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Gender - the 800 pound gorilla in Danish election

Helle Thorning-Schmidt. Photo: Lars Svanekjær

Half of the party leaders are women in Denmark. And perhaps for the first time Denmark is on its way to having a female prime minister.

But as the complicated game of political manoeuvring and bargaining intensifies up to the general election, the question of equal opportunities and gender equality is conspicuously absent from the campaign.

  Helle Thorning-Schmidt. Photo: Lars Svanekjær
KVINFO/7.11.2007 Opposition leader Social Democrat Helle Thorning-Schmidt is running neck and neck with Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen in the third and final week of campaigning. Rasmussen called the snap election on October 24 and the country goes to the polls on November 13.

With a booming economy and unemployment at it's lowest in 33 years re-election of Rasmussen's centre right coalition seemed a matter of course just two weeks ago. Rasmussen's Liberal Party, however, has lost momentum and according to opinion polls is set to loose about 10 % of its mandates compared to the 2005 election.

After the first weeks of campaigning, women's organizations and gender experts lament the fact that almost all political parties seem decidedly reluctant to directly address gender equality. While it seems obvious that welfare issues have a direct impact on women's lives, politicians appear unable to target the gender specific consequences of other important political issues: fiscal policy, environmental policy, EU policy. Targeting these and other issues could sway important women's votes, observers claim.

Gender in general
Two and a half years ago Helle Thorning-Schmidt became the first woman ever to head the Social Democrats. She was elected following the Social Democrat Party's worst result in years in Denmark’s 2005 general election.

Today, the question of Helle Thorning-Schmidt's gender, and of gender in general, looks increasingly like the election's 800 pound gorilla. Everybody knows it's there but nobody wants to talk about it. Observers note that many male politicians including the Prime Minister seem genuinely uneasy about how to deal with Helle Thorning-Schmidt and with female voters. They want to appeal to the female electorate and are seen getting rid of ties and tough-guy rhetoric as well as visiting schools and playing with pre-schoolers.

With more than half a million voters undecided, many of them young women, the question of equal opportunities and gender equality is conspicuously absent from the campaign. While Thorning-Schmidt fashions her rhetoric to appeal to women voters by emphasising for example family and health issues, she doesn't specifically target women. Besides welfare issues neither she nor Rasmussen have delved into other matters that seriously affect women's lives such as wage differentials, a new pension law that hits women's pension savings hard or men's rights to paternity leave.

Welfare and womenomics
According to a recent survey welfare tops the list of voter concerns this year pushing integration to a second place for the first time since 1998. In two televised debates between Rasmussen and Thorning-Schmidt up to the election each sought to gain the upper hand on welfare issues. Since women make up the largest group of undecided voters, and welfare is of particular concern to them, this is hardly surprising.

The country's booming economy testifies to gender equality and welfare as a winning combination for economic growth. Denmark has one of the highest female labour participation rates in the world. Almost 80 % of Danish women work outside the home, compared to 57 % in Japan and 55-60 % in Germany and France. At the same time they have managed to have babies, securing a higher fertility rate than most working women in other countries. By providing childcare facilities and paid maternity leave, Denmark's welfare system removes many of the obstacles that make it hard for women in other countries to combine work with children.

According to an Economist article "Women in the world economy" (2006) getting women engaged in the work place in greater numbers and putting support institutions in place makes seriously good economic sense. The magazine has coined the phrase "womenomics" to describe this economic strategy. The article cites a study by the World Economic Forum that found a clear correlation between gender equality and economic growth. Other studies suggest that gender inequality harms long-term growth in all countries. It also seems to pay good dividends for women to be in positions of power in business and government.

Danish women potentially have much more to contribute to the economy than they already have, but a number of obstacles remain. Although more women than men are getting college degrees, surprisingly the wage differential between men and women grows in direct proportion to level of education. The higher the degree, the more qualified the job, the greater the wage differential.

The Danish labour market is highly gender segregated. The majority of women work in the public sector which offers flexible working hours, more job security and better benefits. Wages are much lower, however, than in the private sector. Women dominate poor to medium waged caring professions such as nursing, teaching, counselling, caring for the elderly, etc.

Women are a rare breed on executive suites and only make up slightly more than 4 % of CEOs in Denmark. Norway has threatened business with gender quota laws in order to get more women into the board rooms. This has had a dramatic effect on the number of women in leadership positions. In Denmark, however, politicians across the board have so far rejected the notion of quota laws.

Gender equality and integration
During the past six years the Danish debate on integration of ethnic minorities has reinvigorated and politicised the question of equal opportunities and sexual equality between men and women to a degree that has not been seen since the 1980s. There seems to be a general party political consensus that equality between the sexes epitomises what it is to be Danish. Gender equality has been introduced into the integration debate as part of the very core of Danish values and society. This makes the election campaign's neglect of the issue perplexing indeed.

Observers note that there has been a strong tendency for the influence of immigration on Danish society to be personified by the image of the oppressed Muslim woman hidden beneath headscarves and burkas. A current example is the case of far-left Unity Party candidate Asmaa Abdol-Hamid, a 25-year old Muslim woman, who wears the hijab and does not shake hands with men. She is a social worker and aspires to be a role model for other young Muslim women by becoming a Member of Parliament.

Although she supports gender equality and tows the party line on religiously controversial issues, her candidature has split The Unity Party. Many members and voters have left the party in protest and the party is fighting for its political life and may not get enough votes to get into Parliament.

The anti-immigration Danish People's Party has suggested that Abdol-Hamid be banned from entering Parliament because of her religious dress and refusal to shakes hands with men. Others have seen her candidature as an example of Denmark's traditional tolerance of difference and as an opportunity to engage Muslim women in the democratic process, rather than exclude them from it.

No matter how the election turns out for Abdol-Hamid, analysts predict that the Parliament will have a muslim woman as member for the first time after the election. 31-year old Özlem Sara Cekic is a Copenhagen top candidate for the Socialist People's Party which stands to gain several seats.

What will be the outcome?
Four out of nine parties are led by women: Social Democrat leader Helle Thorning-Schmidt, Danish People's Party leader Pia Kjærsgaard, Social-Liberal Party leader Margrethe Vestergaard and Christian Democrat leader Bodil Kornbek. The Unity Party have no official leader, but the two women top candidates, Line Barfod and Johanne Schmidt-Nielsen, have represented the party in the major party leader debates.

Women make up 33 % of the candidates. Unlike France, where a gender parity law is in place to ensure that women are able to participate in political life on an equal footing with men, each party in Denmark is free to do as it chooses. The Social People's Party tops the list with 43 % women candidates and the Conservative Party is at the bottom with 28 %.

At 60 % Finland currently has the highest number of female ministers of any country in the world. Denmark closed slightly in on this figure in 2000 when the Social Democratic government had 43 % female ministers. The percentage of female ministers in the present government, however, has hovered between 26 % and 36 %.

According to a recent poll Helle Thorning-Schmidt is extremely popular among young women in urban areas, and if the election was solely up to them, she would win hands down. In a book on Thorning-Schmidt that came out just out before the election, she has stated that she wants to show that there are many ways to be a politician. She represents a new generation of politicians, another gender perhaps with another agenda. This remains to be seen.

Now it's up to the electorate to decide. 


Facts and features on Denmark in The Economist's Country Briefing

News on Danish politics and more in Copenhagen Post

Denmark's Official Website

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