia as a whole has a couple of connotations in the American mind: cold, northern lights, blonde people, equality. And Iceland! Well! That’s the place everyone wants to visit! Unspoiled. An adventure hot spot! Quirky, hipster chic, and of course, gender equality!

I recall peeping in at a meeting in Copenhagen, quickly counting the women who sat at the business table through the window. Wow! Four of them alongside four men! Equal! When I returned to America, I told friends about this sighting and they were aghast. This is what gender equality looks like. A seat at the table.

Maybe women need to believe in a place where sexism doesn’t exist, that gender inequality isn’t an inherent trait in every modern society across the globe. But the tough truth is: Scandinavia’s sexism just looks different from ours and other countries. It has what has been dubbed a “Nordic paradox.”

Parenting: Part of the Nordic Paradox Issue

In Scandinavia, a woman works equally to a man. She splits the cost of everything but carries a heavier load. She is still in charge of the home: cooking, cleaning, carrying their child for nine months, and then being the primary caregiver forevermore. In short, she is like a single mother, with a man putting in the same bare minimum as in any other country. She just has to pay for it as well.

While women in the Nordic countries may hold higher offices, they are still subject to plenty of mirroring issues women face in the American workplace. Harassment is the most threatening one. Looking at you, Denmark.

Enter Borgen: A Cultural Reference

Last month, my boyfriend and I started watching the Danish show, Borgen. After the second season, I couldn’t continue. Borgen is about a fictitious woman prime minister of Denmark. The show has West Wing vibes, following her term in the office but also spends a great deal of time exploring her personal life. Borgen also follows a female reporter who is berated by constant demeaning sexual comments at work.

The Absent Stay-at-home Dad

For the first season, the prime minister has a stay at home husband who emotionally torments her. He tells her she should be spending time with her children rather than uh… running the country. While the husband is a stay at home father, he is not capable of caring for the children. He does not cook their meals or seemingly clean up. His son wets himself nervously and every time he does, the husband blames his wife instead of exploring the issues himself. “It’s because you’re never here,” he says. She agrees and apologizes. It’s her fault that she works!

The husband abruptly leaves his family for a full seven days. He abandons his children who relied on him to pick them up from school that day, so the prime minister of Denmark has to leave her job to pick them up instead. The school calls her office because they cannot get in touch with her husband.

It turns out, he had to run off to have an affair. He abandoned his family because he couldn’t take the job he had wanted due to conflicting interests with that company and the state office. His wife said he couldn’t take the job because it may cause a potential scandal. Emasculated, he naturally abandons his children and general obligations to fuck.

When her husband confesses his affair, the prime minister, startled, trips over her purse and smacks her face on the edge of a desk. The accident leaves her with a huge slash on her cheek and a black eye. The children walk in on this, having heard the raucous argument.

Unchecked Spousal Abuse

The prime minister reassures her children, telling them that she tripped over her bag. They quickly shrug this off. No more convincing is needed even though the scene looks incriminating. In any other country, a child or young adult (the boy is around eight and the daughter in her teens) would demand answers or at least internalize this. Their father would forever be seen in doubt, as an abuser or potential threat. They do not. The incident is never brought up again.

The prime minister has to rush out and immediately goes to an interview. She has her spin doctor bring in the very best makeup artist to cover up her bruises and cuts and goes on live television, half her face positioned away from the camera. About a dozen people are witness to what clearly looks like abuse but not a single one of them ask any questions.

A Quiet Divorce – She Gives Him Everything He Wants

The husband demands a divorce shortly after. He then demands money due to the fact they bought the house together. For the rest of the show, he becomes an unrelenting, domineering figure, a constant abusive figure in her life. He drops in uninvited, he never listens, and he is unbelievably pissed when she talks about her issues or concerns.

He gets half custody even though he has shown he is capable of abandoning them and any responsibility at the drop of a hat. The show continues with no issue.

This is, apparently, acceptable to all but non-Danish viewers. I had to pause the show and walk through why she should have been able to keep the house, get child support, and have the majority of child custody to my boyfriend. He honestly couldn’t understand where I was coming from. They had split the house with their money, therefore, he was entitled to half of it no matter what he had done. That wouldn’t happen in the U.S. So I have to ask myself: is this scenario female empowerment, the gender equality we are working towards? Or is it something else?

Enter the Nordic Paradox

The Nordic Paradox is the phenomenon that exists in Scandinavia where high stats on rape and violent crimes towards women exist side by side with gender equality in the workforce. The Nordic paradox has far-reaching implications though. Its issues reach into the basics of domestic partnership as well, as we’ve seen with Borgen.

In 2020, Sweden ranked 6th in the world for reported rape shooting it up to first place in Europe. In fact, all of the Nordic nations are in the red, with more reported rape cases than elsewhere in Europe. Yes, it is worth emphasizing the word “reported” but that doesn’t make these findings any less damning. While 1 in 10 women across Europe have reportedly been raped, that statistic shrivels to 1 in 4 in Iceland. Icelandic crime writer Yrsa Sigurðardóttir covers this extensively in her novels. In her novel The Reckoning a pedophile who has raped both of his children multiple times, rapes and kills a stranger’s child, and when he is released from prison, he… this is the kicker… continues to rape children.

Nordic Crime & Punishment

The average sentence in Iceland for rape is three years. In a landmark decision, the Supreme Court of Iceland condemned a man to eight years for rape in 2009. He had been raping his 11-year-old step-daughter two to three times a week until she was 14 years old. The average sentence for a rapist across the Scandinavian region is between two to eight years and is not able to exceed ten, even where children are involved. The outlier was a case in Norway where a man was convicted to 16 years after sexually abusing hundreds of boys. Sentences will not be lengthened in the near future but all of the Nordic nations are considering redefining their legal definitions of rape.

Norway and Finland have begun talks to amend the laws while Sweden, Iceland, and Denmark have successfully done so in the last two years. It is worth noting that only nine European countries legally consider sex without consent rape.

“It is a paradox that Nordic countries, which have strong records of upholding gender equality, suffer shockingly high levels of rape.”

Kumi Naidoo, Amnesty International
Immigrating to the “Happiest Countries”

While many of these Nordic nations are praised as the “happiest countries,” immigrants and refugees paint a different picture. In Copenhagen, I met many immigrants struggling to find work and affordable housing. My hostel was home to many long term residents as it was the only place they could afford to live. Here, exists another Nordic paradox. While Northern Europe at large steers the ship in terms of sustainability, prison rehabilitation, gender representation in the workforce, and healthcare, we all have a long way to go in the treatment of women, refugees, and our indigenous people.

Pining after the Scandinavian nations and decorating them with titles such as the happiest, female-friendly, golden children of the north is incredibly harmful, as the gross generalization of any group of people hinders potential positive progress, no matter the light in which they are perceived. While these countries do indeed lead the way in an equally paid, gender-diverse workforce, they, as with every nation, have a long road ahead in terms of basic human rights… it just looks quite different than our own.