Gender Equality Act to be strengthened

A number of amendments to the Gender Equality Act were due to be adopted by the Norwegian parliament in April 2002. The changes mainly relate to equality in working life, covering matters such as an obligation on companies to report on equal opportunities, equal pay for work of equal value and banning sexual harassment.

The Norwegian Gender Equality Act was adopted in 1978 for the purpose of safeguarding the equal treatment of women and men in a range of areas, including working life. A number of proposals for amendments to the Act have been discussed recently, most of which relate to equality in working life. The proposals were originally placed before parliament (Stortinget) in spring 2001 by the Labour Party (Det norske Arbeiderparti, DnA) government, which resigned before the proposals were considered. The new centre-right minority coalition government of the Conservative Party (Høyre), the Christian Democratic Party (Kristelig Folkeparti, KRF), and the Liberal Party (Venstre) that entered office in autumn 2001 (NO0110108F) placed the proposals before parliament once again. There is a majority in favour of strengthening the Gender Equality Act in parliament, and the amendments were thus expected to be approved during April 2002.

The most important proposed changes to the Gender Equality Act are as follows:

  • extending the duty to promote equality in working life. The existing legislation places an obligation on public authorities to arrange for equal opportunities. This duty will now be extended to cover enterprises and employers' and employees' organisations as well. They will thus have an obligation to direct efforts at promoting equal opportunities within their own ranks, as well as within their more general areas of responsibility;
  • obliging enterprises to report on the equal opportunity situation. Public and private enterprises will be instructed to report on the equal opportunity situation within their organisation in their annual reports. There will be no detailed requirements as to the type of information to be provided in this area, but the Ministry of Children and Family Affairs recommends that it should include information on issues such as the representation of men and women in different positions, and gender-disaggregated statistics concerning issues such as wages, sickness absence and training. This obligation will apply to most companies of a certain size, including limited companies;
  • clarifying the principle of equal pay for work of equal value. The Act will be changed with the view to clarifying the fact that this principle is applicable across occupations and collective agreement areas. Furthermore, guidelines will be provided for use in determining the nature of 'work of equal value', based on a 'total appraisal in which the competence necessary to carry out a task and other relevant factors, such as the efforts needed, responsibility and working conditions are emphasised'. However, the changes do not involve requirements with regard to value comparisons across companies, and 'market-based' arguments may still be used in wage formation;
  • banning sexual harassment. A section banning sexual harassment will be incorporated into the Gender Equality Act. It will not cover just working life, but also educational institutions and voluntary organisations and associations. This will mean an extension of the existing legal framework, in which this type of protection is indirect and applicable only to working life; and
  • making compensation claims easier. While compensation for infringement of the Act is presently conditional upon the legal framework being breached with intent, it is now proposed that compensation may be awarded even if the employer is not intentionally at fault in the matter. This principle will cover cases concerning working conditions (pay, appointment, promotion etc), which must be brought before the ordinary judicial apparatus.

A number of other minor alterations are also to be made to the Act. Several of these take as their point of departure European Union provisions, and Norway's commitments in relation to the European Economic Area (EEA) agreement. The government's recent decision to propose a gender quota on company boards is not included in the current proposal, and will be brought before parliament as an independent legal proposition some time in 2002 (NO0203104F).

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