20 November 2018

What Jordan Peterson gets wrong about the Nordic gender paradox


The Canadian psychologist Jordan Peterson received considerable attention when he visited Stockholm recently. He was told to “crawl back under a rock” by Sweden’s Foreign Minister and engaged in a heated discussion about the paradox of gender equality in progressive societies with the leader of the Centre Party, Annie Lööf.

Peterson was visiting Sweden to plug his book 12 Rules For Life: An Antidote to Chaos. Peterson has shot to fame around the world in part for his views on gender roles and gender equality.

In his televised exchange with Annie Lööf — who, incidentally, is the latest Swedish party leader to try and cobble together a coalition deal — Peterson explained his view that young men are not encouraged in modern society to flourish in the same way young women are, because society sees something pernicious about male competence and activity. This, he believes, goes along with the notion that the best way of characterising Western society is as a tyrannical patriarchy, an appalling doctrine as far as Peterson is concerned.

Central to Peterson’s argument is the example of Nordic countries. Peterson points out that in these unusually progressive countries, gender differences haven’t disappeared. In fact they are more stark than in other developed countries.

Peterson said: “Look, one of the things you want to ask yourself is that what is the purpose of setting up a society that offers maximal equality of opportunity and one of the answers is that you maximise choice. And if you maximise choice then you also maximise the differences in choice between people”.

Annie Lööf replied that, of course, biological differences exist between the genders, but their different choices are formed by their upbringing. Girls can be raised to become self-confident leaders, Lööf said. This is your belief, Peterson replied, but not what the evidence suggests. The pair agreed to disagree.

Peterson’s does a good service by countering misguided radical feminist views, but he misunderstands the Nordic gender equality paradox. In particular, he neglects the way in which Nordic welfare states’ policies unintentionally hold back women’s career progress.

Peterson’s message on feminism resonates with conservatives in Sweden. Yet the discussion of women’s freedom and careers merits a deeper understanding – since Sweden and the other Nordic countries are leaders in gender equality this is an issue with global relevance.The lesson from this part of the world, is according to Peterson that women have maximum equality of opportunity and therefore differences in choice maximise gender differences.

The truth, however, is that the Nordic countries do not maximise women’s choice. In fact, the welfare state limits women’s choice through a number of mechanisms.

On gender, Nordic countries have a uniquely egalitarian history. Throughout history, Nordic women have had more property rights and political rights, and the right to participate in professions such as surgery, than women in the rest of  Europe. As the World Value Survey shows, also citizens in Nordic countries express some of the most gender-equal attitudes in the world.

The rise of the Nordic welfare states was, however, a double-edged sword. It encouraged women to join the workforce but it also created barriers to women’s professional progress. The tax and benefit model, as well as publicly monopolised services, were constructed for typical families of full-time working men and part-time working women.

With the rise of the welfare system, women-dominated services such as education, health and elderly care were made parts of public monopolies. A wage-setting system, according to which incomes rose very slowly with little connection to individual performance, was introduced by the state in these women-dominated parts of the economy.

By introducing public monopolies in the parts of the economy where women work, but not in those in which men work, the Nordic welfare model did the opposite of increasing women’s choice. The system limited choice and opportunity for career advancement in predominantly women-occupied places of work.

High taxes also help to explain the Nordic gender paradox. Factoring in the effect of employers fee and VAT, a professional needs to make 4 Kronor before taxes for a household worker to receive 1 Krona after tax.

Numerous studies show that such tax systems reduce the choice of women in particular, as it tends to be the women who forego their original choice of working and paying for household service, instead opting to switch from market work to household work. High Nordic taxes affect both men and women, yet since women have a larger tendency to care for family and home, they mainly impact on women’s investment in their careers.

Nordic childcare is comprehensive and largely tax-funded. Yet the hours are suited for families where one partner works part-time or full-time but not many hours. The system’s inflexibility is another factor that hinders women who wish to combine family with a successful career.

In systems with lower taxes and less developed welfare services, families can find their own solutions. In countries such as Sweden, where around half or more of families’ income go to various forms of direct and indirect taxes, and where high taxes raise the prices of household services, these options are more limited for women.

The Nordic gender equality paradox is not a new concept, and supported by numerous studies. In 2008, Eva Meyersson Milgrom and Trond Petersen wrote in a study that the glass ceiling “appears to be more severe in the Scandinavian countries with their generous family policies, than in the UK, the US and other comparable countries.” The authors noted that childcare and maternity leave policies make reducing working hours attractive, but can later disqualify women for top jobs. As a result, the policies “may not overcome the effects of domestic division of labour (and indeed may possibly exacerbate them).”

Annie Lööf served as Minister for Enterprise in Sweden between 2011 and 2014. Before her Maud Olofsson, the former Centre Party leader, held the same position since 2006. They played an important part in opening up the women-dominated sectors such as health, elderly care and education from public sector monopolies. These were continuations of reforms in the early 1990s, when a centre-right government opened up welfare service provision to private and for-profit businesses.

The reforms encouraged entrepreneurship among women. Market competition changed the playing field, and so the wage setting was gradually opened up to reward individual performance also in the women-dominated parts of the economy. Olofsson also pushed for a tax-rebate on household services that counteracts the issue of very high tax wedges. This has opened up a massive increase in the legal market for household services in Sweden, which makes combining career and family easier – particularly benefiting professional women.

The welfare policies that hold back women’s career advancement matters. In a study, to be released early next year by the Finnish Business and Policy Forum EVA, I compare the current situation in the Nordic countries. In Sweden, the Nordic country that has introduced market reforms and tax wedges which promote career development in women-dominated sectors, a high share of managers are women. The same goes for Iceland, the country that has historically had a more limited government model compared to its Nordic cousins. In these countries, four out of ten managers are women. This is still a bit behind the US –  which has a smaller welfare state and lower taxes, granting women more choice.

Denmark and Finland, with a more traditionalist social democratic model, are however performing much worse than Sweden and Iceland. As is Norway, where the experiment with gender quotas in company boards according to research has failed to create measurable benefits for women as a group. In these three countries, around a third of managers are women. Correlation is not causation, yet it is notable that after the reforms introduced by Lööf and her predecessor, Sweden compares favorably to other Nordic countries.

Thus, while Peterson does a good job of opening up a one-sided discussion on gender roles, he misunderstands the point of maximum opportunities for women. In countries with a more limited welfare state, such as the US, or for that matter the smaller governments of the Nordic countries’ Baltic neighbours, women have greater individual choice. In these societies, more women rise to managerial positions.

Equalising the opportunities of women and men through a free market and systems with limited taxation and government allows men and women to choose more freely. This seems to allow more, rather than fewer, women to reach the top.

Dr Nima Sanandaji is the president of the European Centre for Entrepreneurship and Policy Reforms. He is the author of The Nordic Glass Ceiling (Cato, 2018) and The Nordic Gender Equality Paradox (Timbro, 2016).