Outsiders often identify the Nordic countries of Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, and Sweden as feminist utopias. Compared to other parts of the West, these countries have low gender pay gaps, generous parental leave policies, and provide women with equal access to education.

Yet in this Utopia, not all is well. According to a study published in the journal Social Science & Medicine, the Nordic countries have disproportionately high rates of Intimate Partner Violence against women. In the Nordic countries included in the study, an average of 30 percent of women, or just under one in three, had experienced IPV, compared to an E.U. average of 22 percent. This phenomenon, dubbed the “Nordic Paradox,” has many people perplexed. “We are sort of amazed, puzzled by the find of that kind of data,” Enrique Gracia, professor in the Department of Social Psychology at the University of Valencia, told the HPR. Why would women be victimized more in countries that try so hard to alleviate the oppression that they face?

Sexism in The Culture

Despite the popular perception of the Nordic nations, sexist beliefs about the role of women are deeply ingrained in these countries. In most of Scandinavia, gender equality laws have only been passed in the last few decades, and cultural attitudes have largely failed to keep pace. The persistence of sexist cultural attitudes is manifest in the response to gender equity laws. Dr. Lucas Gottzen, a masculinities researcher at Linköping University, noted that most men in Sweden did not take parental leave when Sweden’s parental leave laws were first passed in the 1970s. “I’ve interviewed some of these men that were actually the first men to take our parental leave in the ’70s … They were looked down upon. They were seen as not as proper men,” he told the HPR. “It was not until the ’90s … that men started to take our parental leave in a much broader sense.”

Sweden is far from an exception to this rule. Kevat Nousiainen, a professor of Comparative Law and Legal Theory at the University of Turku in Finland, explained to the HPR that there is still widespread male chauvinism in Finnish society. She said that “there’s quite a lot of opposition that arises from claims that [women face discrimination],” and that many people claim that “it’s actually the men who have problems.” As Dr. Nousiainen observed, sexist gender roles persist in Nordic society. Even today, the majority of parental leave time is taken by women in Nordic countries. In Sweden, for instance, women take 75 percent of the parental leave time allotted to both themselves and their husbands.

Rape culture, a society or environment whose prevailing social attitudes have the effect of normalizing or trivializing sexual assault and abuse, is also still a problem in the Nordic countries. The history of laws concerning marital rape, or rape committed by the victim’s spouse, in these countries suggests that rape is not as widely condemned as it should be. While Sweden was one of the first countries to outlaw marital rape in 1965, Finland only criminalized the practice in 1994. Nousiainen noted that gender equality laws still meet stiff opposition in Finland today. “It has been rather difficult, actually, to bring forth [legislation specifically dealing with]… spousal [abuse], domestic violence, or sexual violence,” she said. She also noted that victims of sexual violence in Finland find it difficult to come forward. The fact that Finnish women are perceived to be very powerful “makes it quite difficult for the victims of violence, women, to speak about it. They are ashamed of being … victims.” Unlike Finland and Sweden, even today, Norway does not explicitly outlaw marital rape.

Nor is it only a problem of spousal violence. In Iceland, rape at outdoor festivals has been a growing problem over the past several years. High-profile events like these have drawn the attention of many women’s rights activists, for whom the Nordic countries’ reputation for progressivism contrasts sharply with their day-to-day experiences.

Workplace Obstacles: The Consequences of Culture

Moreover, sexist aspects of Nordic culture negatively affect women in professional settings. Compared to elsewhere in the West, very few Nordic women hold leadership positions in corporations. In Sweden, women make up only 13 percent of corporate leadership, and in Norway, only 6 percent of executives were female in 2013. Women also make up a relatively low percentage of active entrepreneurs in all five Nordic countries, all below the E.U. average of 10 percent. Moreover, across the Nordic countries, very few women are self-employed.

Nordic women also tend to make less money over the course of their careers than their male counterparts. Many have suggested that this is, ironically, in part due to these countries’ generous parental leave policies. Women end up taking time off work to take care of their children at crucial junctures in their careers, during which time their male counterparts are getting ahead. Gottzen acknowledged the challenges that many Swedish women still face in professional settings. While things are improving, the wage gap remains large and concerning. He further noted that the wage gap between men and women is great over the course of their lifetimes. Ultimately, the statistics suggesting gender equality for Nordic women in professional settings belie these countries’ sexist cultures, in which misogynistic structures still persist and serve to disadvantage women.

Academic Disagreement

If one ignores the misogyny often still ingrained in Nordic culture, a hypothesis that seems initially plausible is that these higher rates of intimate partner violence are due to higher rates of reporting in Nordic countries. Women, in this telling, are more likely to come forward and report abuse in societies in which it is more acceptable to talk about abuse. Gottzen shared this view. “The reason why we (Sweden) have high [rates of IPV] is because there’s a high awareness,” he told the HPR.

Other experts, including Gracia, are more skeptical of this view. They point to the fact that the same study that found high rates of IPV in Nordic countries also had data suggesting lower levels of reporting of abuse to authorities in these countries. Gracia said that when examining data on types of violence against women other than IPV, the Nordic countries still had higher rates than their Western European counterparts, suggesting that the problem is real. When metrics of gender equality in these countries are examined more closely, it becomes evident that the data on IPV is not deceptive. Rather, it is the other statistics on gender equality that are misleading.

Achieving gender equality is more complicated than it may seem on the surface. While the Nordic countries should be praised for having made significant strides towards achieving gender equality, their high rates of IPV, coupled with the persistence of sexist cultural attitudes, show that they still have a long way to go. Solving this problem is a challenging task: unlike maternal leave, cultural change cannot be accomplished with the wave of a legislative wand. If the Nordic countries want to truly achieve gender equality, then they must look beyond the numbers and into their culture to tackle the problem head on.

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons/ John Erling Blad

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