Gender gap in Danish labour market is narrowing

Over the past decade, there has been an evident trend towards more gender equality in the Danish labour market. Regarding education, labour market participation and, to some degree, managerial positions, part-time working and the uptake of maternity or paternity leave, the gender gap is narrowing. However, differences in pay and occupational patterns of men and women may still be considered striking.

The Danish Ministry of Employment (Beskæftigelsesministeriet) published a recent report entitled Women and men in the labour market 2009 (Kvinder og mænd på arbejdsmarkedet 2009 (1.1Mb PDF)). The report assesses differences between men and women in the labour market. Being a topic of general concern among policymakers, as well as a theme of discussion and disputes among researchers and the general public, the report provides some interesting results.

Although a range of important issues remain unresolved, the report finds evidence of a current trend towards increased gender equality in the labour market – that is, a trend towards a narrowing gender gap in the labour market.

Narrowing gender gap in labour market

Role of education

Regarding educational levels – a factor determining employment opportunities in general – it is evident that the gender gap is narrowing in Denmark. Indeed, a current theme of public and scientific disputes is whether the fact that relatively more women attend and complete higher education will eventually result in a reversed gender gap. With this not being the case yet, it is nevertheless clear that education is quite equally distributed among men and women (Table 1). In 2008, 42.3% of men and 43.3% of women had no further education beyond the compulsory level. However, relatively more men (7.1%) than women (5.5%) have completed a long-cycle higher education. This contrasts with the fact that more women (17.7%) than men (10%) have a medium-cycle higher education. Overall, more women than men have completed higher education. Although this has been the case since 1997, the gender gap in this regard has increased.

Table 1: Highest completed education among men and women aged 15–69 years, 2008
  Men Women
Education No. % No. %
Unskilled 826,060 42.3% 833,892 43.3%
Vocational education 682,489 34.9% 568,526 29.5%
Short-cycle higher education 110,025 5.6% 78,763 4.1%
Medium-cycle higher education 195,640 10.0% 339,998 17.7%
Long-cycle higher education 138,838 7.1% 105,080 5.5%
Total 1,953,052 100% 1,926,259 100%

Source: Ministry of Employment, 2009

Labour market participation rates

Moreover, over the past decade, a clear trend is apparent towards a narrower gender gap in the labour market participation rate of men and women (Figure 1). Although men have a somewhat higher participation rate, part of the difference is explained by the various patterns of retirement and maternity or paternity leave taken by men and women. As men generally retire from the labour market later than women, some difference in participation rates remains.

Men’s and women’s labour market participation rates, 1998–2000 (%)

Men’s and women’s labour market participation rates, 1998–2000 (%)

Impact of economic recession

Paradoxically, the current recession has had an impact on gender equality in the labour market. As the recession has to a wider extent struck sectors of the economy predominantly employing male workers, there are, for the first time since the late 1970s, relatively more unemployed men than women in the Danish labour market (Figure 2).

Figure 2: Unemployment, by gender, 2000–2009 (%)


Source: Ministry of Employment, 2009

Men’s and women’s unemployment rate, 2000–2009 (%)

Increasing gender equality in the workplace

According to the report, there are signs of increasing gender equality in the labour market. Although top management positions in enterprises continue to be dominated by men, the proportion of women in such roles increased by about 40% over the past decade, from 20% in 1998 to 28% in 2008. Moreover, the report indentifies a slight trend towards more men taking up paternity leave and a slight decrease in part-time employment among women.

Persistent gender differences in labour market

Despite the trend towards increasing gender equality in the labour market, considerable challenges remain. For a range of important topics related to gender equality in the labour market, stability rather than progression seems to be the case.

The fact that specific occupations and sectors of the economy seem to be more dominated by male or female workers is well-known (Figure 3). This has led to the adoption and the general acceptance of the concept of ‘the gender-segregated labour market’. In fact, the occupational patterns of men and women across sectors have not changed considerably over the past decade.

Figure 3: Gender distribution, by sector, 2008 (%)


Source: Ministry of Employment, 2009

Gender distribution across economic sectors, 2008 (%)


Moreover, the report confirms that the gender pay gap is not at the brink of closing. Differences in wages related to gender have been quite stable over the past 10 years. It should be noted that these differences mostly reflect the variation in background variables such as education, job functions and sectors of activity. However, of the total gender pay gap, a gap of 1.3% in municipal workplaces, 3.6% in the public sector and about 11% in the private sector remains inexplicable with reference to available background variables. However, although gender pay differences may be considered striking (DK0409NU01), they may also be viewed as reflecting preferences and deliberate choices of men and women with regard to their employment (DK0812019I).

Rune Holm Christiansen and Helle Ourø Nielsen, Oxford Research

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