Danish equality is a myth

The gender equality work carried out in Danish companies is permeated with so many ambiguities and contradictions that not much is actually happening. The work only gets going if customers demand it. This is the result of a new ethnographic field study from Aarhus BSS at Aarhus University.


PHOTO: Tim Mossholder/Unsplash

To start off with the conclusion: Danish companies could achieve a much higher degree of gender equality by anchoring gender equality work in a thorough understanding of the culture of the organisation in question. In other words, what cultural  dimensions in the company may work for or against the efforts to achieve (more) gender equality.

So far, so good. Because the fact is that very few companies actually make it so far. Not least because individuals within a company and the society that surrounds ithave a strong influence on what will actually happen - or rather not happen - in terms of gender equality initatives.

This is the result of an ethnographic field study conducted by PhD fellow Ea Høg Utoft from the Danish Centre for Studies in Research and Research Policy at the Department of Political Science, Aarhus BSS. She recently published her work in the sociological journal Evaluation and Program Planning.

Context full of contrasts

However, Ea Høg Utoft had a completely different focus when she embarked on her PhD project ”Motivation, organisational gender equality work and the postfeminist gender regime: A feminist approach”. Here she asked the main question:  How are organisations motivated to engage in gender equality work? For the past three years, she has explored this question from an individual, organisational and societal perspective. However, during the process she realised that it was just as important to find the answer to a completely different question.

“I realised that I would not be able to understand neither the gender equality work nor the people involved in this work without understanding the context, i.e. Denmark. And I found this context to be full of contrasts and contradictions. Thus I needed to find the answer to the complete opposite question - i.e. what motivates organisations not to work with gender equality,” she says.

"You will not hear me say that companies should engage in gender equality work to improve performance. They should do it because it is the right thing to do; it has to be a goal in itself. In any case, we need to ask ourselves if we can rightly claim that gender equality is a core Danish value, if in reality we fail to live up to this value "


Ea Høg Utoft,  PhD fellow, Danish Centre for Studies in Research and Research Policy, Department of Political Science, Aarhus BSS

Denmark a slow mover

It turns out that Denmark is a rather slow mover when it comes to gender equality. Even though Denmark adopted a law in 2013 on equal representation in company boards in the largest public and private companies, even though gender equality is one of the 10 values in the 2016 “Denmark Canon”, and even though Danes have long agreed that diversity is good for business because it improves innovation and allows for better decisions, evaluations from e.g. ministries and universities still show that not much has happened in terms of gender equality. And this is despite the fact that other research shows that legal pressure normally leads to action.

According to Utoft, there may be many explanations for this state of affairs. However, in her dissertation she offers a conceptual framework, which takes point of departure in the so-called postfeminist  ’double entanglement’. This entails celebrating the feminist victories of the past and using them to conclude that feminism is no longer needed.

“For years, we have been telling each other that Denmark is an equal society and that things are ok as they are. Having been blinded by this attitude for years, many people have stopped regarding themselves and others as gendered actors: The assumption is that because we regard ourselves as rather progressive, gender does not matter anymore and initiatives to promote gender equality become superfluous. However, the point is that while this is convenient, it is not the truth,” she says.

Extrinsic motivation

In her ethnographic field work, Utoft explored the motivations for engaging in gender equality work from an organisational perspective. Her object of study was a large Danish engineering company, which over a number of years had gone from being anchored in the Nordic countries to being a global player.

The company’s first major gender equality initiative was primarily spurred on by Denmark’s 2013 introduction of the law on equal representation in company boards in the largest public and private companies. This coincided with a number of female managers in the UK reporting inappropriate behaviour from some of the male managers at the UK office. Back then, the company was highly motivated for change, but after a while the project suffered under the day-to-day operations and staff changes, and eventually it fizzled out.

A few years later, however, the Danish headquarters came under heavy pressure - partly from the US management, which pointed out that the company was lacking behind in the diversity area compared to its competitors. And partly from the UK, where customers started to demand a more significant change. This meant that it was no longer enough just having a gender equality policy. Rather, customers demanded actual changes so that they were not always greeted by white men in suits when attending meetings at the company. Not until the company faced these demands from customers, did it launch its new comprehensive, gender equality programme.

“The company’s motivation for introducing gender equality initiatives was brought on by customer demand even though the company had been made aware of gender and diversity issues in an internal report two years earlier,” says Utoft, who concludes that on all three levels, the cultural perceptions need to change before a real change can take place in terms of gender equality in Danish companies.

Context limits manoeuvring space

On the individual level, it is important that companies bring gender equality practitioners into play. Practitioners for whom gender equality is a goal in itself and not a means to increase profits. If not, no change will take place. However, even though these employees are intrinsically motivated, they have to navigate a context in which their work is continuously regarded as superfluous. On top of that, their gender equality work may even be a burden if they are to carry it out on a voluntary basis alongside their other tasks. In other words, it is quite a tough role to assume if your work is being criticised or undervalued due to the basic contradiction of the postfeminist simultaneous celebration and disavowal of feminism. Practitioners truly want to inspire change, but they moderate their work due to the company’s resistance to change. A resistance caused by the assumption that there is no gender inequality.

“Typically, practitioners will go for the most palatable gender equality measures as these will be the least disruptive. This is a clear example of how the context limits the manoeuvring space for gender equality work, because if you want to make a real change, you need to change the cultural assumptions,” says Utoft.

