“Equality is our most valuable investment.”
This powerful statement from Børge Brende, Norway’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, opened a high-level debate on parental leave and gender equality in the workforce held at the ECOSOC Chamber in the United Nations Headquarters in New York on September 21.
Inspired by recent Norwegian, Icelandic, and Swedish regulations, “Parental Leave, a Key to Prosperity—and Other True Stories” ignited a dialogue exploring how longer parental leave can foster economic and social development, promote gender equality, advance men’s and women’s careers, and benefit children. Fun fact: Nordic men take off more time from work to be with their children than anywhere else in the world.
“Our message is that it’s not only the right thing to do, but it’s the smart thing to do,” said Dagfinn Høybråten, Secretary General of the Nordic Council of Ministers.
While sharing insights from trade unions and the private sector, as well as personal experiences, the panelists highlighted the importance of equal opportunities in working life.
“We have quite a job to motivate women and encourage them to take leadership roles, especially in the private sector, and also to get them involved in technology and engineering,” explained Kristin Skogen Lund, director general of the Confederation of Norwegian Enterprise.
“It’s not that every woman needs to aspire to become a CEO, but the ones who do should have equal opportunity to become one,” Skogen Lund added. “I also believe that women are exactly the same as men. This is the whole point of the debate: that there is no difference between the two.”
The event presented solutions that generated a positive outcome in the Norwegian region.
“We have this project where young female role models go to schools and tell how much girls can do for the world if they work in technology,” Skogen Lund said. “It’s a very simple and very low-cost program that creates great results. We just need to encourage women.”
In 2003, a law was passed in Norway requiring at least 40 percent of either women or men to hold positions on company boards. As of January 2004, the Quota Act was enforced for publicly listed companies. And as of January 2008, it was fully implemented for public limited companies following the amendment of the Norwegian Public Limited Liability Companies Act.
“Introducing quotas was very controversial at the time,” explained Børge Brende. “Some people were against it. But I’m sure that over time this will be a positive factor, and there will be more women. How can you run big companies without having a 50/50 [split]?”
Since the Quota Act was put in place, the percentage of women on the boards of Norway’s public companies has risen from less than five percent in the early 2000s to 40 percent in 2007.
Earlier this year, on International’s Women Day, actress Anne Hathaway gave a speech at the United Nations on paid parental leave, gender stereotypes, and family culture in the 21st century.
“Paid parental leave is not about taking days off work, it’s about creating the freedom to define roles, to choose how to invest time, and to establish new positive cycles of behavior,” Hathaway said.
When mentioning the need for laws within the United States to help regulate parental leave, the actress said: “We must have support of those in the highest levels of power if we are ever to achieve parity.”