In 2016, I think we have all found ourselves caught like deer in the headlights; momentarily frozen by newsfeeds scaling new heights of heartbreaking and horrifying scenarios.

The sufferings in Syria. Millions of refugees. Terror worldwide and in the heart of our own European everyday life. Brexit and a winged EU. The election of Trump and new, scary superpower constellations. We’ve had to pull ourselves together and away from the newsfeeds, out in the streets to demonstrate or to work, trying to make a positive difference whenever and wherever possible.

One of our strengths in the Nordic countries is leading the way for gender equality. In November, the Nordic ministers of labour met in Helsinki at a Global Gender Dialogue initiated by the International Labour Organisation (ILO) and the Nordic Council of Ministers. Representatives from the whole world participated in the discussions and left with a clear conclusion and vision: “completely closing the gender gap is the way forward”.

The world needs balance. And gender equality is one of the stabilising factors.

Gender equality in the Canon of Danish Art and Culture

That was also the message when Copenhagen had the honour of hosting the Women Deliver conference – the world’s largest global conference with focus on women’s and girls’ health, rights and well-being. When we invest in girls and women, everybody wins. Politicians Kristian Jensen, Bertel Haarder and Mogens Lykketoft gave fervent gender equality speeches during the week. And ahead of the conference Bertel Haarder said that “today we’re all feminists”.

And yet … this is not the case for Karen Ellemann, our new minister for equal opportunities. Something which she made very clear when she took over as minister for equal opportunities and Nordic cooperation and Kristian Jensen handed her the international bestseller “We Should All Be Feminists” by the writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichies. A book which is distributed as a gift to all 16-year-old second grade high school students in Sweden to encourage teachers to integrate it into their teaching and facilitate discussions in the classrooms.

“There is a reason why Sweden is no. 24 when it comes to women in management in the World Economic Forum’s annual gender gap report while Denmark is number 78…”

Moreover, the Swedish government has declared that they’re all feminists and that gender equality is decisive for the government’s policy course. There is a reason why Sweden is no. 24 when it comes to women in management in the World Economic Forum’s annual gender gap report while Denmark is number 78.

And just to be clear: the definition of feminism is “the ideology of political, economic and social gender equality”. Incidentally, gender equality is chosen as one of Denmark’s ten central values in the new canon of Danish culture.

But as gender equality expert Lynn Roseberry wrote in her blog recently, Danes (seemingly) think gender equality is an important value in Danish culture, but action is lacking. We need to work for it. Every single day.

We cheat ourselves if we don’t acknowledge that we have a long way to go. This past year, for instance, marked the 40-year anniversary of a Danish equal pay act, which has not been implemented. It’s a documented fact that Danish men are the worst off in terms of entitlement to paid parental leave in the Nordic countries. Moreover, in 2016 we saw many examples of debate panels and committees made up exclusively of men, and the myth that women decline to take part in such forums was punctured. A survey made by the debate programme Deadline at the Danish broadcasting channel DR2 revealed that the reason why women make up only 25 per cent of the participants in debate programmes is rather due to the fact that they are not asked at all.

In Denmark, we are generally falling significantly behind our Nordic neighbours when it comes to gender equality. Whereas they are all among the top five countries in the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Index, Denmark has plummeted to number 19. For 74 countries worldwide, gender equality deteriorated in 2016 measured by the parameters used internationally – including Denmark.

The year brought many reminders that progress and equality do not happen automatically. Both in Denmark and internationally, powers are working against gender equality and even trying to wreck what has already been achieved. We can only make progress if we continue to struggle. But, sadly, lack of insight and acknowledgement is obstructing the necessary development.

Anything but ideal

Minister of Justice Søren Pape very clearly illustrated one of the largest barriers to gender equality – that privilege are invisible to those who have it– when he commented on the new government having put together five government committees with 27 members without finding a single qualified woman. “We don’t think that politics is about gender at all … we’ve not spent a second on this”, he explained.

“But the fact is simply that gender plays a role in virtually all contexts and systems.”

