Women and men in the Danish labour market

The latest of the annual reports from the Ministry of Employment, ‘Women and men in the labour market’, published December 2010, reveals that the pay gap between men and women in Denmark has been more or less unchanged for most of the last 20 years. Overall men still earn more than women, but there are now more women who have attended a higher education institution than men. On average men now take more paternity leave, although maternity leave is still much the larger share.

The report Women and men in the labour market 2010 (Kvinder og mænd på arbejdsmarkedet 2010 (1.93Mb PDF)) issued by the Ministry of Employment (Beskæftigelsesministeriet) in December 2010 reveals that the pay gap in Denmark between men and women has been more or less unchanged during most of the last two decades. However, there are now more women in higher education than men and men take more paternity leave. The report is the latest in an annual analysis by the Ministry of Employment about the conditions of women and men in the labour market.

Main findings

The report begins by asking the question: What characterises today’s women when looking at their participation in the labour market compared with men?

It concludes that, for instance, men are mainly employed in the private sector and the majority of the employees in the public sector are women. While a majority of the executives in both sectors are men, the number of women with a higher education is about to pass the number of men.

Some of the main findings are presented below with a focus on education, earnings and parental leave (maternity/paternity leave).

Men and women’s participation in the labour market

  • A slightly lower proportion of women of working age (74.4%) participate in the labour market than men of working age (79.2%). Over time, the difference between men’s and women’s participation in the labour market has narrowed steadily.
  • The employment rate of women in 2009 was 73.4% compared with 77.8% for men.
  • Danish women have the highest employment rate among women in EU countries.
  • Women work fewer hours than men and two-and-a-half times more women than men work part-time.
  • Women most often give family responsibilities as the reason for working part time. Men most often point at educational reasons for working part-time.
  • The female unemployment rate in August 2010 was 3.5% compared with 4.6% for men. October 2008 was the first time since the end of the 1970s that unemployment was lower among women than men.
  • Since summer 2009, more men than women have been classed as long-term unemployed. (The author of this update comments that this is probably due to the economic crisis which hit hardest in the male-dominated manufacturing sector.) Historically, women have more often been long-term unemployed.
  • Women are more often the recipient of a public wage subsidy.

Job and education

  • Half of female employees and close to every fourth male employee work in the public sector.
  • Close to three out of ten top executives are women. The share of such jobs held by women increased 45% between 1998 and 2009.

In 2010, a roughly equal number of men and women had achieved a qualifying education above primary level (Table 1). A greater proportion of men had received a vocational education, while a larger proportion of women had attended a higher education institution. Significantly more women than men had a medium–long period of higher education, though there were still more men than women with a long period of higher education. Medium–long higher education includes training to become a teacher, child and youth educator, nurse, engineers (degree level) and marine engineers.

Table 1: Highest completed level of education of those aged 15–69 by gender, 2010
  Women Men
Number Percentage Number Percentage
Primary school 590,977 30.3 611,522 30.9
Secondary school 176,378 9.0 154,338 7.8
Vocational education 568,996 29.1 679,449 34.4
Higher education – short period 78,443 4.0 111,431 5.6
Higher education – medium to long period 319,198 16.3 170,404 8.6
Higher education – long period 156,727 8.0 177,494 9.0
Unspecified 62,158 3.2 71,887 3.6
Total 1,952,877 100 1,976,525 100
Qualifying levels of education 1,123,364 57.5 1,138,778 57.6
Unskilled or unspecified 829,513 42.5 837,747 42.4

Source: Statistics Denmark, Kvinder og mænd på arbejdsmarkedet, p. 25.

Over the last 20 years, major changes in education levels have taken place – especially for women, but also for men. Between 1991 and 2010, the proportion of women with a qualifying education increased 16 percentage points. This was primarily due to an increase in the proportion of women with a short, medium–long or long period of higher education; for example, the proportion of women with a long period of higher education increased almost four times during the 20-year period. In the case of men, the increase in the proportion with a qualifying education was significantly smaller than that for women. Overall, the result is that the significant difference of 20 years ago between men’s and women’s level of education has more or less disappeared today. According to the report, projections show that women will shortly overtake men in completed levels of higher education.


Taken together, men earn 14%–18% more than women. A large part of the gross pay gap is explained by the fact that women and men have different individual characteristics, they have different levels of educational attainment, they work in different occupations and sectors, and they have different work functions. But for the labour market overall, 30%–40% of the gross pay gap cannot be explained by these observed background characteristics.

The data and results on earnings in the new report mostly build on figures and data from another report (in Danish, 210Kb PDF) produced by a specially set up wage commission earlier in 2010. The report uses two types of wage calculation in order to evaluate the gender pay gap.