On the organisational level, culture may both promote and hinder progress. To succeed, the company’s gender equality efforts must be driven by top management, who needs to establish an organisational infrastructure. This may include the requirement of ongoing reports to an advisory board to ensure that the work is progressing as planned. In addition, you also need to identify and discuss the role of gender in the company culture: What does the company’s ideal manager look like? What characterises the company’s meeting culture - who gets to say something and is it OK to have diverging opinions? You also need to look at the structure itself: What are the company’s recruitment processes? How are staff development dialogues conducted? How are managers trained and talents selected?

“As the feminist organisational literature has been pointing out for years, it is not enough simply to place more women in management, because this is just window dressing. It does not change things on a fundamental level. Unless you change the cultural dynamics and structure, you will not actually solve the problem,” Utoft points out. She finds it regretful that on a societal level, Denmark does not seem that motivated for change with the main motivation coming from abroad.

“Even though we actually pride ourselves on having a high level of gender equality and claim that it is one of our defining cultural values, Danish companies simply do not prioritise gender equality,” she asserts.

Gender equality equals feminism

However, they should, say Utoft, who does not hesitate to call herself a feminist. Even though this is a controversial designation. Particularly in Denmark, which is one of the countries in which Utoft experiences the greatest unwillingness to consider oneself a feminist.

“If you advocate gender equality, you are a feminist. That is what it means. However, many people do not share this view because they believe that being a feminist means that you are either too extreme or too hysterical,” she says and points out that her own explicitly feminist research has been an object of criticism to some.

“Some would argue that when research is explicitly political, the conclusions are already drawn. However, this is far from the truth. I am still interested in what the data can show us. Particularly if it reveals something new or makes me reconsider my assumption. The benefits of conducting feminist political research is that I am aware of my bias and continuously need to take my own viewpoint into account: What is my starting point and how does this affect what I observe?” she says.

No matter what, we are dealing with a myth, i.e. a common misconception that has no basis in reality. Because we do not have gender equality and if the Danish business community wishes to do something about this, Utoft advises companies to take it one step at a time.

“Naturally, the efforts need to be long-term because changing the cultural perceptions is a rather intangible task. It is a long, tough haul where companies also need to look at the details; how do we recruit staff, what do our job postings say, which words do we use, and how do we read applications,” she explains.

The company’s management also needs to become aware of how it contributes to creating a gender culture. Are the employees treated in the same way? In SDD dialogues, are male employees asked about their work-family balance or is this question reserved for women? Companies also need to explore whether they are actually practising equal pay and what problems they identify in terms of gender equality. And when they do bring motivated employees into play in an effort to improve gender equality, these employees must be rewarded and recognised.

“You will not hear me say that companies should engage in gender equality work to improve performance. They should do it because it is the right thing to do; it has to be a goal in itself. In any case, we need to ask ourselves if we can rightly claim that gender equality is a core Danish value, if in reality we fail to live up to this value.

Facts about gender equality in Denmark:

  • In 2019, the pay gap between men and women’ was 12.8 per cent. This has decreased since 2005 where the gap was 16.2 per cent.
  • In 2019, women held 19 per cent of board seats, while the representation of women in top management was averagely 15 per cent.
  • In 2018, women held 26.6 per cent of top positions, which is below the OECD average of 32.2 per cent.
  • According to the OECD, Denmark is the Nordic country with the lowest representation of women on the boards of the largest public companies. In 2019, women held 30 per cent of the board seats compared to almost 46 per cent in Iceland.
  • Since 2009, more women aged 30 ti 34 have completed a post-secondary education than men in the same age group. In 2019, the numbers were 18.1 per cent for men and 23.4 per cent for women.

Source:  Denmark’s Statistics and OECD


1) a) Danish Business Authority (2018) Den kønsmæssige sammensætning af ledelsen – Opfølgning på reglerne om måltal og politikker, regnskabsåret 2017. (in Danish) Link: https://erhvervsstyrelsen.dk/sites/default/files/2019-03/20181214-koensmaessig-sammensaetning-af-ledelsen-2017.pdf

b) The Danish Institute for Human Rights (2015) Kvinder i ledelse – Analyse af lov om måltal og politik for det underrepræsenterede køn. (In Danish) Copenhagen: Danish Institute for Human Rights. Link: https://menneskeret.dk/files/media/dokumenter/udgivelser/analyse_-_kvinder_i_ledelse.pdf

c) Ministry of Higher Education and Science (2019) Mænd og kvinder på de danske universiteter:  Danmarks talentbarometer 2018. (In Danish)Link: https://ufm.dk/publikationer/2019/filer/maend-og-kvinder-pa-de-danske-universiteter-danmarks-talentbarometer-2018.pdf

2) Another point of criticism might be that Ea Høg Utoft’s in-depth study only includes one company. However, while the study of the engineering company is limited to the company itself, the thesis as a whole adopts a much wider perspective and goes from looking at individual practitioners and specific types of interventions to considering Denmark and commenting on what is happening on a national level.


The PhD dissertation ”Motivation, organisational gender equality work and the postfeminist gender regime: A feminist approach” (submitted – to be defended on 28 May):

Høg Utoft, E.  Exploring linkages between organisational culture and gender equality work: An ethnography of a multinational engineering company. Evaluation and Program Planning, 79, [101791]. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.evalprogplan.2020.101791