December 17, 2008 / Uncategorized

Hurra for kvinnfolk i Scandinavia, or ‘Hurray for women in Scandinavia’: Gender Quotas and the 40% Rule


Robert B. Kvavik, Ph.D., is Vice President of Planning and Professor of Political Science and Scandinavian Studies at the University of Minnesota. He is also, with his wife, a member of The New Agenda.

The 2008 presidential election brought good news and bad news with respect to women in politics. The good news is that a woman came close to being the Democratic Party’s nominee for U.S. president and a woman was the Republican Party’s V.P. nominee. The bad news is that the level of misogyny demonstrated by the actions and comments of both women and men was nothing short of appalling and does not reflect well on our Republic.

Rather than being a world example of fairness and equity, we as a nation again showed that we are behind many countries of the Western world when it comes to gender equity. We have only to look to the Scandinavian countries where women have rights and a level of respect that exceed ours. Part of that is the culture, but also important is the dominant presence of women in politics. Here are examples:

Finland: In 1906, Finnish women were the first women in Europe to receive universal and equal franchise, and the first women in the world to become eligible for election to parliament. Recently, eight of seventeen cabinet ministers were appointed to the Government formed after the 2003 elections. Women hold the posts of Minister for Foreign Trade and Development, Minister of Education, Minister of Finance, Minister of Culture, Minister of Social Affairs and Health, Minister of Health and Social Services, Minister of Transport and Communications, and Minister of Labor. The winning candidate for the presidential election of 2000 was the then foreign minister Tarja Halonen, who became Finland’s first woman president. Note that four of the candidates were women and three men.

Iceland: Vigdís Finnbogadóttir was the fourth president of Iceland, serving for 16 years. She was the world’s first elected female president (1980-1996). Women received the right to vote in 1915.

Norway: In 1907, Norwegian women became eligible for election to parliament and were given the right to vote in 1913. A woman, Gro Harlem Brundtland, served as prime minister of Norway (1981, 1986-1989). Eight of 18 members of her cabinet were women. A woman, Anne-Grete Strom-Erichsen, has been Norway’s Minister of Defense since 2005. (The link (in Norwegian) is video from Norway’s Conservative newspaper, Aftenposten, and shows Strom-Erichsen flying in one of 4 new Hercules C-130’s, which Norway expects to use in Afghanistan, but mostly for humanitarian aid.)

Sweden: In all of Scandinavia, the number of women in parliament ranges from 33% to 47%, with Sweden having the highest percentage of women as parliamentarians – 10 of 22 cabinet ministers are women. Swedish women received the right to vote in 1919.

Denmark: Women in Denmark received the right to vote in 1915. Denmark lags somewhat behind her Scandinavian neighbors with slightly lower percentages of women in parliament and on the cabinet.

Women on bank notes

Of interest is also the presence of women on Norwegian banknotes. Of the 8 most used bank notes in Norway, three portray women: Camilla Collett, a writer considered the first Norwegian feminist writing a political novel on the difficulty of being a woman in a patriarchal society; Kirsten Flagstad, world renowned opera singer; and Sigrid Undset, a novelist who won the Nobel Prize in 1928. Note that all images on Norwegian paper currency in use are scientists and artists – not male presidents. Similarly, two of the five most common notes in Sweden portray women, and likewise, two of eight in Denmark.

To what is increased parity owed?

The increased parity between women and men in decision-making is closely linked to education and employment opportunities for women, as well as shared beliefs among men and women. Noteworthy is the shared belief that men cannot negotiate the values or the interests of women. In forming her government in 1986, prime minister Gro Harlem Brundtland noted: “It is in the interest of society as a whole that women’s values and women’s sense of justice be integrated into political life.” Further, “Women will not become more empowered merely because we want them to be, but through legislative changes, increased information, and redirection of resources. It would be fatal to overlook this issue.”

A system of gender quotas and the 40% rule

Competence and gender-friendly attitudes are important. However, the Scandinavian experience indicates that the proportion of women in political institutions will not increase unless targeted measures such as gender quotas are employed. A system of gender quotas was first employed by the Socialist Left Party and the Liberal Party in the 1970s. Today virtually all of the major Norwegian parties apply a gender quota system in nominations to elections and to the make-up of party-governing bodies.

The party quota system is voluntary and self-imposed. It is now practiced to redress any imbalance in representation on committees where men tend to congregate, such as economics, agriculture, communications, technology and defense, and not limit women to areas such as health and education.

A quota system has also been introduced for publicly appointed committees, boards, councils, and state enterprises. The “40 per-cent-rule” was incorporated in the Local Government Act in 1992, which regulates municipal and county governments.

In conclusion, the equal presence and power of women in the Scandinavian governments and politics probably prevents the bad behavior we saw in the US election. Some members of the Democratic National Committee and the broadcast media would not have dared to behave as we saw in this country in 2008, even if they had wanted to make the sexist statements they did. The political power of women has had a significant impact on Scandinavian public policy with respect to equal rights, health care, education, and the care of children. The United States has an aversion to quotas. Nevertheless, without some equivalent measure, voluntary or involuntary, the emergence of women as a political force in American politics is likely to require major generational and attitudinal change.


Materials presented have been extracted from news reports of the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

For further reading see:

Anette Borchorst and Birte Siim. Woman-friendly policies and state feminism: Theorizing Scandinavian gender equality. Feminist Theory, Vol. 9, No. 2, 207-224 (2008).

Lauri Karvonen and Per Selle, Editors. Women in Nordic Politics: Closing the Gap. Dartmouth Publishing Co, (1995).


Related posts on The New Agenda:

How hard are they looking for qualified women?

Quotas improve women’s political participation.

Join Our Email List

Be the first to know the latest initiatives from The New Agenda to improve the lives of women and girls.

Thank you for joining our list! Check your inbox to confirm your subscription.