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The Position of Women in Norway

Dateline: May 31, 2001.

Would Norwegian women win a competition with women in other countries on equality between the sexes? Possibly. Norway was at least the first country in the world to appoint a special Gender Equality Ombud. Since the 1980s, Norway's changing governments have always been almost 50 per cent women. Moreover, the president of the Storting, commissioner of the Oslo Police, president of the University of Oslo and governor of Svalbard in Norway's arctic Far North are all women. Norway's first woman bishop was installed in 1993 but the country is far from being a gender equality pioneer in all areas.

By Pernille Lønne Mørkhagen

What then is the position of women in Norwegian society? It depends who we compare ourselves with. With Norwegian men? With women in Warsaw, Cape Town or New Delhi? Our former prime minister, Gro Harlem Brundtland, now the head of the World Health Organization, has said that Norway is a leading country in the field of equal rights. Many other countries look to Norway for inspiration and ideas on how to promote equality between the sexes.

It's beginning to be quite a few years since equal rights was a major political issue and rallying cry among women in Norway. For many years the Government and the Storting, Norway's national assembly, have pursued such an active equal rights policy that the need for special activist organizations has been minimal.

In recent years we have seen two different reactions to the Government's active promotion of gender equality. One is that equal rights should focus on the rights of men from now on while the other is a campaign by the Christian Right to persuade parents (i.e. mothers) to stay home more with their youngest children.

Equality for men

In recent years work on equality has focused very little on advancing women's rights in male fora, quite the opposite. "I think our biggest challenge in the years to come is to focus on the role of the man in gender equality. It's high time that men draw up an agenda for their struggle for equal rights," said Gender Equality Ombud Anne Lise Ryel at a Nordic meeting of ombuds in the Faroe Islands in 1998. Our present Minister of Children and Family Affairs, Valgjerd Svarstad Haugland, has said repeatedly that the issue of gender equality must focus on men and the role of men.

This focus on men has already resulted in changes in maternity leave legislation meant to benefit the man. One of the changes is that four weeks of the maternity leave is for the exclusive use of new fathers. If the father does not use his so-called father's quota to be home with the baby for one month, the family loses their right to this portion of the leave period. How many countries in the world have a separate paternity leave for men?

Norway's former Minister of Finance, Sigbjørn Johnsen, took "pappa leave" when he had children while in office, while former Minister of Children and Family Affairs Grete Berget turned over most of her leave to her husband.

After the special father's quota was introduced in 1993, the percentage of new fathers who took paternity leave increased from 45 to 70 per cent between 1994 and 1995. In other words, Norwegian men can be persuaded to do more on the home front when the rules allow it.

The new Children Act addresses another current equality issue, namely the position of the father in a divorce. It is no longer a given that the mother is awarded custody when parents divorce. In contested cases, the judicial system is supposed to place greater emphasis on the suitability of both parents and the best interests of the children rather than the special bond between mother and child, which experts used to argue was the most important factor.

Cash benefits scheme - a new political issue

Seen from outside it might seem that equality in Norway is no longer a question of asserting women's rights in male-dominated sectors of society. Equality in Norway in recent years has actually been more about men's rights and participation in traditional women's activities. We now stand at a crossroads, however. Our present centrist coalition Government has one main cause - the so-called cash benefits scheme. With the backing of the Storting it is advocating a new type of public subsidy for families with small children. Under the scheme, a family can receive NOK 36,000 annually for each child aged one or two who does not occupy a place in a day nursery.

Women's organizations, radical parties and sectors of the trade union movements are up in arms. They believe the cash benefits scheme will dismantle much of what has been built up over the past 30 years by the pro-gender equality forces.

The massive opposition to the cash benefits scheme is rooted in the far less shiny flip-side of the gender equality coin. Although Norway is basically an egalitarian society, the labour market is still largely drawn along gender lines. The majority of women who work have jobs that provide less prestige, lower pay and fewer opportunities for advancement than the jobs men have. A new survey also shows that the more education a woman has, the more likely she is to feel shut out of the top jobs in Norwegian business.

