With 93 male mayors, and men making up 73 per cent of representatives on municipal councils, Denmark lags sorely behind when it comes to women's representation in local politics. The past ten years have seen a slowdown in development, and the structural reform and merger of municipalities in 2007 was, in total, a setback for gender equality in politics. How may we explain this development, and what can be done to reverse it?

 

By Ann-Dorte Christensen
_________
 

Gender equality in politics is a focus of attention both in Denmark and internationally. In Denmark, we see it in our political parties, a majority of which are now headed by women. And on an international level, it has been clear for years that women are getting involved in the jostling for top posts in the political world. In Germany and Finland women have, with Angela Merkel and Tarja Halonen respectively, succeeded in being elected to the highest office. Elsewhere, they are mounting a credible challenge for presidential posts, witness Ségolene Royal in France and – not least – Hillary Clinton and Sara Palin in the USA. Albeit still charged with gendered metaphors, high-powered female politicians are no longer a rarity.

In affirmation hereof, the increasing number of women holding top posts display both diversity and variety. One has but to consider the differences between Pia Kjærsgaard of Dansk Folkeparti (the Danish People's Party) and Margrethe Vestager of Det Radikale Venstre (the Danish Social-Liberal Party), or to think of the US election, where Hillary Clinton and Sara Palin represent stark differences in form and contents. For our purposes, what is important is that the "gender card" is being played as a central parameter in the struggle for votes in Denmark, in the Nordic countries, and internationally.

In the Nordic countries, women's representation in parliament has increased steadily since World War II, although the Danish numbers have stagnated at just under forty per cent women in later years and we have been overtaken by a number of countries, including Rwanda, Cuba, and Argentina (for more information, see Text 2).

The level of women's political representation in parliament and the ensuing question concerning Denmark's status as a "glass ceiling country" is a crucial issue in terms of both democracy and gender equality politics. But fortunately, it is an issue that is already in the gender-political spotlight. However, I mean to argue that the debate over gender equality in political representation has neglected the local level, and thus has not focused attention to a sufficient degree on the blatant problems of gender equality in women's representation in municipal politics. Firstly, this has meant that the explanations and theories developed around the issue of women's political representation are primarily tied to the national level. And secondly, it has meant that scant attention has been paid to the municipal level of politics.

 

The accepted lower limit for gender distribution on the local level is far lower that on the parliamentary level. There is, for example, little doubt that a national parliament in the Nordic countries seating 73 per cent men (the percentage of male representatives in Danish municipal councils) would be considered a blemish to the idea of the Nordic countries as a region of gender equality. And in all likelihood no Nordic prime minister would dare appoint a government in which women were represented by only 8 per cent (the percentage of female mayors in Denmark). There is a lot of talk about a "glass ceiling" on the parliamentary level, but little attention is paid to the fact that this ceiling is even lower on the municipal level.

This article shines the spotlight on women's representation in municipal politics in Denmark. I shall not focus much attention on general explanations for low levels of women's representation, but shall instead try to pin down the elements that are particularly characteristic of the low levels of representation on the municipal level. I do this by first clarifying the historical development in women's political representation on the municipal level (as compared to the national level). I then look at the debate surrounding the structural reform and merger of municipalities in 2007 and, following on from this, the distribution of municipalities with a relatively "high" percentage of female representatives versus municipalities with a relatively "low" percentage of female representatives in the 2005 municipal elections. Towards the end of the article, I discuss possible explanations and propose strategies going forward.

The Development of Women's Representation in Local Politics.

Table 1: Percentage of women elected to Parliament and to municipal councils in selected years.

 
 

Year

Parliamant

Municipalites

1945/1946

5

3

1964/1962

10

6

1971/1970

17

11

1977/1978

17

18

1984/1985

27

24

1994/1993

34

28

1998/1997

38

27

2001

38

27

2005

38

27

2007

38

 

 

Note for table 1:

  1. In the first column, the numbers to the left of the slash indicate the year of the parliamentary election while the numbers to the right indicate the year of the municipal election.
  2. The percentage of women in Parliament is calculated based on 175 seats. The four seats allocated to Greenland and the Faroe Islands are thus not included.

Source: Borchorst & Dahlerup, 2003, pp. 238, 242, and 244, www.stm.dk

Table 2: Percentage of female government ministers and mayors in selected years.

