Denmark regularly ranks among the top countries in the world to be a woman. Columnist Sarah Redohl wonders if figuring out the ‘best country’ for women is the best question to ask ourselves.
Text: Sarah Redohl
"Did you know Denmark is the best country in the world to be a woman.’ That headline made the media rounds back in 2016, the year after Denmark broke into the top five on the World Economic Forum’s Gender Gap Index. However, Denmark has been slipping down the list ever since. Between 2020 and 2021, Denmark dropped 15 places and now sits 29th on the list while all its Nordic neighbours remain in the top five.
This isn’t the only recent instance Denmark has been compared unfavourably to its neighbours in this regard. Denmark caught some flack for not embracing the #MeToo movement quite as quickly as, say, Sweden. Some claim the #MeToo movement didn’t hit its stride in Denmark until 2020, nearly three years after it began, when a Danish television presenter shared her story of gender discrimination and sexual assault on national television, prompting thousands of women to speak out. This left some wondering, “Why did it take so long?”
A 2019 YouGov poll found that only 4% of men and 8% of women surveyed in Denmark had a ‘very favourable’ impression of the #MeToo movement, compared to 16% and 34% in Sweden, and 19% and 24% across all countries surveyed. Although only one quarter of Danish women identifies as feminists (half that of Sweden), one third said wolf-whistling at women in the street is acceptable (second only to Nigeria among all countries surveyed). “More Danish women are happy to be wolf-whistled than to be called feminist,” reads The Guardian’s coverage of the poll.
These low-level incidents even have a term: ‘hygge sexism’, playing off that quintessential Danish cliche of cosy conviviality. “As Danes, we’re supposed to be so liberated that you can take a little bit of ‘hygge sexism’,” said Henriette Laursen, director of Kvinfo, the Danish Centre for Research on Women and Gender. Danish author Dorthe Nors argues that this mentality is related to frisund, the Danish concept of free-thinking and tolerance that underscores Denmark’s sexual liberalism. As Professor of Communication Studies at Roskilde University Rikke Andreassen put it, “We have had a culture where what you say isn’t racist or sexist if you don’t intend it to be.” So long as you do something “for ‘fun’,” she added, “then culturally, we tend to think it’s not that bad.”
Don’t get me wrong; I understand the difference between employment rights, access to education, and equal pay…and a wolf whistle or a sexist joke. I also respect every woman’s right to define for herself what is acceptable. And, I think Denmark truly is a better place to be a woman than my home country. Nevertheless, I think this creates some incongruences for Denmark’s internationals. A single instance of ‘hygge sexism’ gone unaddressed by one’s colleagues may go a long way to undermine Denmark’s reputation for gender equality in that international’s eyes. One person I spoke with who is very well-connected in the international community even wondered aloud to me if perhaps women from countries with less gender equality might be seen as more willing to tolerate things that Danish women simply wouldn’t and thus become targets. I don’t think that’s the case, but I understand why the question was asked.
Like most women, I have a long catalogue of personal experiences, some unquestionably sexist, others a matter of perception. For example, when I interviewed an expert on TV only for him to answer to my male co-host, I wondered: Is it because I’m a woman, or because he’s sitting closer to my co-host? When a man meowed at me on the street, I wondered: Is it because I’m a woman, or is it because I forgot to lint-roll my shirt after cuddling with my cat? Ever since I moved abroad, I find myself asking similar questions. When someone is rude to me, I wonder: Is it because I’m foreign or a cultural misunderstanding? So, when a foreign woman is told a sexist joke in one of the ‘best countries in the world to be a woman’, I could understand why she might perceive it differently.
Sofie Carsten Nielsen, member of parliament and the Danish Social Liberal Party, said most Danish politicians seem to think the battle for gender equality has been won. “Let’s be frank, it’s bull**** and a mistake to think that there’s nothing left to fight for,” she said.
(Mis)perceptions and (dis)parity
When Denmark earned the rank of ‘the best country in the world to be a woman’, it was based on a survey of Danish women which specifically aimed to gauge perceptions. Perception can be a powerful thing. It can turn a wolf whistle into a compliment, or it can turn a joke into a jingoist insult. Perception can also hinder progress. Sofie Carsten Nielsen, member of parliament and the Danish Social Liberal Party, said most Danish politicians seem to think the battle for gender equality has been won. “Let’s be frank, it’s bull**** and a mistake to think that there’s nothing left to fight for,” she said.
Statistically speaking, Denmark continues to improve in terms of gender equality, albeit at one of the slowest rates within Europe. With a score of 77 on the EU’s Gender Equality Index, Denmark is nearly 10 points ahead of the EU average. But, that score is out of 100. If you earned a 77 on a test, would you perceive that as ‘good enough’? Perhaps you would if you were praised for your score and set the curve for the entire class. Being considered ‘the best country in the world to be a woman’ is like setting the curve. But, should we be grading gender equality on a curve? The real question behind gender equality isn’t a comparison of countries. It is a comparison of the lives of men and women within a country. And I think getting a C+ offers plenty of room for improvement.