Paying the parents of one and two-year-olds approximately NOK 36,000 annually so that one of the parents can stay home could cause many women to completely withdraw from the labour force, contend opponents of the cash benefits scheme. Another consequence is that that women will become a less stable source of labour and will therefore have to take jobs that do not pay as well and have fewer opportunities for advancement. Few doubt that it will be the women who choose the cash benefit to stay home. One effect of such a gender-divided labour market is that women generally earn less than men. Families who choose the cash benefit will lose the least when the woman quits her job.

This is fine, say proponents of the scheme. Small children need at-home mothers. Proponents call the cash benefits scheme emergency help to hard-pressed families who would like to spend more time with their children but can't because they have to work. Norway's current Minister of Children and Family Affairs, Valgjerd Svarstad Haugland, a Christian Democrat, has said right out that small children are best off at home. For their part, the opponents fear that women will be "forced back into the home" and that the decades-long political promise of public child care for all who want it by the year 2000 will never be met.

Who will be right is uncertain. The effects of the reform have not become evident yet and the entire cash benefits scheme could crumble again if the present unstable centrist coalition Government falls.

Many women in politics

In the current centrist coalition Government eight out of 17 ministers are women. Among others, women occupy the top posts at the Ministries of Petroleum and Energy, Justice and Agriculture. In one of her governments, Gro Harlem Brundtland had as many as nine women and 10 men.

The makeup of the previous Storting was 39 per cent women - never before have so many women served in the legislature. Twenty-five years ago, for example, only one in four Storting representatives was a women. The ratio dropped to 36 per cent in the last general election in 1997 but the president of the Storting, who ranks second to the King in Norway, is a woman.

In the autumn 1995 local elections, women were elected to nearly 33 per cent of the municipal council seats, and all of 41.2 per cent of the county council seats. Both of these figures are record high.

This is so despite the fact that only 68 of Norway's 435 mayors are women. Even so, this is 13 more compared to the previous local election. Of 18 county council chairpersons, who traditionally have been men, there are now three women. In other words, female representation is not evenly spread throughout all levels of the Norwegian political system.

Massive campaigns have been waged over the past 10 years to get more women involved in politics, particularly in local councils. As a result there have been veritable election landslides, dubbed female coups, where voters have increased the representation of women by crossing out male candidates and writing in the names of women candidates one or more times. This is especially true of local elections, where election rules allow cumulating. Many men politicians have lost their seats to less experienced women candidates this way.

The first female coups took place in 1971 -- provoked by a growing frustration in the female population. This was at a time when women were making their way into the work force in large numbers, while women's priorities were not achieving a similar impact in the political sphere.

Today it is a rarity for the political parties not to have a woman as the first or second name on the election lists. All of the major Norwegian political parties have had or have women chairpersons.

It is probably largely because of this "feminine political revolution" that foreigners consider Norwegian women to have attained a position of strength and equality.

The Gender Equality Ombud

The establishment of a special Gender Equality Ombud has made Norway known throughout the world as a country that values gender equality. Norway, which was the first country in the world to have a Gender Equality Ombud, consolidated its comprehensive legislation on equality in a separate Gender Equality Act whose 20th anniversary was celebrated in 1998. It is the duty of the Gender Equality Ombud to enforce the act.

The act has been strengthened and revised several times. In 1981 a rule was introduced which required equal representation for both sexes on public committees and boards. The rule was strengthened in 1988 with a "60 - 40 rule" for all committees with more than four members. In other words there should never be less than 40 per cent women on a public board or committee.

Despite the rule, state boards, panels and committees still do not have more than 38 per cent representation by women on average, and the corresponding statistic for municipal committees is nearly 36 per cent. Nevertheless, the percentages are believably much higher than if the authorities had not set clear targets for such committees.

One of the tasks of the Gender Equality Ombud is to monitor hiring in the public and private sectors. In Norway, it is illegal, for example, to advertise for a woman secretary. All appointment notices must be gender neutral, with the exception of advertisements for male or female actors or models. If the workplace seeking new employees is dominated by men, it is also common to encourage women to apply, with the reverse true for women-dominated workplaces.

The history of women's liberation in Norway

There are long political traditions stretching back to the nascent fight for women's emancipation in the nineteenth century. As early as 1854, Norwegian women acquired inheritance rights. But it was not until the 1890s that married women gained the right to control their own wealth. Prior to the start of industrialization in the nineteenth century, the role of women was entirely subservient to men. Although Norwegian women received a modicum of education, the possibility for being independent was remote.