Year

Government Ministers

Mayors

1947/1946

6

0

1966

11

1

1975/1974

10

1

1982/1981

19

4

1987/1989

14

8

1993

33

10

1998/1997

35

10

2001

28

9

2005

26

7

2007

37

 

 
 

Note for table 2:

  1. In the first column, the numbers to the left of the slash indicate the year for the percentage of female government ministers following parliamentary elections. The number to the right indicates the year for the percentage of female mayors following municipal elections.

Source: Borchorst & Dahlerup, 2003, pp. 240, 241, and 245. Christensen & Knopp Damkjær, 1998, p. 20, www. stm.dk

If we turn our attention first to the development of women's political representation in the Danish Parliament and on municipal councils, table 1 shows that the post-war period saw steady increases in the percentage of women elected to office. Furthermore, developments in Parliament and in the municipalities are nearly parallel up until the mid-1980s, with the percentage of women elected increasing from fewer than five per cent to around twenty-five per cent. However, women's representation in municipal politics has remained around the mid-1980s level (27 per cent), while women's representation in Parliament has continued to increase up until the mid-1990s (38 per cent). From this point onward, both political levels have seen stagnation in women's representation, and expectations of a continual progression have not been met (Christensen and Damkjær, 1998). (1)

Turning our attention next to the percentage of women in the Danish political elite (government ministers and mayors), table 2 shows that throughout post-war Danish history, there has been a higher percentage of female government ministers than of female mayors. Around 33 per cent of the ministers in the Nyrop government (centre-left) were women. That percentage has dropped under the centre-right government. However, this trend has been reversed in the latest cabinet reshuffles, where 37 per cent of the appointed ministers have been women. The percentage of female mayors has been stuck around 9 per cent since the 1990s, and has even dropped following the latest municipal elections (in 2005). At any rate, the structural reform and merger of municipalities has not increased the percentage of female mayors. 92 per cent of the new municipalities are headed by men.

Reviews of women’s representation in Parliament and in municipal elections amplify that with respect to the disparity in the percentage of women in Parliament and in the municipal councils, it is worth noting that voters are more inclined to vote for women in parliamentary elections than in municipal elections. Thus we see that in parliamentary elections since 1971, a higher percentage of women have been elected than the percentage of female candidates who ran. By way of example, 32 per cent of the candidates at the latest parliamentary elections (2007) were women, while 38 per cent of elected representatives were women. The reverse is true for municipal elections, where the percentage of women elected is lower than the percentage of female candidates. In the 2005 municipal elections, 30 per cent of the candidates were women, while 27 per cent of elected representatives were women. This demonstrates that voters are more inclined to vote for women in parliamentary elections than in municipal elections. It also underscores the fact that if we are to change the unequal representation of women, it is not enough to focus on parties' lists of candidates. A broader gender equality focus is also required.

To summarise, women's political representation in Denmark has faced its highest barriers at the local level, as demonstrated by a stagnation in the percentage of women in municipal councils below the 33 per cent mark, and as illustrated with even greater clarity with respect to the gender distribution of mayoral posts, more than 90 per cent of which are held by men. The structural reform has not changed these numbers. To the contrary, it has played a part in cementing the low representation of women on the local level, and has possibly lowered the percentage of female mayors.

In the following, I will take a closer look at the structural reform, and subsequently examine variations between different municipalities in the latest municipal elections (2005) in greater detail.

The Structural Reform and the Merger of Municipalities

The structural reform, which took effect in 2007, is the most significant restructuring of the Danish welfare state in decades. But although the reform had gender-related implications, the question of gender equality was all but entirely absent in the debate over the reform.

