What we can learn from Norway’s feminist success

Why professional mothers can have it all.

When the speeding fine for 6,500 kroner (£650) dropped on to the doormat last Thursday, I did not immediately reflect on Stavanger's enviable record on road safety.

But as I discussed the fine with Norwegian friends and the explosion of incredulity I had expected at the harshness of the punishment never materialised, I took pause to reflect on the question they were all asking instead: "Why on earth do you imagine it was OK to break the speed limit in the first place?"

That conundrum is at the root of Norway's ability to achieve socially desirable outcomes, and its determination to pursue social-democratic goals – not least, gender equality.

Norwegians are proud of their country and its reputation. Most would agree that it is desirable to have a gender balance in business and politics; the idea of losing vast numbers of talented women from the workforce just because they become pregnant is anathema. But that social cohesion is underpinned by the government's willingness to legislate robustly against those who do not instinctively share the majority's goals.

The result is that the country has just topped Save the Children's Mother's Index for the second year in a row. The UK failed to beat Norway on any one of the 11 criteria that comprise the index. But it is the factors that make up female economic, and political, status which prove particularly instructive about why it is so much easier to be a professional and a mother in Norway.

Quotable quotas

Tellingly, Norway's women earn, on average, 77 per cent as much as men (the highest ratio in the world), and represent 40 per cent of the legislature. In both cases, the government, or individual political parties, have intervened with quotas to help guarantee these figures.

Britain has toyed with the idea of imposing quotas for women in business and parliament – most recently in February, when Mervyn Davies, in his report for the government, rejected boardroom quotas in favour of voluntary targets. A similar approach was attempted in Norway at the end of the 20th century. But, by 2003, when it had become clear that listed firms were failing to promote enough women, the government legislated instead.

The quota is 40 per cent. Boardrooms are now 42 per cent female. Mimi Berdal, a self-confessed beneficiary of the legislation, and perhaps Norway's most prominent female businesswoman, with a CV boasting 90 board directorships, believes that within five years the quota will have become unnecessary. It is a classic example of top-down policy shaping social mores.

The latest example is a tweaking of the maternity and paternity laws which will increase entitlement, while also forcing fathers to take on more of the childrearing obligations. At the moment, the government covers 100 per cent of salary for 46 weeks, or 80 per cent for 56 weeks. Of that time, nine weeks are reserved for mothers and ten weeks for the father, with the rest of the time transferable between partners.

Carrot? Or stick?

The idea, says Kirsti Bergstø, the 31-year-old deputy minister for children, equality and social inclusion is to ensure that fathers have the option of contributing more to childrearing. As of 1 July, the government will intervene again to ensure they do: an extra week will be made available to parents. But the non-transferable paternity element will increase from ten to 12 weeks.

"They either use it or lose it," says Bergstø.

It is legitimate to argue that it is easier to effect such carrot-and-stick politics in an ethnically homogeneous country of just five million people than it would be in a complex polity more than ten times the size.

Yet Bergstø argues that other countries could learn from Norway's preparedness to legislate in pursuit of social democratic goals. Even a challenge as difficult as integrating asylum-seekers and encouraging female refugees into the Norwegian labour market is easily tackled with Norwegian-style compassionate-but-tough legislation, she says.

It starts with the obligations for new entrants to the country to take language classes. "Learning Norwegian is important for the women for integration," says Bergstø. "If they are going to join the labour market it is essential."

The corollary is that their children get free access to one of Norway's first-class state nurseries. Norwegian parents also have access to these nurseries, so professional mothers can avoid the expense of UK-style childcare.

And while those from Stavanger drive their children there in the morning, they might also reflect that there has been not a single death in an accident on the roads since 2008.

Mark Lewis is a freelance journalist based in Norway.

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I'd only given a literary talk, but someone still told me to leave the country

“So if you don’t like it so much,” he says, “why don’t you leave?” And his tone suggests that there is a good train leaving from St Pancras in half an hour.