In 1882 women were given access to higher education, but it was not until 1903 that the first Norwegian woman received a doctorate at the University of Oslo. The first female professor came on the scene in 1912. By this time many women had already joined the work force as secretaries, teachers and industrial workers. Industrialization gave women new opportunities in the cities, but the female factory workers had a hard life, with extremely long hours, a poor working environment and very low wages. Equal pay was an unknown principle. Statistics from the turn of the century show that errand boys earned an average of 290 kroner a year, whereas a maid had to make do with 151 kroner.

Norwegian women won the right to vote in 1913, fifteen years after Norwegian men. By this time women had been fighting a hard battle for political rights since 1885, when a women's suffrage organization was created, a year after the founding of the first women's rights association. These women's rights associations were far removed from the problems of the female factory workers, dominated as they were by liberal middle class women fighting for suffrage, the right to education, and the same legal rights in civil law for both sexes. However, towards the end of the last century and at the beginning of the 20th century, working class women also began to organize. The first to do so were the female matchstick workers. The various unions gradually helped in improving the unsatisfactory working conditions of the female work force.

Literary models

Forceful personalities among writers, teachers and socially committed women were quick to put the disadvantaged position of women on the agenda, and to do something about it. One male writer was particularly active in the fight for women's rights: Henrik Ibsens contemporary dramas feature strong female characters in leading roles who express their need for freedom. And the writer himself gave such a thundering speech to the Scandinavian Society in Rome in 1879 when he failed to get a majority to allow women members into the organization, that a woman fainted. Women writers have also provided poetic descriptions of women's role in society. The first of them was Camilla Collett, with her novel "The Governor's Daughter" ("Amtmandens Døttre") in 1855. The Norwegian author, Sigrid Undset, who won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1928, also described women and the reality they faced in both her contemporary novels and her works set in the middle ages.

Sports idols

Our role models today are not primarily writers. In addition to the many competent and leading women we can look up to in politics, it is in sports that Norwegian women have excelled in recent years.

Each year the streets of Oslo are filled one Saturday in May with 40,000-50,000 female joggers. In the middle of the crowd is the marathon queen herself, Grete Waitz. She is not running to shave seconds off her time -- as she had to in order to win the New York marathon nine times in a row -- but rather is trying to encourage as many ordinary Norwegian women as possible to run a mere five kilometres. Grete Waitz herself is a modest person who has steered clear of demanding support or making statements about equality between the sexes. However, because of her athletic achievements she has had an enormous impact on the participation of Norwegian women in sports, and on their self-image.

A host of talented skiers, handball players, swimmers and other athletes have followed in her footsteps. And lots of young girls are now learning to play soccer, exactly the same way that boys have done for generations. Norway's women's soccer team is also one of the best in the world.

These things should not be forgotten nor should their importance be underrated when describing the position of women in Norwegian society. The athletic achievements of Norwegian women help give women a healthy and strong self-image and are a source of pride to Norwegians.

The flip side

However, women's leading role in politics and sports represents one of the brighter sides of women's situation in Norway. If we look at the everyday life of Norwegian women and their situation at work, the reality is less glamorous.

More than 70 per cent of Norwegian women today have paid employment outside the home. While women work an average of nearly 30 hours a week, the average Norwegian man has a work week of 38 hours. In other words, many women work part-time, primarily to have enough stamina left over to care for their home and family.

There are only a handful of women in leading positions in Norwegian business and industry, despite the fact that women make up nearly half the work force. Only 3.5 per cent of the top executives of Norwegian corporations are women. This is a smaller percentage than in the United States, Great Britain and Spain. The middle management level is 7.5 per cent women, hardly anything to brag about.

"Get your act together men. Listen to women. If you continue to think traditional management with a majority of men at the top, Norway will lose out in international competition," commented Marit Wiig, a director of the Confederation of Norwegian Business and Industry, on a recent study showing that 82 per cent of university-educated women believe it is more difficult more women than men to land executive positions. Her point is that male executives are reluctant to hire women for top jobs, and that women feel they have been passed over in the battle for positions of power in business.

Women in public administration

Central government figures are also disconcerting. Full-time women employees make up 44 per cent of the civil service. Yet when it comes to the top echelon, women are not well represented. In 1998, there was only one women among 17 secretaries general and just 17 directors general out of a field of 111. On the other hand, the gender balance in politically appointed ministerial posts has gradually improved: of 29 state secretaries nine are women.