At bottom, the government in its work on the structural reform failed to live up to the Danish Sex Discrimination Act. By way of example, the make-up of the Structural Commission was significantly skewed in terms of the ratio of men to women – with thirteen men and one woman – and thus did not live up to the Gender Discrimination Act's stipulations on equal distribution of membership in public committees, commissions etc. Furthermore, the structural reform was gender blind. Gender plays no part in the structural committee report and is not mentioned as a central issue in its recommendations. The Sex Discrimination Act's stipulations on mainstreaming – i.e. that public authorities must promote gender equality in their work and consider the implications for gender equality in all planning and administration – have not been adhered to. Of the original 46 proposed bills, only 4 had been evaluated in terms of gender equality impact. (Information 3 January 2005; Christensen, 2005; Østergaard, 2004)

But why does the structural reform have such far-reaching impact on gender equality? First and foremost because men and women have different levels of association to the public sector – both as citizens, as employees, and as users of services. This is true as citizens because democratic ideals should include an equal presence of men and women in public assemblies on all levels (Teigen & Skjeie, 2003). As employees because more than 70 per cent of public employees at the local level are women, which means that changes to working conditions for public employees will affect women more than men. As users because welfare services are to a great degree still tied to a gendered division of labour, with women closely associated with care work. Furthermore, the political opinions of men and women differ in general, with women typically being more positively inclined towards the welfare state and more sceptical of tax cuts, outsourcing and privatisation than men (Borchorst & Christiansen, 2005; Borchorst & Goul Andersen, 2006).

Returning to the question of citizens, the low representation of women at the local level was actually one of the issues that caught the government's attention in the process of hammering out the structural reform. The Department of Gender Equality launched a study of whether larger municipal units would increase the percentage of women in municipal councils. The study was carried out by Tina Kjær Bach of FREIA, The Gender Research Center at Aalborg University (Bach, 2005). The report centres on a comparative study of developments in women's representation in larger and smaller municipalities in the period from the 1970 municipal reform onward.

When we look more closely at the individual areas, it becomes clear that differences outweigh similarities in the Danish municipalities. Both larger and smaller municipalities stand out for having high, low, and alternating degrees of women's representation. For instance, the report shows that the largest municipalities (more than 50,000 inhabitants) on average have around 40 per cent women in the municipal councils on Zealand, but only 29 per cent in Jutland.

 
There is great variation within this interval. Aarhus – the largest municipality in Jutland, and the second largest in Denmark – has only 23 per cent women on the municipal council, while Horsens – which has just over 50,000 inhabitants – has 56 per cent women. Women's representation in the Aarhus municipal council plummeted from 42 to 23 per cent in the 2001 municipal elections. The smallest group of municipalities (fewer than 8000 inhabitants) also display both remarkably high and remarkably low percentages of women in the municipal councils. Thus Holmsland has 46 per cent female council members, while Læsø is still a so-called black spot with no women in the municipal council (Back, 2005).

In total, the report uncovers a weak nationwide correlation between larger municipalities and a larger percentage of women in the municipal councils. But the calculations also show that it is the municipalities on Zealand, and particularly in the Capital Region of Denmark, that help establish the correlation. It is not so much the number of inhabitants as the degree of urbanisation and the labour force participation rate of women which positively influences women's representation. In other words, merging a number of smaller rural municipalities does not in and of itself impact gender equality. In addition to this point, the report also emphasises that the degree of women's representation is fluctuant and variable, and that it is closely tied to local political culture (Bach 2005).

"High" and "Low" Municipalities Following the 2005 Elections
As previously mentioned, the merger of municipalities in connection with the structural reform did not lead to a higher degree of women's representation in the new municipal councils. The level of representation remained unchanged at 27 per cent. Basing themselves in information from Statistics Denmark, the Women's Council in Denmark prepared a memorandum in 2007 on the percentage of women in the various municipalities (Women's Council in Denmark, 2007). Drawing on this material, I have come up with the following division into "high" and "low" municipalities, where "high" municipalities have more than 40 per cent women in the municipal council and "low" municipalities have 20 per cent or less. (2)

Table 3: "High" and "low" municipalities by region.

As previously mentioned, the merger of municipalities in connection with the structural reform did not lead to a higher degree of women's representation in the new municipal councils. The level of representation remained unchanged at 27 per cent. Basing themselves in information from Statistics Denmark, the Women's Council in Denmark prepared a memorandum in 2007 on the percentage of women in the various municipalities (Women's Council in Denmark, 2007). Drawing on this material, I have come up with the following division into "high" and "low" municipalities, where "high" municipalities have more than 40 per cent women in the municipal council and "low" municipalities have 20 per cent or less. (2)

 

Table 3: "High" and "low" municipalities by region.

