The Nordic countries are widely regarded as world leaders in gender equality. In the Global Gender Gap Index, the Nordic nations are top performers. Iceland leads the list, followed by Norway, Finland, and Sweden in second, third, and fifth places, respectively. Denmark ranks lowest in 14th place, but still considerably higher than the United States, which is in 49th place.

A common view is that Nordic gender equality reflects the social welfare policies of these nations. Indeed, Nordic governments advertise their welfare systems as a recipe for gender equality and even promote these policies in the United States for that reason. Several other European countries have followed in Norway’s tracks by legislating gender quotas for board of director positions in publicly traded firms. Although the political climate in the United States is not ripe for quotas, that policy does lie on the horizon.

This analysis argues that gender quotas have been ineffective and that several aspects of Nordic social policies have negatively affected women’s career progress and even contributed to a glass ceiling. The glass ceiling is a metaphor for the barriers women face in reaching leadership positions.

While Nordic societies are indeed role models when it comes to gender equality, this equality stretches back centuries before the modern welfare state and reflects traditional Nordic culture.