Women in Danish Politics: Challenges to the Notion of Gender Equality

Christina Fiig. Women and Politics around the World: A Comparative History and Survey. Editor: Joyce Gelb & Marian Lief Palley. Volume 2: Country Profiles. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, 2009.


On Constitution Day, June 5, 1915, Danish suffragettes dressed in white marched through the streets of Copenhagen to the Amalienborg royal palaces and the king to mark the occasion of women’s parliamentary enfranchisement. Celebrated nationally, the march was symbolic and related to the previous decades’ struggle for the vote, which women obtained some 66 years after the 1849 Danish constitution.

The Danish case is the focus of this essay and will be put into perspective by examining Nordic research on women in politics. The Nordic countries appear to be unique when it comes to women’s political mobilization, participation, and relatively high degree of representation. The Nordic countries also form a special case concerning the degree of ethnic homogeneity. Historically, Denmark has been relatively homogeneous, despite the fact that it has undergone a process of increasing immigration and multiculturalism since the 1960s. It is still one of the most ethnically homogeneous societies in the world with only 6 percent of the population originating from countries outside the European Union (EU), the Nordic countries, and the United States (Statistics Denmark n.d.). A discursive development reflects the way toward multiculturalism: initially, discourses on “foreign workers” were turned into discourses on “immigrants” and are now transforming into discourses on “ethnic minorities” (Togeby 2003).

The present picture is mixed as immigrants are not included in society to the same degree as the majority population—especially ethnic minority women. The Danish Power and Democracy Study (1998-2003) concludes that ethnic minorities are not included in political decision making on equal footing with the majority population (Togeby et al. 2003). A paradox of multiculturalism, democracy, respect for diversity, and gender equality is emerging in the Nordic welfare and citizenship model, as women of the ethnic minorities are underrepresented in the political institutions, on the labor market, in civil society, and in the public debate (Brochmann, Borchgrevik, and Rogstad 2002; Siim 2008; Togeby 2003). The aim of this essay is to arrive at an understanding of women in Danish politics framed by the paradox of high participation and representation for the majority and lack of inclusion for minorities.

The introductory paragraph of this essay points toward three tricky questions. First, in what ways have women’s political mobilization, participation, and representation affected politics? Some researchers claim that a critical mass of different groups of women affects politics in substantive terms and that a shortage of women in political institutions may have consequences for the political agenda and for the legitimacy of democratic institutions (Dahlerup 2006b , 3-31). The theoretical argument is that the presence of women in political institutions and decision making matters for democratic reasons (Phillips 1995); however, the debate on the significance of the critical mass of women in politics is also contested (Dahlerup 2006a). Second, what differences stand out between majority and minority women’s participation in politics, in civil society, and on the labor market? And third, from a normative perspective does the Nordic experience of women in politics form an ideal model? Finally, the challenges to the notion of gender equality in Denmark will be summarized.

This essay is rooted in a broad concept of politics, which suggests that political power and influence involve more than just parliamentary and cabinet seats (Karvonen and Selle 1995; Togeby et al. 2003), and equally rooted in a broad concept of citizenship based on the three dimensions of participation, identity, and individual rights (Andersen et al. 1993; Andersen 2002). Internationally, the five Nordic countries (Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, and Sweden) have been considered a similar region characterized by a high degree of political gender equality; it appears so in larger comparisons, but a closer look also reveals distinct differences (Bergqvist et al. 1999). Acommon characteristic is that women’s entrance into politics is a postwar phenomenon, which has changed not only women’s relationship to democracy, power, and influence but also the whole political landscape (Karvonen and Selle 1995). A difference became apparent in 1990—namely, the difference concerning the types of gender debate in the Scandinavian countries (Denmark, Norway, and Sweden). The debate in Sweden has been rooted in structural understandings of gender inequality, whereas the Danish debate has been relatively ambivalent and rooted in explanations of the individual, private choices of men and women as explanations for gender inequality, (Borchorst 2004; Dahlerup 2004; Fiig 2008; Freidenvall, Dahlerup, and Skjeie 2006).

