10 Questions with Professor Ida Blom

Ida Bloom talks about Norwegian Women's Participation in Politics

Each month, the Museum will feature "10 Questions" with an expert on women and politics in one corner of the world. This month, we spoke to Dr. Ida Blom, Professor of History, Emeritus at University of Bergen in Norway. We wanted her take on the remarkable percentages of women in politics -- and resulting policy changes -- in her country.

Lars Røed Hansen
Stortinget--Norwegian Parliament View Larger >

Norway, along with other Nordic countries, is said to set the standard for women's participation in formal politics.  Can you tell us what this looks like in Norway?

Since 1986, the Norwegian government has had about 40 percent women members, and between 30 and 40 per cent of members of Parliament have been women.  Currently, three of six political party leaders are women, ranging from the socialist left to the ultra-conservative Progress Party.

Interestingly, though, a recent study has shown that women leaders only count for a small minority elsewhere -- about 17 percent of municipal top positions.  In private businesses, only 19 percent of leaders are women.  Of editors within mass media, a small percentage are women.  Only 17 percent of professors are women.

How did this come about?

In national politics, this is at least in part due to quotas.   Starting in the 1970s and 1980s, employing gender quotas in elections became an accepted means of increasing women's representation.  Every other name on a ballot list is a woman. This has been important. So has the fact that, now more women have higher education and thus qualify for top positions.

What do you think brought about the remarkable shifts in percentages in the late 20th century? Were there earlier historical precedents for this?

There were no precedents for this shift. I think it was brought about by the active women's movement and maybe not least by active academic research within the social and human sciences.  This research made the very male-dominated national leadership visible and exposed weak arguments for not including women.

Do you think that having this kind of critical mass of women leaders, for several decades, has resulted in concrete changes in public policy?

Among the most important changes has been a focus on problems with particular importance for women, such as the right to determine whether or not to have an abortion without consulting anybody else; the need for prolonged paid maternity leave as well as for many more kindergartens; and the focus on women's generally much lower wages than men's, even where education and work may easily be compared.  It has also been important that seeing women in leading positions has gradually been accepted as a "normal" situation.

What are the legacy and impact of Gro Harlem Brundtland's years as Prime Minister?

Most important has been her breakthrough of having a government with 40 percent women cabinet members in 1986.  This has ever since been the rule for any government.  Also, in the beginning of her career, she was also quite often ridiculed by the popular press.  But such reactions have subsided, although you may still witness examples where you wonder if a man would be met with the same attitudes as a woman.

Is there cultural precedent for women's leadership in Norway?

No, there is not precedent for female leadership, except maybe if you go back to the Vikings, where women might entice men to use force or to revenge perceived humiliations. But that would be jumping to rather badly founded propositions.

Many women from other places in the world look at Norway with envy in the sense that Norwegian women have many months of paid parental leave and subsidized child care and that higher education and health care costs are heavily funded by the government, although citizens pay high taxes.  Can you give us a sense of the pulse of Norwegian women's thinking and feeling about these issues?

It is not possible to say anything conclusive about all women's thinking and feeling as such.  Women think and feel many different things, and their reactions to many political problems vary just as do men's.  Most people, women and men take parental leaves and government funded education as an important part of the Nordic welfare state regime.  We pay high taxes, and, in return, the public offers care and support when needed.  Some people would prefer to pay less tax and have a more choice about how to organize childcare and care for the sick and the elderly.  In my opinion, this would strengthen the already marked differences between the haves and the have-nots.

Many women and some men think that fathers should shoulder a much heavier part of childcare and of household chores.  But even if a good number of men are willing to do this, many employers do not want to see male employees absent from the workplace because of care work. Such attitudes may make a long parental leave a significant impediment for women who want to build a career. 

Recently, there have been media reports about high rates of domestic violence in Norwegian homes.  Do you think this phenomenon is particular marked in Norway or have the reports been trying to "poke holes" in what seems like a good set-up for women in Norway?

Unfortunately, this is certainly not a problem that is particular to Norway, nor is it an attempt to criticize a presumed good set-up for women.  It is a the result of much more openness about this kind of violence, that has all too often been seen partly as a woman's own fault, even by women who had been subjected to domestic violence.  I feel convinced that this is the situation in most societies.  There is still a long way to go before this kind of violence, both physical and psychological, is openly recognized everywhere.  Recently, attention has also been focused on men suffering from domestic violence, a phenomenon until now absolutely neglected.

In the last several decades, Norway has witnessed an influx of refugees and asylum seekers.  Would you say that women from these communities and minority ethnic communities enjoy the same status as "native" Norwegian women in Norway?

As a general rule, no.  But this is also the case for male refugees and asylum seekers.  Unfortunately, in Norway, accepting people who act differently from what is seen as general 'Norwegian' behavior, who look different from the ethnic Norwegian and have a foreign-sounding name, is a problem for many people. But on the other hand, you have many examples of women and men from other ethnic groups who do very well in academia.  Some are also beginning to make an impact in the world of politics.  Recently, a woman of African-Caribbean heritage, from Martinique, was made member of the government for the first time.  She heads the Equal Rights department.

Do you think that girls and young women in Norway have different mindsets than their mothers about their personal ambitions, goals and expectations for their lives due to seeing women in leadership roles and decision-making positions?  If so, how?

Again, there are wide variations. Many girls plan their lives differently from their mothers. Some react to their mothers' active feminist ideas by showing no interest in such problems at all.  Others even choose educations that will not give them a leading position.  Some others build on what has been gained by their mothers' generation and head for prominent positions through a good education, or by choosing for instance to work in the oil industry.  Some surprise me by preferring a military career.  I think the home environment is very important for the choices young girls -- and boys -- make, as has always been the case.

It should not be forgotten that for all the wonderful gender equality, Norway has one of the most clearly gendered labor markets, with many professions dominated by either women or men, and women much more often than men are working part-time. Women's labor continues to offer the lowest wages. This seems very hard to change.

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