As previously mentioned, the merger of municipalities in connection with the structural reform did not lead to a higher degree of women's representation in the new municipal councils. The level of representation remained unchanged at 27 per cent. Basing themselves in information from Statistics Denmark, the Women's Council in Denmark prepared a memorandum in 2007 on the percentage of women in the various municipalities (Women's Council in Denmark, 2007). Drawing on this material, I have come up with the following division into "high" and "low" municipalities, where "high" municipalities have more than 40 per cent women in the municipal council and "low" municipalities have 20 per cent or less. (2)

 

Table 3: "High" and "low" municipalities by region.

As previously mentioned, the merger of municipalities in connection with the structural reform did not lead to a higher degree of women's representation in the new municipal councils. The level of representation remained unchanged at 27 per cent. Basing themselves in information from Statistics Denmark, the Women's Council in Denmark prepared a memorandum in 2007 on the percentage of women in the various municipalities (Women's Council in Denmark, 2007). Drawing on this material, I have come up with the following division into "high" and "low" municipalities, where "high" municipalities have more than 40 per cent women in the municipal council and "low" municipalities have 20 per cent or less. (2)

 

Table 3: "High" and "low" municipalities by region.

As previously mentioned, the merger of municipalities in connection with the structural reform did not lead to a higher degree of women's representation in the new municipal councils. The level of representation remained unchanged at 27 per cent. Basing themselves in information from Statistics Denmark, the Women's Council in Denmark prepared a memorandum in 2007 on the percentage of women in the various municipalities (Women's Council in Denmark, 2007). Drawing on this material, I have come up with the following division into "high" and "low" municipalities, where "high" municipalities have more than 40 per cent women in the municipal council and "low" municipalities have 20 per cent or less. (2)

 

Table 3: "High" and "low" municipalities by region.

As previously mentioned, the merger of municipalities in connection with the structural reform did not lead to a higher degree of women's representation in the new municipal councils. The level of representation remained unchanged at 27 per cent. Basing themselves in information from Statistics Denmark, the Women's Council in Denmark prepared a memorandum in 2007 on the percentage of women in the various municipalities (Women's Council in Denmark, 2007). Drawing on this material, I have come up with the following division into "high" and "low" municipalities, where "high" municipalities have more than 40 per cent women in the municipal council and "low" municipalities have 20 per cent or less. (2)

 

Table 3: "High" and "low" municipalities by region.

As previously mentioned, the merger of municipalities in connection with the structural reform did not lead to a higher degree of women's representation in the new municipal councils. The level of representation remained unchanged at 27 per cent. Basing themselves in information from Statistics Denmark, the Women's Council in Denmark prepared a memorandum in 2007 on the percentage of women in the various municipalities (Women's Council in Denmark, 2007). Drawing on this material, I have come up with the following division into "high" and "low" municipalities, where "high" municipalities have more than 40 per cent women in the municipal council and "low" municipalities have 20 per cent or less. (2)

 

Table 3: "High" and "low" municipalities by region.

As previously mentioned, the merger of municipalities in connection with the structural reform did not lead to a higher degree of women's representation in the new municipal councils. The level of representation remained unchanged at 27 per cent. Basing themselves in information from Statistics Denmark, the Women's Council in Denmark prepared a memorandum in 2007 on the percentage of women in the various municipalities (Women's Council in Denmark, 2007). Drawing on this material, I have come up with the following division into "high" and "low" municipalities, where "high" municipalities have more than 40 per cent women in the municipal council and "low" municipalities have 20 per cent or less. (2)

 

Table 3: "High" and "low" municipalities by region.

As previously mentioned, the merger of municipalities in connection with the structural reform did not lead to a higher degree of women's representation in the new municipal councils. The level of representation remained unchanged at 27 per cent. Basing themselves in information from Statistics Denmark, the Women's Council in Denmark prepared a memorandum in 2007 on the percentage of women in the various municipalities (Women's Council in Denmark, 2007). Drawing on this material, I have come up with the following division into "high" and "low" municipalities, where "high" municipalities have more than 40 per cent women in the municipal council and "low" municipalities have 20 per cent or less. (2)

 

Table 3: "High" and "low" municipalities by region.