Two Theoretical Approaches

Research on women in Nordic politics has undergone a normative shift of emphasis regarding women’s agency and inclusion during the previous 25 years. The two research perspectives can be named as perspectives of exclusion and inclusion regarding women in politics.

One stream of literature seeks to explain women’s political marginalization and exclusion. Until the late 1980s, this perspective dealt with women’s exclusion and the model of the patriarchal state. Women’s participation in public life was approached as a transition from powerlessness without participation to relative powerlessness, despite the increasing female participation in politics (Haavio-Mannila et al. 1985). Claims regarding marginalization come in two varieties: a vertical and a horizontal division of labor between men and women in politics. The vertical division of labor is concerned with the position of men and women in political hierarchies, whereas the horizontal division of labor focuses on the various policy areas in which men and women work (Raaum 1995, 29).

During the 1990s, another research perspective on inclusion in politics gained momentum. The notion of the patriarchal state was questioned by Nordic scholars who argued that context is important in analytical terms, that history and politics matter (Karvonen and Selle 1995), and that the Nordic states are potentially “women friendly” (Hernes 1987). It was equally emphasized that vocabularies of citizenship are dependent on the social and political context and historical legacies in which they have been developed (Bussemaker and Voet 1998). Predominantly, the research perspective has shifted toward women’s agency, inclusion in political institutions, and women’s active citizenship in the Nordic welfare states. Hypotheses concerning a hierarchical and functional marginalization of women in politics gain little empirical support today, and research has shown that there is no foundation for the claim that a gender-based division of labor is equivalent to a functional marginalization of women. Most of the conclusions drawn here are based on women of Nordic majority origin and do not take a perspective of multiculturalism into consideration. Recent important exceptions are Siim (2003, 2008) and Togeby (2003).

Historical Context: Women’s Role from Apolitical to Political

Danish women’s transition from being apolitical to political and the development in women’s political participation and representation locally, regionally, and nationally from “a small to a large minority”—to use Dahlerup’s (1988) influential formulation—is most constructively analyzed from the perspective of late 19th- and 20th-century political history.

Since the 1970s, the Nordic countries have been considered “a laboratory of gender equality” (Gomard and Krogstad 2001). The notion of “exceptionalism” can be explained numerically in that during the past three decades there has been a greater level of women’s political participation and representation in the Nordic countries than in most other regions of the world (Bergqvist et al. 1999; Inter-Parliamentary Union 2006; Karvonen and Selle 1995). Recently, their international status as role model has been challenged as the Nordic model of an incremental development in representation of women is challenged by a “fast track” model based on gender quotas written into the constitutions of a number of countries (Dahlerup 2006b, 3-31). Besides, the “laboratory of gender equality” has been relatively color-blind. Migrant women are underrepresented in the Danish voluntary organizations, public debates, and political institutions, with the exception of local government (Siim 2003; Togeby 2003).

The initial demands for women’s suffrage were formulated around 1870 and were first raised in the parliament in 1886. Women were gradually granted the vote: in 1903 for parochial church councils, in 1908 for local elections, and in 1915 for parliamentary elections. They were made eligible to stand for local elections in 1908 (first election 1909) and for parliamentary elections in 1915 (first election 1918).