So here I am at the Romanian Cultural Institute in Belgrave Square. Eventually. After a misunderstanding that finds me first, forlorn and bemused, at Olympia, with the London Book Fair closing down for the evening, watching my fee grow wings and fly away into the night air. I am called up and told where I could more profitably go instead – that is to say, the venue I should be at. On reassurance that my expenses will be met, I hop into a cab as soon as I find one (which, on Kensington High Street at 7pm, takes far longer than you would think. I will not use Uber).

I am going there in order to be on a panel that is talking about Benjamin Fondane (1898-1944), the Romanian intellectual, poet, essayist, philosopher and all-round dude. I know nothing about the guy beyond what I learned from reviewing a selection of his writings last July but this makes me, apparently, one of this country’s leading experts on him. Such is the level of intellectual curiosity in this part of the world. Fondane was treated much better in Paris, where he moved after finding studying law in Bucharest too boring; treated very much worse in 1944, when he was sent to Auschwitz.

A little corner of me is panicking a bit before the gig starts: I know next to nothing about the man, especially compared to my co-panellists, and I might betray this to the audience of around 80 (I refer to their number, not their age), sitting in their little gilt chairs, in a nice gilt drawing room, which is par for the course for European cultural institutes in this neck of the woods.

Another part of me says: “Don’t be silly, you’ll be fine,” and it turns out I am. I even manage to throw in a few jokes. During the course of one of my answers I say that the UK is a cultural desert and that there was a reason Fondane stopped moving when he got to Paris. The idea of coming to London to breathe the pure air of artistic freedom and inspiration was, and remains, laughable. It gets a chuckle or two out of the (mostly Mittel-European) audience, who like a bit of British self-deprecation as much as we do.

Or do we? Downstairs, and clutching my first glass of the evening (a perfectly drinkable Romanian Merlot), I chat to various people who come up and say they like my reviews etc, etc. All very pleasant. And then a man comes up to me, about my age, maybe a year or three younger, smartly tweeded.

“I was very offended by what you said about this country being a cultural desert,” he says. He is not joking.

“Oh?” I say. “Well, it is.”

He has the look of someone about to come up with a devastating argument.

“What about Shakespeare?” he asks me. “What about Oscar Wilde?”

“They’re dead,” I say, leaving aside the fact that Wilde was Irish, and that anywhere was better than Ireland in the 19th century for gay playwrights.

“So’s Fondane,” he says.

I think at this point I might have raised my glasses and massaged the bridge of my nose with finger and thumb, a sign for those who know me of extreme exasperation, and a precursor to verbal violence.

“So if you don’t like it so much,” he says, “why don’t you leave?” And his tone suggests that there is a good train leaving from St Pancras in half an hour.

“Do not presume to tell me, sir, whether I should leave the country.”

He tells me he has a Polish wife, as if that has any bearing on the matter. He says something else, which for the life of me I can’t remember, but I do know that when I replied to it, I used only one word, and that the word was “bollocks”.

“Well, if you’re going to use bad language . . .”

“I’ve got more,” I say, and proceed to launch a volley of it at him. Things have escalated quickly, I know, but there is no jest in his tone and what I am detecting is, I realise, his strong awareness of the Z in my name, my nose, and my flawless olive complexion. One develops antennae for this kind of thing, after almost half a century. And there’s a lot more of it about these days.

In the end, I become pretty much incoherent. On stage I’d caught myself thinking: “Golly, talking is even easier than writing;” but now my fluency deserts me. But God, it’s fun getting into a fight like this.

I’ve left my tobacco at home but the Romanian government gives me a whole pack of Marlboro Gold, and more wine. Vata-n libertate ori moarte! As they say. You can work it out. 

Nicholas Lezard is a literary critic for the Guardian and also writes for the Independent. He writes the Down and Out in London column for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 23 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump's permanent revolution