Breaking the glass ceiling, one elephant at a time

Jytte Hilden served as culture and research minister in the 1990s. She has long retired from politics, but remains committed to helping women achieve their professional potential

Women seem to be doing well in Denmark. Those with children are only fractionally less likely to be employed than those without, and their labour market participation is one of the highest in Europe, according to Eurostat. Their success is at least in part the result of long, paid maternity leave, accessible childcare, and a culture that encourages women to enter higher education.

But while women have achieved positions of significant power in Danish politics, they are still failing to break the glass ceiling in the private sector.

Jytte Hilden made her mark in politics in the 1990s as an MP for Socialdemokraterne, serving first as culture minister and then research minister. We are sitting in the café of one of Copenhagen’s most iconic buildings, the extension to the Royal Library, which was commissioned during her time as culture minister.

“When I presented the winning design I said, ‘It looks like a Black Diamond,’ and the name stuck,” Hilden says proudly, surveying the view through the dark glass façade that leans precipitously over the harbour.

Educated as a civil engineer in the 1960s, Hilden entered politics in her 30s and has always campaigned for women’s rights. She was 30 in 1972, when Denmark recognised the right to abortion, which she argues is one of the two central rights women can have to control their lives.

“I campaigned for abortion rights in the ’60s because it is crucial that women can decide how many children to have and when to have them. It’s also critical that women become educated, because only then can they take charge of their own finances. After all, the person in charge of the purse-strings makes the decisions. These two issues are very important to me,” she stressed.

While Hilden has retired from politics and avoids questions about the current political landscape – for example the government’s failure to earmark a portion of women’s maternity leave for men – she remains committed to gender equality. In April, she published her latest book, 99 Pink Elephants, which profiles 99 noteworthy and exceptional women. Not coincidentally, it was the 90th anniversary of the appointment of Nina Bang as the world’s first female government minister.

Pink elephants

Hilden can thank Bodil Nyboe Andersen, former president of the Red Cross in Denmark, for the title. When Andersen was appointed managing director of the bank Andelsbanken in 1984, she said she felt she stood out “like a pink elephant” among the world’s financial leaders. Hardly surprising, given that she was the first woman to occupy such a lofty post in a Danish financial institution.

The book is only the beginning of Hilden’s campaign to provoke a debate about the role of women in society. Over the next year she will host a number of talks and debates, culminating with the naming of the 100th pink elephant on March 8 next year, which is International Women’s Day. Next year also marks the 100th anniversary of the constitutional change that granted women the vote in Denmark.

“I want to get in touch with people and talk about our evolution and history and how have arrived at where we are today, in a country with a female monarch and prime minister. But we also need to ask ourselves which direction we are going. We are in constant motion and should never be content. There will always be something to fight for. Society moves and the questions and answers move with it.”

Women have an especially strong presence in Danish politics, and now account for 39 percent of members of parliament – the seventh-highest representation in the EU. All but two of the eight major political parties have been led by a woman in the past decade. But Hilden argues that the reason women succeed in politics illustrates why they aren’t nearly as successful in filling top positions in the private sector and academia.

“People want women in parliament and vote for them. But professors and industry leaders are appointed, and therein lies the problem. What we end up with is men appointing men. Men don’t want to give up the power and simply end up appointing each other,” she argues.

She has supported implementing gender quotas for women in boardrooms in the past, something Norway implemented in 2003, but found the debate spun in circles without ever really addressing the issue. Instead, she now proposes that nominating committees be made up of both men and women, in order to encourage a broader range of candidates for consideration.

“Men and women feel differently. We are equal, but I think we see society differently, and because of that you need both genders in leading roles, both in the public and private sector.”

Hilden’s message is that while many structural barriers blocking women’s success have been broken down, there is still much more that can be done. And if we can find these ways to support women and elevate more into positions of power, she believes society as a whole will be better off.

“The generation of women before me were born during the First World War and weren’t that educated. They wanted power, but society wasn’t ready. Then my generation, the baby boomers, arrived and simply demanded power in society. We may have succeeded, but we now need to tell our daughters to continue the work, because there are new questions waiting for them.”


By Peter Stanners

Co-founder and Editor-in-chief. Occasional photographer.

Facebook comments