In 1871, the liberal politician Fredrik Bajer and his wife Matilde Bajer established Denmark’s first women’s organization, the Danish Women’s Society (Dansk Kvindesamfund), the Danish branch of the Association Internationale des Femmes. Initially, the organization did not argue for women’s right to vote. It would take some 35 years from the foundation of the Danish Women’s Society in 1871 before women’s enfranchisement was added to the organization’s article of association in 1906. Meanwhile, a number of other organizations came into existence, and suffragettes of different classes struggled for voting rights. In 1907, the national suffragette organization (Landsforbundet for Kvinders Valgret) was founded. It existed for eight years until the parliamentary vote was obtained in 1915, and then the organization was dissolved. The Danish Women’s Society continued and still exists at this day (Fiig and Siim 2007). The inspiration of the International Women’s Suffrage Alliance was of central importance. In Iceland, which belonged to the Danish Kingdom at the time, women had obtained the right to vote in municipal elections in 1882; this same right to vote then was granted in Denmark in 1908 (Rambusch 1990; Rosenbeck 1987). This formed a good platform from which to agitate for the right to vote in parliamentary elections (Dahlerup 1978; Nielsen n.d.).

Although the suffragettes earned social and political capital by networking in and across various associations, Danish women in general did not obtain a high degree of political representation after they gained the vote in 1915. It took approximately 60 years from women’s enfranchisement for Denmark, Norway, and Sweden to cross the 20 percent threshold and 70 years to reach 30 percent women’s representation in parliamentary seats (Dahlerup 1978, 2006b, 3-31). However, parliamentary politics only constitute some aspects of political participation in a democracy, and throughout the 20th century women in Denmark were active in associations and networks. The period 1918-1925 saw the passage of a number of parliamentary bills dealing with equality for women, and the first female minister, Nina Bang, achieved a high profile in the debates (Nielsen n.d.).

Since the late 19th century, Danish political history has developed as a result of the interplay between associations and social movements “from below” in civil society and the political institutions “from above.” Generally speaking, parties, associations, and social movements have played a key role in developing the European democracies—especially in Denmark (Mikkelsen 2002a). Parties, associations, and social movements have been interpreted in constructive terms as a way of raising multiple voices and narrowing the social inequality in political participation (Andersen 2002). Besides, active participation in associations and networks helps citizens gain democratic competences to argue for their interests and engage in broader societal problems. They work as a “local school of democracy” (Andersen, Torpe, and Andersen 2000). The interplay from below and above has been used as an explanatory force when it comes to generating civil, political, and social rights for women in the Nordic countries (Borchorst 2004; Hernes 1987; Marshall 1950).

The collective mobilization of the farmers’ and workers’ organizations and other movements secured a high degree of participation and connections between the population and its political leadership. This popular political engagement also extended to the political parties, which at their zenith in 1947 included 47 percent of the electorate. During the 1960s, numbers dropped to around 20 percent, and in 2000, parties organized only 5 percent of the electorate (Togeby et al. 2003). What seemed to have interrupted this partisan pattern is the mass mobilization of the new social movements during the 1970s and 1980s on issues related to nuclear energy, the environment, feminism, sexuality, and solidarity with developing countries (Togeby et al. 2003). These movements managed to provide their own opportunity structure by mobilizing interests, adding new resources, and trying alternative ways of organizing. By influencing political decision making, they contributed to a popular attitudinal and value change (Andersen 2002 ; Mikkelsen 2002a). All these characteristics can be ascribed to the Danish women’s movement of the 1970s and early 1980s (Dahlerup 1998).

Danish scholars have emphasized the long-term impact of the second-wave women’s movement, which has been interpreted as a key element in transforming women’s democratic citizenship (Siim 2000), politically mobilizing and empowering women, and culturally transforming discourses about gender equality. Despite the movement’s limited interest in formal political institutions, it indirectly contributed to establishing a new framework for politics and new discourses (Dahlerup 1998).

In seeking to analyze women’s mobilization, participation, and representation in politics, a range of connected background factors is put forward, such as demographic changes, growth of women’s resources, government policies, and the influence of the women’s movement (Karvonen and Selle 1995). One explanation is related to labor market participation (Togeby 1994) and another accentuates the relative autonomy of politics (Siim 2000). Lise Togeby argues that a determining factor is the increase in women’s labor market participation and the political upheavals and strong political mobilizations that took place during the 1960s and 1970s. Traditional political organizations were weak, which created a political opportunity structure for the social movements. According to Birte Siim, the thesis on women’s labor market participation offers neither a necessary nor a sufficient explanation of women’s demands for equality in the family and in politics. The relative autonomy of politics makes a difference on its own. In the Danish case, political, institutional, and cultural factors formed the basis for the inclusion of women in political life.

