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“Gender equality is our best investment”

In a debate titled “Parental leave, a key to prosperity – and other true stories” at the UN headquarters in New York in September, it emerged that more and more countries want to know how investments in gender equality can generate economic growth. Yet many governments are still hesitant about the costs. Consequently global companies such as Spotify that offer their employees paid parental leave are serving as important drivers of change.


The UN panel offered political, practical, and personal examples of how parental leave is key to prosperity.

Pontus Höök

“It’s not mobile phones, cars, or oil that have been the Nordic Region’s primary generator of growth. Gender equality is our most valuable investment,” said Børge Brende, Norwegian Minister of Foreign Affairs when he opened the debate during the UN high level week.

He was referring in particular to the infrastructure of paid parental leave and good universal childcare and elderly care that the Nordic countries established in the 70s and 80s.  These investments have meant that the proportion of women in the Nordic labour market increased from around 45 percent to around 75 percent.

International demand

There is currently considerable international interest in how the Nordic Region has achieved such good results with regard to gender equality in the labour market, not least because gender equality is one of the UN’s 17 sustainable development goals.

The debate at the UN came to focus primarily on the societal and commercial aspects of gender equality, and how policy can interact with business to bring about change.  

Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, head of the UN’s gender equality organisation UN Women, said that more globally important macroeconomic stakeholders, such as the World Bank and the World Economic Forum, are now talking about the economic significance of paid parental leave for both mothers and fathers. Many countries are facing demographic challenges and need to increase fertility.

Greater need to reach out to decision makers

It is encouraging, we are going somewhere. But the information is not reaching enough policymakers. Public policies must create an enabling environment for employers ,” Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka said.

Kristin Skogen Lund, head of the Confederation of Norwegian Enterprise (NHO) agreed that business needs regulation by way of policies regarding the right to parental leave and childcare.

“It can seem a paradox that a confederation of enterprise will promote people being away from work, but this is really one of the best investments that we do. The value of Norway’s high proportion of women in employment exceeds our oil profits,” she said.

Paternity leave is key

The NHO believes that increasing the portion of parental leave that may only be used by fathers is one of the most important measures for increasing the proportion of women in management positions in Norway.

“Only when men experience what it’s like to be the sole caretaker for an extended period of time can patterns change. This will change the careers of both men and women,” said Skogen Lund, adding that it will take a long time for norms to change.

Music giant Spotify, which employs people in the US, Europe, Brazil, Japan, Singapore, and Australia, attracted a great deal of attention when in 2015 the company introduced the right to six months of paid parental leave for all employees.

Spotify is creating a new culture

Isa Notermans, global head of diversity and inclusion at Spotify explained that this benefit has helped the company to increase its proportion of women employees from 22 percent to 46 percent.

However, she also explained that it’s not easy to get employees to use this benefit.

"A lot of women and men feel resistant to taking the full six months. The resistance was about what was going to happen to their careers if they take six months. So we are creating a culture where it’s acceptable. This corporate culture is at odds with the more individualistic American culture,” Isa Notermans said.  

Return on investments in health and social care

Secretary general of the global union ITUC, Sharan Burrow, argued that if many global companies follow in the footsteps of Spotify, they could pave the way for governments that are reluctant to invest in an infrastructure of parental leave and subsidised childcare and elderly care.

“Let’s get the 100 global companies to say “it doesn’t matter if you’re working in the U.S. or Nigeria, we will follow fundamental rights” – and then we could start to change things!,” she said.

Burrow feels that governments really have no reason at all to hesitate:

If you want women in work – and we do – you must invest in care. 2 percent of investment in care in any economy over five years will actually generate 6 percent growth in employment", she said.

The relevance of Nordic experiences 

The Nordic labour market model, where investments in the work-life balance have paved the way for shared care responsibilities, is unique.

However, Secretary General of the Nordic Council of Ministers Dagfinn Høybråten argues that other countries, in various stages of development, can make use of Nordic experiences.

“I have no doubt that our experiences are relevant to other countries. In the bottom of the Nordic model is the concept of a social contract: you contribute, you pay taxes and then you have some basic rights. The social contract can be established on different levels according to the economic capacity. Although many developing countries have higher growth than our region, they have big challenge with inequalities and the distribution of that growth,” the Secretary General said. 

He talked about the international Nordic initiative “The Nordic Gender Effect” which responds to the considerable international demand for Nordic experiences relating to the region’s gender equality policies.

“We’re keen to share our experiences to create a knowledge hub that others can then draw from. For us, gender equality has not only been the right thing to do – because it is about rights – but it has also been the smart thing to do.”


Anna Rosenberg
Phone +4529692941

Julia Fäldt Wahengo
Phone +45 29 69 29 13