Norway is famous for its high level of gender equality in all spheres of life. It’s not uncommon or "weird" for men to be stay-at-home fathers, or for women to work on oil drilling stations. In my experience, Norwegians usually react with puzzlement when non-Norwegians (and especially non-Scandinavians) express shock at Norway’s degree of gender equality. Norwegians I know usually express a "why shouldn’t it be this way?" view. I once lamented to a Norwegian friend that Norway is a century ahead of the US on gender equality, and I wasn’t kidding or exaggerating.

And gender equality in Norway appears set to advance even further with a new law that will require that forty percent of all company boards be female. Via the Guardian:

Quarter of Norway’s firms face shutdown as female directors deadline approaches

· Companies must meet 40% quota by Monday
· Law helps raise proportion to world’s highest

Gwladys Fouché

Oslo The Guardian,

Thursday December 27 2007

Almost a quarter of Norway’s companies have failed to comply with a controversial law requiring them to increase the proportion of women on their boards to 40%, according to government figures. If they do not promote more women, they could be shut down.

Norway’s 487 public limited companies, including 175 firms listed on the Oslo stock exchange, have until the end of the year on Monday to implement a 2003 act that requires firms to boost the number of female directors.

The law, which introduced quotas, has been effective in raising the number of women board members at listed companies from 6% in 2001 to 37%.

Norway now boasts the highest proportion of women on boards in the world. Sweden comes second with 19%; the US has around 15%. In the UK, only 11% of directors were female in 2007.

The Norwegian government hailed the numbers as proof that quotas work.

The quotas work but not only because the law is enforced. Norway’s government, and the governments of the other Scandinavian countries, have long promoted gender equality as public policy. Parenthood leave for both mothers and fathers, government subsidized childcare, free or heavily subsidized education, and promotion of gender equality in schools, workplaces, and the media have, over time, created cultures that are conducive to men and women working, living, earning, studying, and parenting as equals.

So yes, folks, this is Big Government (run for the exits! Here comes Marx!) at work. Because that’s what it takes. Cultural ideas about gender  are among the most ingrained in any society. Public perceptions about gender roles change slowly. Government, through interventionist policies –which yes, do require high taxes– can speed up the process, but only if they make gender equality an apolitical goal and devote serious enough effort and money to working toward it.

Even serious efforts, though, sometimes don’t work out as well as they were intended to.

"This trend would not have happened without regulation," said the gender equality minister, Manuela Ramin-Osmundsen. "Business organisations have tried for 20 years to boost the number of women on boards, but they have been unsuccessful."

That doesn’t, however, mean that Big Government failed, or that gender equality is unattainable. It just means governments have to try harder, and enforce their policies –in other words, get tough on inequality.

When asked whether the government would really shut down companies that do not comply, Ramin-Osmundsen said: "The law is clear – we will enforce the procedures. These have existed for 30 years. They have not come out of nowhere."

The Norwegians have a minister for gender equality, and she sounds like she doesn’t take nonsense from anyone. That’s awesome.

Can you imagine a Secretary for Gender Equality in the US president’s cabinet? The Republicans would keel over from shock and indignation. "The wimmenz are ruining everything us privileged white males fought to keep for ourselves!" they would wail.

As I’ve learned in economic and social rights work, four kinds of equality have been advanced in the past hundred years: formal equality, equality of results, equality of opportunity, and substantive equality of opportunity. Today, the trend is toward substantive equality of opportunity, which involves taking positive measures to increase the numbers of people from disadvantaged categories competing for jobs, goods, and services. This is an idea embraced in most European countries, and especially those in Western Europe.