The distinction between the period before and after the political mass mobilization of the late 1960s and the 1970s is instrumental to the analysis of women’s political role. Women in Denmark became more politically active, more left-wing, more tolerant and feminist, and more likely to reject the traditional division between men and women. By 1990, the differences in tolerance between men and women had disappeared. The decisive factor seems to be a collective cultural change by which all women, regardless of their individual experiences, education, and age, have become more tolerant (Togeby 1994, 1995). It is a general Scandinavian tendency for women to be more left-wing than men.

Values and a Woman’s Place in Society

Several surveys document the population’s values from 1981 to 1999 and attitudes on a range of gender political questions (Andersen, Torpe, and Andersen 2000; Christensen and Siim 2001; Gundelach 2002; Togeby et al. 2003). Historically, the discourses on “Danish-ness” have varied. In contemporary debates, Danish values are constructed around discourses on tolerance, consensus, equality, and democracy (Togeby et al. 2003). The political and democratic culture in Denmark is characterized by “thin” liberal norms on political tolerance and “thick” republican norms on common responsibility and public engagement. The latter is defined as citizen engagement and responsibility toward society’s common affairs. Surveys document a high degree of support for both sets of norms (Torpe 2000, 2003). Approached comparatively, the aforementioned values of tolerance, consensus, equality, and democracy are not particularly Danish, nor are they characterized by long, historical traces. For example, gender equality was not part of a Danish set of values until the 1960s and 1970s, and until 1915 only a limited group of Danish male citizens acquired democratic rights (Togeby et al. 2003).

Women’s place in society is reflected by the fact that women have gained legitimacy as wage earners on the labor market, as politicians, and generally as public citizens. Since the 1970s, a gender dimension has formed an integrated part of political debates, dialogues, and discourses and has helped form new political identities. Data document that men and women agree on central dimensions of gender equality, such as the importance of gender parity in political assemblies and equal pay. Data demonstrate some degree of attitudinal difference when it comes to the attitudes of 18- to 29-year-old women and men regarding the achieved level of gender equality. Both women and men believe gender equality has been achieved in terms of access to the educational system, whereas young women are more critical than men regarding the level of gender equality in relation to maternity/paternity leave and the wage gap (Christensen and Siim 2001).

Political Participation and Representation: Country-Specific Data

In Denmark, legal quotas have not formed the basis for the representation of women in elected political assemblies. Since 1995, the Nordic countries have had the highest representation of women in the national parliaments with averages consistently over 38 percent, and in 2005, the countries reached an average of 40 percent women (Inter-Parliamentary Union 2006, 3). In the case of Denmark, however, quotas have been used uniquely in two parties, namely, the Socialist People’s Party and the Social Democratic Party (Christensen 1999). In 2000, Danish political parties had 33 percent female membership on average, and they encompassed significant partisan differences (Heidar and Pedersen 2006).

The representation of female parliamentarians in the Danish Folketing has risen from 16 percent women in 1975 to 30 percent in 1987 and 38 percent in 2005. The percentage of women in the municipal councils (the local government) has developed less steadily, from 12 percent in 1974 to 26 percent in 1989 and 28 percent in 1993; since then, the percentage has dropped to 27 percent over the last elections (Borchorst and Dahlerup 2003). It remains to be seen what influence new local and regional reforms—including reforms of the election districts—will have on the representation of women in local government (Bach 2005).