In an ideal world, you could agree with Søren Pape; that gender is not relevant. But the fact is simply that gender plays a role in virtually all contexts and systems.  Including two of the government’s key policy measures in 2016. Statistically, the cap on social security cash benefits hits women harder than men. And statistically more men than women benefit from the government’s top-bracket tax cuts.

And to top things off, the government this year set up committees that will underperform relative to the potential at Christiansborg. Gender-balanced and diverse teams always outperform more homogeneous teams. This is widely recognised based on extensive research (A clear winner formula: shake the bag and create a better gender balance [only in Danish]). And in recent years it has become an equally well-documented fact that diversity and gender balance have a positive effect on the bottom line. In early 2016, researchers from the think tank The Peterson Institute for International Economics presented their conclusion from a survey of as many as 22,000 companies from 91 countries. Companies with a management team of 30 per cent women deliver profits that are 6 per cent higher – according to the Forbes article: “Business Gender Diversity Solved: More Women Means More Profits”. As we have described in a previous blog post, McKinsey’s comprehensive global gender equality research in 2015 showed that Denmark could potentially boost GDP by 9 per cent or DKK 167bn annually if we could match the gender equality progress of Iceland.

The government has just revised down its growth forecast for the Danish economy once more. And as early as November 2015, the government launched a plan for growth and development throughout Denmark with more than 100 initiatives, of which many were implemented in 2016 and even more are underway. None of them is about the potential of gender balance. This seems incomprehensible.

A moon landing that crashed

When Hillary Clinton was elected as the first-ever woman presidential candidate , it was considered a victory for women as groundbreaking as “a moon landing for women”. But the landing was aborted with the election of Trump. It became a manifestation of how low you can go and how big you can become on the global power arena despite blatant discrimination of women, racism and sexism. The most frequently shared tweet was a sentence from Hillary Clinton’s concession speech; “to all the little girls watching … never doubt that you are valuable and powerful and deserving of every chance and opportunity in the world”. The message is fine, but it’s sad that it’s still necessary to repeat it.

“When Hillary Clinton was elected as the first-ever woman presidential candidate , it was considered a victory for women as groundbreaking as “a moon landing for women”.”

A survey conducted in the US shows that 76 per cent of the female respondents feel worse about their career prospects after the election of Trump as the coming US president. Only 8 per cent expect that their prospects have improved. There is no doubt that the election of Trump has caused a set-back for the gender balance agenda in the US, and that this effect will affect the countries that take their cues from the US.  But maybe there is a silver lining on an otherwise dark cloud. Maybe the election of Trump will be the necessary catalyst for spotlighting the existing challenges of sexism, racism and gender discrimination, improving the chances of taking real action on them.

For instance, US athletes clearly put their foot down when Trump defended his own sexually demeaning and aggressive comments about women as “locker room talk” Everywhere in the US men and women are coming forward to speak against racism, sexism and xenophobia. People who clearly advocate diversity, equality and inclusion. And perhaps we should all be inspired by the 100-year-old famous quote from union activist and songwriter Joe Hill: “don’t waste any time mourning – organise!”

“An important message that I’ll take with me from 2016 was Michelle Obama’s words of wisdom to her daughters: “when they go low, we go high”.”

We have to crack the code for a more gender-balanced world. This is one of the cornerstones for peace and sustainable development worldwide; something which is also reflected in the UN’s decision to make gender equality number 5 out of its 17 new sustainable development goals.

Unfortunately, 2016 was a year when we felt the weight of Sheryl Sandberg’s words at the World Economic Forum in Davos at the beginning of the year: “men still run the world – and it’s not going very well!” Gender equality is a big and important issue, and we in the Nordic countries have an extra obligation to take the lead and carry it forward. We must not be blinded and freeze in the glare of the massive challenges.

An important message that I’ll take with me from 2016 was Michelle Obama’s words of wisdom to her daughters: “when they go low, we go high”. In 2017, let’s move up to a level where we work for improved diversity, gender equality and inclusion with dignity and positive energy. Happy New Year!