Irena Lukic moved to Denmark in 1992 at the age of five, when her family fled the war in Yugoslavia. She grew up in Vordingborg, South Zealand, and now, at 29, lives in an apartment in Nørrebro.
Lukic stood for office in November’s municipal elections as one of four candidates for the Feminist Initiative (Feministisk Initiativ). The party, which was only launched in Denmark this year, received 0,7% of the votes in Copenhagen Municipality.
“Although I was born in Yugoslavia, where gender roles follow traditional stereotypes, I grew up in a family that was very oriented toward equality. My father would constantly make fun of his friends who believed that only women should take care of household chores,” said Lukic.
She discovered feminist subcultures after moving to Copenhagen, and was attracted to events and lectures that focussed on improving gender equality in Denmark. She eventually joined Feministisk Forandring, a movement that promotes dialogue and activism in the field, and was one of the only members to decide to get involved in politics directly.
Feministisk Initiativ was launched in Denmark earlier this year as a sister party to the original organisation, founded in Sweden in 2005, whose goal is to promote equality and representation for both women and men. Norway and Finland followed suit in recent years, but Denmark was the notable exception. At a conference earlier this year, Gudrun Schyman, leader of the Swedish feminist party, encouraged Danish women to take up the mantle.
“She emphasised that it was not going to start itself. ‘If you want a feminist party, you should start it,’ she told us, so some of us volunteered to initiate the work,” says Lukic.
14th in Gender Equality
While Denmark may consider itself a global and European leader in gender equality, startling figures suggest that there are areas of Danish society where women are still far from being equal to men – especially compared to the rest of the Nordics. This is why Lukic believes Denmark needs a party that addresses equality and discrimination in society.
“We need structural solutions for structural problems,” she says.
In one of the most influential rankings – the Gender Gap Report, published annually by the World Economic Forum – Denmark ranks 14th, performing significantly worse than the rest of the Nordic countries, which were all in the top five.
While Denmark was tied for first in educational attainment, it did especially poorly in economic participation and opportunity (36th) and political empowerment (16th).
“In Denmark, women are very well educated, but when it comes to power and reaching top positions in Danish society, there is still a clear divide between men and women,” explains Rebekka Mahler, academic researcher at Kvinfo, a Copenhagen-based knowledge centre that focuses on gender equality and diversity.
More paternity leave
Both Mahler and Lukic argue that the current Danish parental leave system is an impediment to the career development of women. Denmark is the only country in the Nordics without a ‘father’s quota’, a portion of parental leave that only the father can take. Instead, mothers and fathers can choose how to share 32 weeks of leave in addition to 18 weeks given to mothers before and after birth.
Danish women ultimately take the majority of this shared leave, which reduces their total time in employment and lifetime earnings. Employers are also more likely to be wary of investing in a female candidate for a job if they are more likely than men to take long periods of parental leave.
“Not long ago, I attended a course for job-seekers in Copenhagen,” recounts Lukic. “There was around 80 of us, and the vast majority were women about my age. On the introduction day, we were given suggestions on how to write a job application. One of the first things they told us was that if we are young women around age 30, we shouldn’t mention our age.”
According to Mahler at Kvinfo, both legislation and culture are to blame.
“On the one hand, the system does not force men to take time off, and on the other, women are still expected in Danish culture to undertake a greater share of childcare than men,” she explains.
Danes believe equality has been achieved
A study conducted by Jørgen Goul Andersen and Ditte Shamshiri-Petersen at Aalborg University’s Department of Political Science reveals that men in Denmark are dramatically less concerned about equality between genders than in the rest of the Nordics.
The researchers also found that Danes are more committed to maintaining traditional gender roles than their Nordic neighbours.
“It is obvious, also to Danes, that men and women are equally capable of assuming political leadership positions, but it is not equally obvious that fathers and mothers should share the responsibility for children. For Danes, there is far from universal agreement that men should take paternal leave,” they wrote.
Both Lukic and Mahler believe that the main reason that Denmark is lagging behind in gender equality compared to the rest of the Nordics is not a pervasive “conservative” mentality, but rather a widespread misconception that the country has achieved full equality.
“In Denmark, we are convinced that we have achieved gender equality, but we haven’t. People think there is nothing more to fight for, and that is why we are performing so poorly. The numbers show that gender equality has definitely not been achieved, and we are not really working on it,” Lukic observes.
Mahler agrees, and stresses that Denmark has to start addressing the issue of gender inequality in the workplace and in political representation.
“In the way we Danes see our country, we believe we have reached full equality, and in our understanding of the issue, we believe there is nothing to work on. Equality represents an important part of our identity,” she says. “But it is quite clear that we are not quite there yet, and the recognition of our problems is the first step we should take.” M