  • Earnings per hour worked includes basic earnings (including salaries), irregular payments, fringe benefits, pension, inconvenience payments, vacation and public holiday payments, payment for absences and overtime.
  • Standard calculated hourly earnings include only payments that are billed to ‘normal rate (1:1)’. The wage calculation thus expresses a ‘normal hourly wage’ recognisable to the employee.

Public sector

In the public sector, taken together men earn 15%–20% more than women. Most of the difference can be explained statistically by observed background characteristics (different occupations, sectors, educational attainment level and work functions) and, depending on the wage calculation, only 3%–15% of the gross pay gap cannot be explained by the observed background characteristics.

The gross pay gap for those employed by the state and the municipalities is 10%–13%. In the state, 30%–40% of the pay gap cannot be explained statistically. In the municipalities and the regions, close to 100% of the pay gap can be explained by the observed background characteristics.

The gender pay gap is most significant in the regions where men earn 24%–34% more than women. The Wage Commission notes that the relatively high gross difference in the regions can be explained by the fact that, relatively speaking, there are many highly paid doctors among men in the health sector, while a relatively large number of women work in the low-paid social and health care sector. This correlates well with the assumption that occupation and education explain a large proportion of the gender pay gap.

Private sector

The conditions are different in the private sector. In this regard, the Ministry of Employment report builds on similar comparable data from the Danish National Centre for Social Research (SFI) because the wage commission’s report explored only the public sector.

In the private sector the gender pay gap is 12%–14% in favour of men. However, 70%–80% of the pay gap cannot be explained statistically.


According to SFI statistics, the gross pay gap between men and women has remained fairly stable in the state, local authority and private sectors over the past 10 years. However, that part of the gender pay gap that cannot be explained by the statistical method based on differences in occupation, education, sector, etc. has grown the past 10 years.

SFI concludes that there has been a shift towards decentralised wage agreements where a greater part of the pay is negotiated individually at company level. Men and women’s individual characteristics thus appear to play a bigger role.

Maternity/paternity leave

  • Women take the main share of the leave between the parents, but men’s share is increasing.
  • More women than men take leave after childbirth and on average women take more leave than men.

The right to paid maternity/paternity leave is laid down in legislation as well as in collective agreements. The Ministry of Employment report focuses on the provisions and benefits according to the act on the right to maternity/paternity leave and benefits at childbirth (in Danish) (Table 2).

Table 2: Statutory maternity/paternity leave
  Number of weeks
Mother* 14 32 weeks to be shared between the parents
Father 2

Note: * Four weeks before birth.

Source: Ministry of Employment, Flexibel barselsorlov – til forældre (in Danish, 1.78Mb PDF)

Amount taken

In 2009 maternity/paternity leave benefits were paid to cover close to 3.1 million weeks of leave in connection with pregnancy, birth and adoption. Women received 92.7% of these benefits, continuing a decline in their share since 2003 when it was 94.9%. Men’s share of benefits paid has grown from covering 106,000 weeks in 2003 to 224,000 weeks in 2009. This tendency for men to take more paternity leave is borne out by the gradual increase since 2003 in the average number of days of paternity leave per child (Table 3).

Table 3: Average number of days of maternity/paternity leave per child*
  2003 2004 2005 2006 2007 2008
Paternity leave 19 18 22 22 24 26
Maternity leave 278 272 271 275 275 276
Total 297 290 293 297 299 302
Percentage of fathers’ share 6.4% 6.2% 7.5% 7.4% 8.0% 8.6%

Note: * Born in the year in question.

Source: Statistics Denmark, ‘Kvinder og mænd på arbejdsmarkedet 2010’, p. 71.

Key factors

Looking at socioeconomic status, it is the fathers among the self-employed, top managers and high earners who take the longest paternity leave (that is, 48 days in 2008–2009). Fathers with a job at medium level took on average 33 days, while fathers with jobs at primary level took 28 days. These figures cover only those employed persons where a socioeconomic status is given in Statistics Denmark data (Kvinder og mænd på arbejdsmarkedet 2010, p. 74) and thus differ from the average shown in Table 3.

Men’s and women’s educational background also affects how they share parental leave between them. Mothers with a low level of educational attainment typically take a larger share of total leave than those with a longer length of education. For example, mothers who underwent a long period of higher education on average take around 84% of the couple’s total leave, while unskilled mothers on average take almost 96% of the leave. The opposite picture is seen among men. Here the proportion of total leave is lowest for fathers with little or no education, and it is highest for fathers with a long period of higher education. Men with a long period of higher education keep on average almost 12% of total leave compared with just 5% among unskilled men.

Carsten Jørgensen, FAOS, University of Copenhagen

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