Regarding broader types of political participation such as voting, party membership, signing petitions, writing letters to the editors, accessing media or the political authorities, the gender gap has decreased. Broadly speaking, Denmark is characterized by a high degree of political participation among majority-group women and a relatively low degree among minority-group women (Togeby et al. 2003).

Limits to Women’s Political Participation and Representation

Data on political participation and representation for women of the majority and minority populations reveal two paradoxes: a local-national and a majority-minority paradox. Women of the majority population achieve higher levels of representation in national parliamentary politics than in local offices across the country. In an evaluation of Denmark’s gender equality status by the United Nations (UN) Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), the committee expressed concern that women’s political representation remains significantly lower at the local level than at the parliamentary level (CEDAW 2006). In the case of migrant women, however, the picture is turned around. Ethnic minority women are relatively well represented in local municipalities but not in national politics (Togeby 2003).

First, during the 1990s the increase in women’s representation in local government came to a stop—with less than 30 percent of local politicians being female and just under 40 percent women in the parliament. The decrease in female representation in local government is not a general tendency in the Nordic countries. The explanations for the underrepresentation of women in local government are rooted in the role of the political parties and their approach to recruiting and representing candidates, in different understandings of gender in politics, and in the substance of local government politics in Denmark. There also seems to be a link between the degree of urbanization, women’s employment rate and geographical location, and the representation of women such that especially large municipalities around the capital, such as Copenhagen, have a higher representation of women (Bach 2005).

As stated in the introduction, there are concerns about the impact of women’s participation and representation in politics. Central questions in the Nordic countries have been whether, to what extent, and under what conditions women make a difference in politics and what effects can be identified as a result of women’s political mobilization, gendered patterns of action, and differences in preferences and interests between the genders. There is no agreement on these questions and the concept of “a critical mass” is increasingly contested in academic debates (see Dahlerup [1988, 2006a, 2006b], Heidar and Pedersen [2006], Skjeie [1992], Phillips [1995], and Wängnerud [2000].)

In the Nordic countries, party affiliation has been considered more important than gender for political decision making, but it has equally been pointed out that female politicians often initiate equality policies in cross-party alliances and alliances with men (Skjeie 1992; Wängnerud 2000). Danish parties experience a significant gender gap in party members’ attitudes toward political issues of European integration, the size of the public sector, the prospect for the welfare state, and crime prevention (Heidar and Pedersen 2006). Gender-based attitudinal differences are widening in relation to the welfare state, tax cuts, and improvements in welfare services (Togeby et al. 2003).

In addition, limits to representation and participation are rooted in the paradox of difference between the majority and the minority population’s political representation and participation. From a participatory democratic perspective, the relatively low rate of broad political participation for ethnic minority women is problematic, among other reasons because active participation provides familiarity with the workings of a democracy. In an investigation of politically active ethnic minority women’s citizenship in Denmark—via their leading voluntary organizations—Siim (2003, 2008) identifies a tension between the public and the private lives of these women, demands for equality and equal rights for women in the public sphere (e.g., in relation to work, education, and politics), and the acceptance of gendered roles in the family. The women interviewed consider the local political arena to be an inclusive and open opportunity structure for the self-organization of minority women. However, they identify a lack of political voice in public debates and in the political parties.

Economic Participation: Country-Specific Data

Returning to the second question on the differences between majority and minority women in Denmark, economic participation forms an illustrative case. In a comparative perspective across EU and Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development countries, Denmark has a high employment rate: Danish women have a record-high employment rate, a record in number of weekly working hours, and a record in the number of working hours for female part-time employees (Emerek 2005; European Union 2006).