The balance is uneven in local government too when we leave out political representation and look only at employment statistics. Municipalities constitute by far the biggest employer of women in Norway. Almost 75 per cent of municipal employees are women. However, many work part-time. When only full-time employees are included, women make up 56 per cent of the work force. But even when one only includes full-time employees, women in managerial positions make up only 24 per cent of the total, and only 15 per cent of department heads and administrative leaders in the municipal sector are women.

A telling example from the municipalities is the high percentage of employees who work with clients at social services offices and public health centres and in nursing and care-giving services. Eighty per cent of the employees in these areas are women, but only 34 per cent of administrators are women. According to wage statistics compiled by the Ministry of Government Administration, this means that only eight per cent of the women who work in municipal nursing and care services will advance to managerial positions, while all of 48 per cent of the men will work towards an administrative position.

There is only one area of local government in which there are just as many women administrators as men. Forty-six per cent of the country's health and social services officers are women. Women in leading positions are otherwise a scarce commodity. Barely 12 per cent of planning officers, less than four per cent of engineering officers and barely 14 per cent of education officers are women.

Visible and invisible barriers

Why is this so? Many researchers who have done studies on women have tried to explain why women have achieved such a clear position in politics and ministry posts while remaining conspicuously absent from positions of power in working life.

Men, and in particular men who are themselves in leading jobs and who recruit new leaders, tend to explain this situation in terms of a shortage of qualified women willing to take on such work. They complain that there are not only too few women with the right qualifications, but that those suitable as candidates for the top jobs are reluctant to assume positions of power. A common theme is that women have different priorities -- the home is put before careers. Men often state that they would have nothing against women at the top, but that women themselves do not want to be there.

Such views are not wholly unfounded. Already burdened, many women and men do not want to take on even greater responsibilities in their daily lives. Another factor is that many women set such strict standards regarding the quality of their work, that they do not consider themselves qualified for promotion, even though they are objectively at par with the men who advance. In the words of Ingelin Killengren, Commissioner of the Oslo Police: "It is particularly the male middle managers who have to be more conscious of the fact that men are good at marketing themselves, while women are cautious and reserved. If managers are not aware of this, women will continue to be held back."

Affirmative action

Theoretically there are no sexual barriers. Norwegian women can advance on a par with men. The aforementioned equal rights legislation even demands that employers try to recruit more women further up the managerial ladder. The law clearly states that where one of the sexes is strongly underrepresented in an organization, this sex is to be preferred when new appointments are made, so long as the applicants have equal qualifications.

In jobs where formal education and seniority form the basis for weighing qualifications, comparing candidates is easy. Male teachers and male nurses, who are both a marked minority in their professions, are for example often preferred when appointments are made.

However, when recruiting to the top jobs -- where women are underrepresented -- formal qualifications are not the only concern. Here considerations such as an applicant's personal suitability, network of contacts and involvement in the community play a part as well. When well-qualified women are passed over, their exclusion is often explained in vague terms such as, "she wasn't suited for the job", "she lacks experience as a leader", and the like.

To bolster the self-confidence of women and to qualify women for managerial positions, courses have been arranged internally by many corporations and agencies and externally by trade unions and professional and trade organizations. However, it is difficult to document the effect of such courses.

More education

Increasing numbers of young Norwegian women are obtaining professional degrees. In fact, 56 per cent of all new students at universities and colleges are women. However much of the reason for Norway having what we call an extremely gender-divided labour market, is caused by the fact that women have traditionally chosen to educate themselves within the caring professions, whereas men have acquired economic or technical skills. In Norway there are few occupations where an equal number of men and women are employed.

Young women still tend to choose along traditional lines when selecting their branch of study for the last three years of school in Norway's 13-year system. For several decades the authorities have tried to encourage young people, especially women, to pursue an education in typical male-dominated professions. In some areas these campaigns have been successful. A good balance has been achieved in recent years, for instance among medical and dentistry students. In other areas, the traditional gender distribution has become even more entrenched.

