Gender equality in the Norwegian workplace

7 March 2008

Norway is a world leader in gender equality. However, there remain significant differences between men and women in the workplace, concludes Associate Professor Laura E. M. Traavik.

International Women’s Day 2008:

March 8th International Women’s Day provides us with a wonderful opportunity to reflect on where we are and where we want to go to ensure that all people are treated equally and fairly. A critical challenge for the welfare of women and other minority or disadvantaged groups is to ensure full and equal opportunities to participate in the workplace.

A World leader

Norway is a world leader in gender equality ranking 2nd on the Gender Gap Index 2007 (World Economic Forum, 2007). However, this does not mean that equality has been achieved.  

In Norway there remain significant differences between men and women in the workplace. Recent governmental reports and statistics have highlighted the problems of substantial wage differences, vertical (men in power and leadership positions) and horizontal segregation (occupational) and gender differences in hours worked.

The descriptive statistics clearly show us differences still exist and equality in terms of position and pay has not been achieved. It is imperative that we move beyond noting the differences and understand why these differences persist, and how we can rectify the situation.

The debate on gender equality can be greatly illuminated by research.  Caution, however, is needed as the topic is emotive and littered with opinions and strong political beliefs.  These often distort the voice of evidence.

Explaining gender inequality

If we look for the mechanisms that can help explain gender inequality in the workplace they are multiple and complex. Understanding this phenomenon requires systematic analysis and the integration of results from societal, organization and individual level of analysis. 

The fundamental disservice researchers and politicians commit to the cause of equality is to oversimplify the situation by claiming that answers at only one of these levels of analysis can explain it all, and /or disregarding the fact that equality itself is problematic to define. 

The current debate in the Norwegian media shows the flaws of the various sides slinging out overly simplistic mechanisms and solutions.   Inequality is a multi determined phenomenon and we must approach the problem humbly and with open eyes.

Research-based evidence

I will present some findings of what we know can happen at the individual and organizational level which can affect the persistence of inequality in the workplace.  This evidence does not provide a complete answer but gives us insight into a few of the mechanisms.

  • At the individual level we know that stereotypes affect performance, aspirations and judgments.   Recent research by Davies et al. (2005) showed that mere exposure to female stereotypes reduced women’s aspirations to take leadership roles.  
  • Other research by Heliman and Okimoto (2007) demonstrated that in ambiguous situations women are not perceived to be as competent as men in performing male gender type work. The sheer knowledge that a woman has been successful in a male domain produces judgments that she has committed stereotype violating behavior and this results in social penalties. 
  • We also know that activating negative stereotypes can reduce performance substantially (Wheeler and Petty, 2001). 
  • Research indicates that women do not engage in salary negotiation as often as men or have as high economic aspirations (Babcock and Laschever (2003).  Small initial differences can account for large salary differences later on.

Men expect men to ask for higher salaries

In my current research I am examining whether this holds true in a Norwegian context.  My findings so far, indicate that men expect men to ask for higher salary increases than women.  Given that men dominate leadership and power positions in Norway this could partly explain persistent wage differences.

The research at the organizational level clearly demonstrates that responsibility for equality and diversity must be anchored in organizational policies or else other diversity and equality initiatives show weak or no positive outcomes (Kalev and  Dobbin, 2006). 

Top leadership endorsement and HR practices that promote diversity can lead to more equality and less perceived discrimination in an organization.

Moving toward equality

So March 8th arrives again, and we can say that the research is giving us important insight into why gender inequality persists, even in Norway.  We know that inequality cannot be erased without:

  1. Awareness that differences still exist,
  2. Knowledge that we still have stereotypes about females and males and their appropriate occupations, and that these stereotypes affect choice and behavior.
  3. Organizational polices that address diversity and inequality.

The research evidence gives us some actions we can take to move toward equality: reduce stereotypes, encourage negotiation, and have clear diversity policies—at the organizational level. 

These suggestions are in no way complete, however they can assist us in taking the small steps toward achieving full and equal opportunities for men and women to participate in the workplace.


1. Davies, P. G., Spencer, S. J., & Steele, C. M. (2005). Clearing the Air: Identity Safety Moderates the Effects of Stereotype Threat on Women's Leadership Aspirations. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 88(2), 276-287.
2. Heilman, M. E., & Okimoto, T. G. (2007). Why Are Women Penalized for Success at Male Tasks?: The Implied Communality Deficit. Journal of Applied Psychology, 92(1), 81-92.
3. Kalev, A. and F. Dobbin (2006). "Best practices or best guesses? Assessing the efficacy of corporate affirmative action and diversity policies." American Sociological Review 71: 587-617.
4. Wheeler, S. C. & Petty, R. E. 2001. The effects of stereotype activation on behavior: A review of possible mechanisms. Psychological Bulletin, 127(6): 797-826.
5. Traavik, L. (2008). Equality in the North? Gender and Negotiations in Norway. Working paper submitted to The 21st Annual Conference of the International Association for Conflict Management Chicago, Illinois, USA July 3-6 2008.

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