Internationally, Denmark is considered a vanguard nation concerning women’s integration in the educational system and the labor market. Danish women’s employment frequency reached 60 percent in the late 1970s—the 60 percent female labor market participation formed the benchmark for the EU Lisbon target employment rate, which the European countries were to reach by 2010 if the Lisbon treaty were ratified. Explanations for Denmark reaching this benchmark 30 years ahead of the EU include welfare state policies such as inexpensive and solid child care, paid maternity and paternity leave, and sick child leave. These women-friendly policies are considered a win-win solution for society that potentially yield market competitiveness and ideals of social and gender equality. In addition, the Danish model of “flexicurity”—a flexible labor market with a high degree of social security—is used as an explanation for women’s economic participation in the labor market (Borchorst 2007; Borchorst and Dahlerup 2003).

The Danish labor market is highly segregated by gender according to sectors, industries, and job functions: up to 50 percent of working women are employed in the public sector in jobs related to care and local government and up to 80 percent of working men are employed in the private sector. Men working in the public sector are predominantly working for national rather than local government. One consequence of the sex segregation is a significant wage gap between men and women, which has not diminished much over the past 25 years. Some of this difference can be explained structurally as more women are employed in the public sector, but there remains an unexplained gender-based difference in wages (Pedersen and Deding 2000).

The 2004 employment rate for the working-age population (16-66 year olds) is 77 percent for men and 71.5 percent for women. (Both of the categories are native Danes—people with at least one Danish parent [Emerek 2005, 3].) Change in employment is partly due to the aging population in Denmark and partly due to the growing proportion and changing composition of immigrants and descendants (Emerek 2005). Data from 2004 differ markedly for different ethnic groups, but in general terms the employment rate for males is 63 percent for immigrants from Western countries, 51 percent for immigrants from non-Western countries, 56 percent for female immigrants from Western countries, and 38 percent for female immigrants from non-Western countries.

Limits to Women’s Economic Participation

Two limits to women’s economic participation in the Danish labor market are related to the marginalized position of immigrants—especially those from non-Western countries—and to (top) managers in private industry, which has a relatively low number of female directors and female board of directors. The lower employment rate of immigrants from non-Western countries is explained by such factors as discrimination, racism, and women’s limited educational opportunities before arrival. It is estimated that more than 50 percent of female immigrants from non-Western countries have no vocational training, education, or labor market experience on arrival (Emerek 2005).

The representation of women in managerial positions increases as one moves down the chain of command, which also indicates that elite positions in Denmark are populated by men (Christiansen, Møller, and Togeby 2001). The Scandinavian commissions on democracy and power have pointed out that increased political representation of women has not made women enter other areas of decision making, such as economics and finance (Skjeie and Teigen 2003; Togeby et al. 2003). Denmark is characterized by a low degree of participation of women in top management and corporate boards within private industry. Data from 2001 demonstrate the unequal gender balance: only 1 percent of elite positions in private industry top management are held by women, 3 percent in boards of directors, and 7 percent among the leading staff (Christiansen, Møller, and Togeby 2001).

Impact of Transnational Feminism

For several decades, Danish gender-equality policies have been influenced by transnational feminism as conveyed by international political organizations such as the EU, the UN, and the Nordic Council. Both the UN and the EU have played significant roles in forming Danish gender-equality policies, and the central dynamic of changes has originated from these institutions. They have contributed with “imperatives of action” (Borchorst 2004; Borchorst and Dahlerup 2003) and, in the case of the EU, with binding directives that have been turned into Danish legislation. The Platform for Action agreed upon at the UN’s Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing in 1995 has equally been influential (United Nations 1995).

In 1965, inspired by Norway and Sweden, a Danish women’s commission was established, and the UN’s International Women’sYear (1975) is viewed as essential in relation to the institutionalization of Danish equality policies and the creation of the Danish Equal Opportunity Unit. It only dealt with gender-equality issues, however, and questions of race and ethnicity were not incorporated into its mandate. The agency played a central role in promoting and implementing equality policies and it was considered a landmark that was successful in institutionalizing and integrating a gender-equity principle into many policy areas (Borchorst 1995, 2004; Fiig 2000; Stetson and Mazur 1995).