Symptomatic for this labour market differentiated along the lines of sex, is that the education chosen by women leads to low-paying jobs, whereas the jobs the men take yield higher wages and prestige. To quote former Minister of Children and Family Affairs Grete Berget: "Women's work is consistently underevaluated." For example, a woman with three years of education as a nurse earns substantially less than a man with a three-year technical education. She will also be working within a system where the chances of climbing a career ladder are limited and the wage increases are small and predictable, whereas the man will be able to climb faster and demand commensurate wage increases.

Women's supplement

Recent pay settlements have to a certain degree attempted to rectify the imbalance between typical women's and men's occupations. On a couple of occasions, for example, a large number of women-dominated trades have received an extra "women's supplement" on top of other pay increases. However, many such successful wage settlements will be necessary in order to completely erase all gender differences. The 1996 Living Conditions survey revealed that the average hourly wage of women in Norway is still 21 per cent lower than for men.

Beside the current discussion about the cash benefits scheme, one could say that the most visible "battle for women's rights" in Norwegian society today is during the annual centralized pay talks. Despite the fact that wage differences are highly visible and are perceived as unfair by most women and men, a long and hard battle remains before the work done by men and women is evaluated equally. Traditional attitudes in working life and educational patterns are not matters which equality-minded politicians have thus far managed to legislate away.

Double-working superwomen

There are a significant number of well-educated young women in Norway today and many of them have made their way into male-dominated professions. The problem is that many of these women feel torn between working as men do, and giving enough of themselves to the caring role they have outside their jobs. There is little doubt that Norwegian women still retain the bulk of the responsibility for the home and children.

Time studies show that even in families where both parents work, the woman spends far more time on housework and being with children than the man. A time use study from a few years back shows that the average man uses two and half hours on home-related chores daily, while the average woman uses nearly four and a half hours on such work. Even when she is employed full time outside the home, she uses well over four hours a day on housework. The man, however, is not slumped over a newspaper in his favourite chair while his wife toils -- the time use surveys show that he is at work.

Pram-pushing men

Nevertheless, a new generation of men who do do a lot on the home front is taking over. Many young men today have grown up with women's liberation and equality as important and natural ingredients of their formative years. When they become fathers, it will be just as natural for them to stay home from work when the children are sick, as for the child's mother to take time off from her job. Women and men have equal rights in this area.

Now that the rules for maternity leaves have been changed, we are now witnessing a host of pram-pushing men who take leave for a month or more before the baby is big enough to start day care or is put in the care of a child minder.

Although all statistics show that Norwegian women do most of the housework, a number of prominent men have begun to advertise the fact that they are not interested in a political career because it doesn't give them enough time to be with their children.

The latest surveys on living conditions show that an increasing number of fathers of small children want to work less in order to be home more with their children. Four of 10 fathers of pre-school and school age children work more than 45 hours a week. But the number has gone down seven per cent in the last five years. Surveys show that the work day of men is becoming somewhat shorter overall, while women are working more. In fact, 20 per cent of the men asked said they would consider working less for less pay. But the overwhelming majority said they were satisfied with the way things are.

It is still highly unusual for men to ask their employer for reduced hours in order to care for small children at home. Like women, they are completely entitled to do so, but few are willing to do more than they currently do at home without actually having to scale back their career plans. This is also the reason why few agree with our present prime minister, Kjell Magne Bondevik, when he maintains that the cash benefits scheme will also give men the opportunity to stay home with the children.

Day care for all children

The previous Labour Government placed great emphasis on the building of day nurseries for children as an equality-promoting measure. The Government's objective was to provide a day-care place to all who wanted one by the end of the century. The present centrist coalition Government has also said, if not less explicitly, that everyone who wants to send their child to a day nursery should have the opportunity to do so. The big push to build day nurseries is, however, at standstill until the authorities can see the effect the cash benefits scheme in order to calculate the real need for new day-care places. The idea behind the cash benefits scheme is that the parents of small children should have a choice between a direct public subsidy to the family so that the child can stay at home with a parent, or the same amount to subsidize a day-care place.

An unintended effect of the new scheme is that families with one- and two-year-olds can use the cash benefit to pay au pairs or childminders to take care of the children while both parents continue to work. Whether very small children are better off with a childminder or in a regular day nursery is a discussion in itself. One of the goals of the previous Labour Government was to shrink the market for unauthorized childminders who watch children for pay that goes largely unreported. The authorities are also working to regulate private childcare providers by facilitating the opening of small publicly subsidized day nurseries run out of private homes.

