Is Gender Equality in the Workplace really better in Scandinavia and the Nordics?

Dec 14, 2023

Scandinavia and the Nordic countries, often praised for their forward-thinking gender equality measures, prompt an important question: are they still leading the way in achieving gender balance in business and office environments? 

As we delve into this region’s approach to workplace equality, it’s essential to examine not just the commendable policies but also the current realities and challenges faced in achieving true gender parity in the business sector. This examination offers a grounded perspective on the effectiveness and areas for improvement in Scandinavia’s and the Nordic’s gender equality initiatives.


Economic Impact of Gender Equality

According to a new OECD report, significant contribution of women to the labor market in the Nordic region (Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, and Sweden) has been observed. The participation of women in the workforce can account for 10–20% of the Nordic region’s GDP per capita growth in the past 40–50 years. This is partly due to the high employment rate of women in these countries, where nearly three out of four women are employed. This high level of female labor participation is attributed to extensive access to childcare, paid parental leave for both parents, and flexible workplaces. These measures have helped reduce gender gaps in employment, making them the smallest in the OECD, at about 4 percentage points compared to the OECD average of 12 percentage points​​.


Gender Pay Gap

Regarding wage equality, Scandinavian nations rank higher than many other countries, with smaller wage gaps between men and women according to Scandinavia Standard. As per the 2013 data from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), the wage gap in Denmark was 5.8%, in Norway 7.1%, in Iceland 9.9%, and in Sweden 13.4%, all below the OECD world average of 14.4%. The World Economic Forum in 2017 ranked Iceland, Norway, Finland, and Sweden in the top 5 countries for closing gender gaps, with Denmark at 14th. However, it is important to note that only 53% of the economic participation gap has been closed globally, indicating ongoing challenges in achieving full wage equality​​.


Gender Quotas in Corporate Boards

As reported by Reuteurs, Norway, a pioneer in the Nordic region, was the first country in the world to introduce a 40% gender quota on the boards of listed companies in 2005. This move kickstarted an international push to increase female representation on boards. Recently, the Norwegian government proposed extending this 40% gender quota to large private firms as well. As of now, the proportion of women on boards in private firms is around 20%, up from 15% two decades ago. The government acknowledges the slow progress and aims to accelerate the pace towards gender balance in corporate governance​​.


Leadership Roles and Gender Disparity

Despite these advancements, a significant gender disparity exists in leadership roles within Nordic companies. A report by Boston Consulting Group (BCG) highlights that among the largest listed companies in each Nordic country, at least 27 of the 30 CEOs are male. The roles with bottom-line responsibility, such as CFO, Head of Business Unit, and Head of Sales, are predominantly held by men (over 80%). This pattern suggests that future CEOs are likely to be male as well. However, in support functions without profit and loss responsibility, women are better represented, holding around 30 to 40% of these positions, and even overrepresented in roles such as Head of HR, Head of Legal, and Head of Marketing. This dichotomy reveals a deeply homogeneous leadership in key decision-making positions​​.


International Rankings and Future Prospects

The Nordic countries, once leaders in women’s participation in leadership, are now being outpaced by other nations. Over the last 10 to 15 years, all countries except Sweden have seen a decline in their rankings regarding women’s share in leadership roles according to BCG. In 2006, Norway and Sweden were ranked 36th, Finland 46th, and Denmark 53rd. Currently, Sweden is the only Nordic country in the top 50, ranking 35th, while Finland, Norway, and Denmark have fallen to 51st, 68th, and 101st, respectively. This indicates a stagnation in the development of women’s share in leadership within the region​​.



Scandinavia’s approach to gender equality in the workplace, especially in business and office environments, demonstrates both progress and areas needing improvement. While policies supporting female labor participation have been effective, leading to substantial economic benefits, the representation of women in top leadership roles remains disproportionately low. The journey towards true gender equality in the Scandinavian business sector is ongoing, requiring continued effort and innovative strategies to address the existing disparities.