In an effort to adopt the commitments made in Beijing in 1995, Denmark endorsed the principle of gender mainstreaming. With a fundamental reorganization of the legislation in 2000, gender mainstreaming became the central principle of Danish legislation on gender equality, which holds that all policy must include a gender perspective (United Nations 1995). However, the principle of gender mainstreaming is far from implemented. The key challenge in the Danish case is to demonstrate gender mainstreaming in the implementation of policies and measures (Borchorst and Dahlerup 2003; Emerek 2005; Fiig 2000). For example, two high-profile political commissions on regional and local public administration and the future welfare state have not used the mainstreaming strategy and therefore have not considered the gendered consequences of the restructuring (Borchorst 2007).

Compared with other Scandinavian countries, the Danish gender-equality policies are considered narrower, more weakly organized, less organizationally embedded, and marked by a weak will to govern (Borchorst and Dahlerup 2003). In Scandinavia, public policies aimed at changing gender relations and structures have had to yield when they conflict with other goals and policies, such as the social partners’ right to wage negotiation or organizational freedom. In those cases what had to yield were policies aimed at reducing the wage gap and the gender balance in organizational representation, respectively (Skjeie and Teigen 2003).

The Danish gender debate of the late 1990s bears witness to how some younger women believe the level of gender equality needs to be improved. In the late 1990s, a media debate was initiated by young, predominantly white, middle-class feminists who were, generally speaking, the daughters of the feminists from the women’s movement of the 1970s across the Scandinavian countries. They were brought up and socialized to believe the Scandinavian welfare states have, to a large extent, realized an ideal of gender equality. However, the debate, which consisted of personal narratives of everyday experiences, was inconsistent with the official state optimism and the ideals of their upbringing. Paradoxically, they still identified aspects of gender inequality in their everyday life. They questioned the welfare states in relation to gender equality by examining types of discrimination and reformulated the concepts of feminism, distancing themselves from the feminist ideals and icons of the 1970s and early 1980s (Fiig 2008).

The Nature of Civil Society: Women’s Mobilization and Civil Society

Civil society can be defined as a sphere outside state management characterized by civic involvement in numerous associations and as a sphere of potential accumulation of social capital (Andersen, Torpe, and Andersen 2000). In Denmark, the welfare state supports civil society’s institutions and practices financially by handing over tasks to civil society actors, including organizations in political and administrative processes, and creating “political opportunity structures” (Torpe 2003). Civic involvement is considered an aspect of political participation contributing to the development of individual capacities, the creation of community, and the cultivation of democratic virtues and equal protection of interests in public life (Torpe 2003). The Nordic political culture is characterized by a close interaction between the political system and actors in civil society, which results in a relatively sympathetic reception of demands among decision makers. The women’s movement of the 1970s and early 1980s forms an example of this.

Among adult Danes aged 18 to 70 years, 10 percent were not a member of an association in 1979, and this number dropped to 7 percent in 2000. On average, adult Danes were members of 3.3 associations, including associations with an economic group interest (trade unions, housing, and motor associations, etc.) and of political issues-related associations (environment, religion, etc.) in 2000, compared with 2.9 in 1979, and throughout the 1990s gender-based differences in civil society participation vanished. Almost half the population (49 percent) participated in an activity-based association in 2000, and women were more active than men in grassroots organizations (Andersen 2002; Andersen, Torpe, and Andersen 2000). That women are as active as men in civil society associations and networks is in accordance with the increasing participation of women from the majority population in all aspects of Danish society (Togeby 1994). When looking at women’s participation and engagement in civil society, it is worth pointing out that a general inequality in participation between social groups (education-based) has decreased concerning membership and activity from 1979 to 2000. However, participation in civil society is still biased when it comes to gender and the degree of decision-making power in associations.

