Taylor Tobin

When it comes to being a working parent, Denmark serves as a shining example of how to Do It Right. New moms can rely on 18 weeks of fully-paid maternity leave (including time off both before and after the birth) and an excellent and affordable public childcare system to help out when it’s time to head back to the office.

While Denmark’s utopic reputation on this subject isn’t wholly undeserved, women re-entering the workforce after maternity leave often find themselves facing a battery of obstacles. Bodil Nordestgaard Ismiris, vice president of the Danish Association of Managers and Executives, recently explored this troubling phenomenon in an article for the Harvard Business Review. According to Nordestgaard Ismiris, two factors set limits for female advancement in Danish workplaces, to the detriment of the nation and its vaunted position as an example for other countries to follow.

1. Denmark offers parental leave to both men and women, but this time off doesn’t affect the genders equally.

Danish parents have access to guaranteed maternity and paternity leave, with mothers taking up to 18 weeks and fathers taking 2 consecutive weeks off. However, Nordestgaard Ismiris cautions that men and women don’t equally take advantage of Denmark’s additional offer of partially-paid leave afterwards. This results in a loss of earning power for mothers.

Because Denmark doesn’t encourage men to take advantage of their provided paternity leave (as nations like Sweden and Iceland do), women take significantly more birth-related time off than their male partners. As a result, female Danish workers who come back to the office after having children see a notable drop in their earnings, placing their incomes solidly beneath those of men of the same age and experience level. For a nation renowned for its equitable pay structure (prior to having children, early-career women and men earn comparable salaries), the fact that Danish mothers suffer a financial penalty for taking their government-supported maternity leave comes as an unpleasant surprise.

2. Women in the Danish workforce have trouble ascending to positions of power because they lack positive role models.

Certain Danish policies, like its generous parental leave and salary equality for individuals beginning their careers, make it easy to imagine the country as a magical place where the rest of the world’s workplace gender struggles don’t apply. However, issues like the pay decrease for returning mothers remind us that Denmark may be ahead of the curve in some respects, but still has a long way to go.

Another problematic hindrance to female career growth in Denmark? Executive roles and other leadership positions are overwhelmingly held by men.  In her Harvard Business Review story, Nordestgaard Ismiris counts only 3 women among Denmark’s top 40 CEOs. Also, Nordestgaard Ismiris cites a recent study that characterizes the Danish concept of “executive” as a person with stereotypically “masculine” attributes, which likely contributes to the nationwide trend toward men in high-level corporate roles. To empower female employees and allow Denmark to truly realize its vision of a gender-equitable society, the country must prioritize inclusive hiring and promotion practices.