Parents with time accounts

At the same time as the father's quota was introduced, new parents received in 1993 another parental leave right -- the so-called time account scheme. This means that parents of small children can choose various options in order to stretch the paid parental leave over a longer period by combining shorter working hours with child care at home. With the exception of three weeks before and six weeks after the birth that are reserved for the mother, and four weeks set aside for the father, the parents can split the parental leave between themselves. For example, they can choose a solution where both or one works less than normal in order to be home with the baby. This reduces the workload of the new family, while the parental leave rights ensure the same level of income.

So far, not very many young families have elected this option. Many prefer to take their one-year leave in one go, with the person who is home with the child receiving 80 per cent of their pay for one year, or full pay if the parental leave is 42 weeks.

In addition to this right for parents of very small children, Norway also has another type of right for employees who wish to spend more time with children who are a little older. All employees with children under 10 years of age have the right to reduce their position to 80 per cent as long as it does not create major problems for the employer. There's little doubt that it is basically women who are availing themselves of this right.

The breakup of the family

In recent decades the number of divorces has increased dramatically. Many families are breaking up, and quite a few of them are overstretched families with small children. The divorce rate in 1997 was 11.3 divorces per 1,000 married and separated persons. If the trend continues there is now a nearly 50 per cent risk of a marriage ending in divorce. At the start of 1998, 18 per cent of all Norwegian children under the age of 18 live in families with only a mother or father. Many also have to share their home with stepparents, half-brothers and sisters, and stepbrothers and sisters.

There are always many reasons for a divorce. But there is little doubt that the pressure of time and distribution of workloads can be contributory factors. Statistics show that it is often the woman that wants to leave the marriage.

Of all types of families, single parents with children are struggling the most financially in Norway today. And there is no doubt that more women have the main responsibility for the children after the break-up of the marriage.

Nonetheless, there are also a large number of men who are responsible "part-time fathers", both in regard to paying child support and raising the children. Norway has a law whose purpose is to ensure that both parents maintain contact with their children after a break-up. There is an increasing tendency for fathers to take on the main responsibility for the children or that the parents decide to have the children split their time equally between mother and father. In Norway, there are quite a few children who live with each parent for a week at a time, or who shuttle back and forth between their homes on weekends and holidays.

Welfare with an aftertaste

Despite the opportunities for reduced working hours and the tendency of women to work part time, many families feel they just don't have enough time for each other. Living standards and wage levels have in many cases made it necessary for both parents to work a lot -- often more than they want to.

Overall, there is little doubt that parents have less time to spend with their children. Unpaid care-giving carries little prestige in today's society. Our children are to a larger degree being looked after by other paid employees and our old people are being taken care of by professionals. The population of at-home mothers who cared for their children and home and looked after their parents and elderly neighbours disappeared a long time ago. These tasks have become professionalized and paid, though at a far lower level than traditional men's work.

An equal society?

We live today in a rich and smoothly functioning society where few people fall outside the safety net of national insurance and pension schemes when they find they are unable to provide for themselves. Thanks to pension schemes, sickness benefits and national insurance benefits very few people live in dire poverty today. And we have rights in the workplace that many people in other countries no doubt envy, with respect to protection against dismissal, the opportunity to take care of our children and the opportunity to divide the workload between men and women.

We live in a culture where women have a prominent position and where the general attitude is that nothing that is possible for a man is impossible for a woman. Other cultures may even perceive Norwegian women as being somewhat mannish due to their open and direct way of dealing with others.

At the same time our enlightened and equalized society has a flip-side, and that is that even though women have broken every barrier and entered every male bastion, the work women do is on the whole not valued as highly as the man's. Our highly regulated society has not been completely successful in creating a framework in which the care-giving tasks traditionally carried out by women alone are equally divided between women and men or provided by professions in a completely satisfactory manner.

It has been said that as long as men do not and are not expected to participate as much on the home front as women are now doing in public life, we will not have real quality in Norwegian society. But there can be no doubt that we have come a long way.

About the author:
Pernille Lønne Mørkhagen is a reporter for Aftenposten, Norway's biggest daily paper, and specializes in family, health and social issues. She has a composite first degree in government, history and literature. She has previously worked for the committee for the training of leaders at work, where she was also connected with the Gender Equality Council in Norway.