In Europe this summer I had many interesting experiences, but none stand out so much as the afternoon I had in Norway during their Constitution Day (kind of like their Fourth of July). During this afternoon, my friends and I had a very interesting conversation with a Norwegian man at the restaurant where we were eating. He was a bit drunk (it was a national holiday, to be fair) and we ended up talking for a couple of hours. We broached many topics, although much of the conversation revolved around U.S. politics, namely the various problems with it. He expressly asked us to share the ideas we discussed with people in America, so here I am honoring his wish.
One of the main subjects we went over was how Norway treats women, specifically in relation to the economy. Norway has one of the highest participation rates for women in the workforce in the world, at 76% as of 2016. In contrast, the United States rate of participation for women in the workforce is just 67%. Why is this difference important? Well, according to a study conducted by Standard and Poor’s, if women participated in the workforce at the same rate as Norway in the U.S. the economy would be $1.6 trillion larger. Furthermore, the study found that if more efforts were made to include women in the workforce, especially in professions that are currently male-dominated, the national GDP could grow between 5-10% over the next few decades. An increase of women working would also alleviate our diminishing labor force problem, which is lower than its been in 40 years.
Why does this gap exist between us and Norway, and what can we do to close it? Part of it is cultural. In the United States, many people have more conservative opinions of what a women’s role should be in society (i.e. their priority should be taking care of the family/house) and so we, in general, are less encouraging of women who want to work. Additionally, Norway has policies in place that make it much easier for women to stay in the workforce. Chief among these is paid parental leave.
In Norway, new parents receive 46 weeks of full salary leave, or 56 weeks with 80% pay. A spouse can take a share of this total (and, in fact, parents receive less total weeks if this share is not taken), encouraging and enabling fathers to take a more active role in caring for children than has historically been prevalent. This is not only beneficial for child development but also allows the mother to get back to work with increased ease.
In the United States no family leave is guaranteed, and so it is often difficult for women to reenter the workforce after staying home with a newborn child for an extended period of time. Even if they are able to keep their jobs, their pay often stagnates due to their absence. It’s something that also contributes to the gender pay gap. Thanks in part to paid leave, Norway is the second highest country in female-to-male earned income.
But Norway’s paid family leave policy was not the only thing this drunk guy spoke at length about. He was also very proud of Norway’s focus on children. In fact, the parade held earlier for Constitution Day consisted almost entirely of children, a symbol of the value the country places on children versus, say, military vehicles.
The aforementioned parental leave law is just one way Norway makes sure their children get the care they need. They also offer highly subsidized early child care and as a result, 90% of children ages one to five attend a childcare center. Furthermore, analysis of their education system puts them in the top 10 of the world, creating opportunities for the next generation.
All of this is made possible by Norway’s welfare state. The term has a negative connotation in the United States and brings to mind an overbearing government but is clearly demonstrated in other countries to have a massive potential for improving people’s lives. My Norwegian friend told me that he considered himself a conservative person but recognized all the good that the welfare state did for the people of Norway. Because of the success of paid family leave, highly subsidized childcare, universal healthcare and other policies in countries like Norway, the United States should give serious thought to the implementation of similar laws instead of dismissing them as communist garbage or something we cannot afford. We already know these initiatives work, so what are we waiting for?
Jacob Kowalski is opinion editor for The Daily Campus opinion section. He can be reached via email at email@example.com.