Why nursing in Denmark pays less than male dominated professions

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The pay gap between men and women and the measures to be taken to remedy it in Denmark have recently come to a head in the nursing profession. During the pandemic, the focus on the work of nurses has emerged in a number of countries, including the UK where a recent proposal to a 1% salary increase has been heavily criticized.

In national public sector negotiations in Denmark, nurses voted against a recent pay offer of up to 5%, which was to preserve Real wages for civil servants over the next three years. But Studies show that it is not only a question of a salary increase: the salary level itself is set unfairly low for those who form part of the profession. And the root of the problem goes back to a law that came into effect some 50 years ago.

Denmark has a global reputation for equality, but he still has problems with unequal pay. Danish nurses always receive 10% to 20% less paid than male-dominated occupations requiring a similar level of education. There is many contributing factors unequal wages, but a recent report of the Danish Institute for Human Rights (DIHR) found that legislation enacted in 1969 drove nurses and other female-dominated professions to a lower level of pay.

Not only was the recent payroll offer rejected, a citizens’ petition reforming the law with respect to many traditionally female professions received the 50,000 signatures needed, in a record time of eight days, to get to parliament.

Structural sexism

At the heart of the current struggle for equal pay in Denmark is the call for the Danish parliament to review the Civil Service Reform Act 1969. The law aimed to modernize the employment system for state employees and allow the state to better control salary increases. This law is considered to be one of the main reasons why female-dominated professions in the public sector still have lower wages than their male counterparts in positions with a corresponding level of education and responsibility.

In 1965, a commission was appointed to collect data and evaluate all the functions of the post, as officials wanted to build a salary scale and terms based solely on objective criteria. However, collecting such a large and diverse amount of data turned out to be more difficult than expected.

The committee was also unable to decide what criteria to use to classify the different occupational groups and exactly how they should be weighted against each other. In a letter sent to all government departments, the commission mentioned workload, education and responsibility as criteria for evaluating work, but never succeeded in developing an appropriate system.

The commission was also instructed not to significantly increase public wage spending. He therefore had to maintain the existing status quo, limiting the number of professional groups that could be moved to a higher salary bracket. The status quo at this time dated back to the first Civil Service Act of 1919, and the commission had little room for maneuver: raising the wages of one occupational group would lead to demands from others.

Protesters for equal pay gather in a square with red banners.
Foran Christiansborg

Although its aim was to ultimately modernize the commission final proposal – which became law – perpetuated a system that went back much further in time. In this context, predominantly female professions were generally placed at a lower level in relation to their training and level of responsibility at the time.

The law provided that the rest of the public sector would have to synchronize their wages with the new system, and this pay gap eventually spread to all other types of public workers. It also provided the state with a relatively high degree of control over wages in the public sector.

Public pay scales today

In December 2020, the DIHR report examined the relationship between the salary scales of civil servants in 1969 and 2019 and found an overall correlation, demonstrating similar pay gaps today as there were then.

This would not be a problem in itself if the differences in pay between professions initially appeared to be valid and remain so. To determine whether the 1969 and 2019 pay scales were unfavorable to female-dominated occupations, education levels were analyzed. The report found that female-dominated occupations in 1969 were, in general, ranked lower than one might expect based on the corresponding length of schooling, while male-dominated occupations were better placed.

The same trend could be seen in 2019 but, perhaps surprisingly, there was even less correlation between education level and position on the pay scale.

Political action

While the pay gap compared to the 1969 law and equal pay in general have been on the agenda for many years in Denmark, the report has sparked renewed public and political interest in recent weeks. What must be done to resolve a wage gap resulting from a law passed over 50 years ago?

COVID has in Denmark, as elsewhere, highlighted care work as an essential part of society’s infrastructure, creating support and momentum for equal pay activists. The citizens’ petition calls for the repeal of the 1969 law and the introduction of equal pay for all public professional groups.

Long-standing concerns about compensation claims (if the wages of one profession are raised, another group will demand the same) must be overcome – and there is only one pot where they all come from. public sector wages, set by the government.

Politicians have so far tried to shirk responsibility by suggesting that the common method of resolving industrial disputes in Denmark should be used, namely collective bargaining between unions and employers’ federations (which the so-called “social partners”). However, the message from nurses and other care professions is loud and clear: It is up to politicians to do something about an outdated law that has unwittingly echoed through the ages.

This article is co-published with Nordics.info



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