Immigration and inclusion of minorities form a challenge to associational life in Denmark. Within the democratic perspective sketched here, the lack of inclusion of a part of the population (the ethnic minorities) is problematic (Mikkelsen 2002a, 2002b; Togeby et al. 2003). Ethnic minorities’ participation in Danish civil society is less widespread than is the case for the majority population, and men from ethnic minorities are more active than minority women. The participation rate varies across different ethnic groups, and data from 2001 indicate a generational effect. The younger generation of ethnic minorities, both men and women—those who have grown up in Denmark—have considerably more political and social resources than their parents (Togeby 2003).

The Nordic Countries as an Ideal Model for Gender Equality?

To return to the third question, that is, from a normative perspective does the Nordic experience of women in politics form an ideal model? Scholars have criticized this thesis on women’s empowerment in the Nordic countries, stressing that the specific type of gender equality cannot be taken for granted in broader analyses of women’s lives and political mobilization, participation, and representation (Borchorst and Siim 2002, 2008). The discourse on the women-friendly Nordic states is based on the premise that women’s labor-market participation is the key to gender equality. It has been argued that the Nordic model is not a universal model for gender equality. A central point is what the dual-breadwinner model, women-friendly policies in the welfare state, and gender-equality discourses mean for the integration of ethnic minorities and especially minority women. There is a growing need to reexamine the relation between diversity and welfare in terms of gender, class, and ethnicity as well as between politics of recognition on the one hand and politics of redistribution on the other (Borchorst and Siim 2002, 97; 2008). The same line of argument is used in relation to the Nordic model of women’s political participation and representation. In the light of recently developed models of gender quotas—the fast track—the Nordic model of incrementalism cannot be considered the only model for increasing women’s representation in parliamentary politics (Freidenvall, Dahlerup, and Skjeie 2006).

A Nordic Paradox

The high degree of political equality between men and women, and majority women’s inclusion in politics, is not replicated in other areas of decision making, such as the top of private industry, public administration, the media, and academia. This situation has been coined “the Nordic paradox,” which describes the paradox between political equality between men and women on the one side and male dominance in the other elite societal positions in the Nordic countries on the other (Hirdman 2002). Women have access to politics and political institutions but are only to a very limited degree participating and represented in corporate structures.

The Danish power and democracy study documented this phenomenon. Data from 1999 on the 1,500 individuals defined as eight types of Danish societal elites (occupying 1,800 positions across politics, private industry, public administration, organizations, the judiciary, academia, the media, and art and culture) show that 88 percent of the elite persons are men and 12 percent are women; in addition, these numbers cover significant differences in relation to these societal elites. Among parliamentarians the proportion of women—up to 40 percent—is almost equal to the percentage of women in the overall population. At the other end of the scale is the percentage of women in private industry: 1-2 percent of women are at the top level and only 10 percent of professors across Danish academia are women. The number of women in elite positions in private industry has not increased from 1932 to 1999 (Christiansen, Møller, and Togeby 2001; Togeby et al. 2003). Similar results emerged from the Norwegian Power and Democracy Study (Skjeie and Teigen 2003).


Herein, several challenges to the notion of gender equality in relation to women in politics in Denmark have been identified that put the notion of the Nordic “laboratories of gender equality” into a different perspective. One challenge is related to multiculturalism and immigration in all areas of society. The Danish model of citizenship combines the possibilities of universalism and social rights with a political ideal about inclusion of citizens in the democratic dialogue (Siim 2000). This involves the social and political inclusion of all citizens—including minority women—in politics, civil society associations and networks, the educational system, and the labor market. One challenge is to strengthen the active inclusion of minority women in all areas of society.

Other challenges relate to the notion of gender inequality concerning the political underrepresentation of women in local politics and of minority women, especially in parliamentary politics; to such economic matters as the wage gap between men and women; and to inclusion of women in leading decision-making positions at the top of the Danish societal hierarchies—for example, concerning private industry. These challenges form examples of gender inequality and a hindrance to the full expression of the principle of de facto equal rights for all citizens (Togeby et al. 2003).