Norway or the Highway: Closing the Participation Gap in the United Kingdom's Labor Force Using Nordic Models of Success

By Somerset, Morgan | The George Washington International Law Review, January 1, 2018 | Go to article overview

Norway or the Highway: Closing the Participation Gap in the United Kingdom's Labor Force Using Nordic Models of Success


Somerset, Morgan, The George Washington International Law Review


Introduction

One month after the birth of her daughter, Alison returned to her consulting job, comforted because her newborn was in good hands with her husband Hans.1 Hans embraced the time alone with his daughter and enjoyed spending his days in the park with the other "latte papas."2 Once their daughter was older, Hans and Alison would enroll her in whole-day public childcare and return to their full-time jobs without fearing the cost. At the same time, one month after giving birth to her son, Mary chose to leave her job in marketing because she could not find a suitable childcare provider for her newborn within her family's budget. Mary's husband David wanted to help, but could not afford to take the extra time away from his construction job, and neither had any nearby relatives. The portrait of these families could have been drastically different but for geography-Alison and Hans live in Sweden, while Mary and David live in the United Kingdom.

Sweden is one of four Nordic countries, along with Finland, Iceland, and Norway, that the World Economic Forum's (WEF) annual Global Gender Gap Report consistently ranks among the top high-income countries for overall gender parity based on a range of social, political, and economic metrics.3 Finland, Iceland, Nor way, and Sweden are all high-income, Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries,4 but their positions on gender equality reports consistently outrank those of other similarly situated countries, including the United Kingdom.5 The Nordic countries have long been leaders in gender equality, and much of their success can be attributed to their continued strength in various indicators of women's economic participation and opportunity, which is facilitated by their generous maternal leave and childcare policies.6 "Economic Participation and Opportunity" is one index of gender equality that the WEF tracks by measuring the gaps in men and women's labor force participation rates, in their earned income, and in their advancement across several high-level professions.7 A country's success in closing the participation gap often stems from a progressive parental leave policy8 and from parents' ability to find and afford childcare.9 An emerging trend in parental leave policies, inspired by the Nordic countries, encourages both parents to take time away from work by mandating that the father's10 allotted time may not be transferred to the mother.11 Such policies (known as nontransferable leave) require that the father take a certain number of days allotted to him, and if he chooses not to use them, they are lost, rather than having the option to transfer the additional days to his spouse.12 Parental leave policies have real economic impact because when the father chooses to take advantage of his allocated leave, the domestic labor burden is equalized,13 and accordingly, the mother is better able to participate in the labor force.14

According to data from the WEF, the United Kingdom's ratio of female-to-male labor force participation is 0.87 (seventy-one working-age females actively engage in the labor market for every eighty-two working-age males who do the same),15 ranking the country forty-eighth for labor force participation, behind eighteen other OECD countries.16 The United Kingdom's labor force participation ratio has improved since 2006, the second year of the WEF's report, when the country had a female-to-male ratio of 0.80.17 Despite this marginal closing of the gap, the United Kingdom's ranking in the economic participation and opportunity index nevertheless has fallen from thirty-seventh in 2006 to fiftythird in 2016.18 This dip suggests that more could be done to equalize labor force participation rates, and ultimately improve gender parity in the country's labor force.19

Closing this gender gap in labor force participation is important for economic and human rights reasons. From an economic perspective, adopting measures to improve women's access to the labor force leads to overall increased participation in a country's labor force, which in turn can increase a country's total gross domestic product (GDP). …

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