As previously mentioned, the merger of municipalities in connection with the structural reform did not lead to a higher degree of women's representation in the new municipal councils. The level of representation remained unchanged at 27 per cent. Basing themselves in information from Statistics Denmark, the Women's Council in Denmark prepared a memorandum in 2007 on the percentage of women in the various municipalities (Women's Council in Denmark, 2007). Drawing on this material, I have come up with the following division into "high" and "low" municipalities, where "high" municipalities have more than 40 per cent women in the municipal council and "low" municipalities have 20 per cent or less. (2)

 

Table 3: "High" and "low" municipalities by region.

As previously mentioned, the merger of municipalities in connection with the structural reform did not lead to a higher degree of women's representation in the new municipal councils. The level of representation remained unchanged at 27 per cent. Basing themselves in information from Statistics Denmark, the Women's Council in Denmark prepared a memorandum in 2007 on the percentage of women in the various municipalities (Women's Council in Denmark, 2007). Drawing on this material, I have come up with the following division into "high" and "low" municipalities, where "high" municipalities have more than 40 per cent women in the municipal council and "low" municipalities have 20 per cent or less. (2)

 

Table 3: "High" and "low" municipalities by region.

As previously mentioned, the merger of municipalities in connection with the structural reform did not lead to a higher degree of women's representation in the new municipal councils. The level of representation remained unchanged at 27 per cent. Basing themselves in information from Statistics Denmark, the Women's Council in Denmark prepared a memorandum in 2007 on the percentage of women in the various municipalities (Women's Council in Denmark, 2007). Drawing on this material, I have come up with the following division into "high" and "low" municipalities, where "high" municipalities have more than 40 per cent women in the municipal council and "low" municipalities have 20 per cent or less. (2)

 

Table 3: "High" and "low" municipalities by region.

 

In concurrence with Bach's study, Table 3 shows that "high" percentages of women in the municipal councils are primarily found in the Capital Region of Denmark. It sticks out that this region is the only one with more than three "high" municipalities, and is also the only region with just one "low" municipality (Albertslund). The regions west of the Great Belt have a marked overrepresentation of municipalities with "low" women's representation. For instance, the Region of Southern Denmark has a whopping ten "low" municipalities (e.g. Esbjerg, Kolding and Middelfart), while the North Denmark Region sticks out by having no "high" municipalities. Beside these very general trends, a few other things jump out at the reader of Table 3.

Firstly, it is worth emphasising that the large municipalities (with the exception of Copenhagen) in general have a fairly low degree of women's representation despite being relatively urbanised. Thus, neither Aalborg nor Odense nor Aarhus make the cut for the category of "high" women's representation. In Aalborg, the percentage of women in the municipal council is 36, in Odense it is 31, and in Aarhus it is only 23. Aarhus is a particularly interesting case because the percentage of women in the municipal council plummeted to its lowest level in more than twenty years following the 2005 elections. Women's representation in the Aarhus municipal council topped at 42 per cent the 1997 elections, but dropped considerably, to 23 per cent, in the 2001 elections.

In an apparent paradox, the 2005 elections also saw Louise Gade of Venstre (The Liberal Party of Denmark) take over as mayor. Although touted as a milestone of gender equality in politics, the first female mayor of Aarhus was appointed following an election that had also seen a significant drop-off in women's representation in the municipal council at large. It is noteworthy that this marked drop did not occasion much debate, especially considering the fact that Aarhus had previously had a relatively "high" degree of women's representation and a focus on municipal gender equality (Bach, 2004, Dahlerup, 2003).

Secondly, it is worth emphasising municipalities with a relatively "high" percentage of women in the municipal council. Here, Gentofte Municipality sticks out: with 53 per cent women, it is the only municipality in Denmark where women outnumber men in the municipal council. Following the 2001 elections, six municipalities had a female majority. One of these was Horsens. Horsens also stands out in terms of the most recent election (2005). It is the municipality with the highest percentage of women in the council, 48 per cent, outside of the Capital Region of Denmark.

Horsens standing out with a relatively high percentage of women is nothing new. The percentage of women in the Horsens municipal council has, with the exception of a drop-off in 1974, increased steadily. Horsens has often been highlighted as a town that shines the spotlight on gender and gender equality. For instance, resourceful groups of "redstockings" put women's politics on the agenda back in the 1970s and later contributed to a relatively high degree of institutionalisation in the form e.g. of municipal gender equality policies (Dahlerup, 1998).

Although Horsens and Aarhus were both among the first Danish municipalities to establish gender equality committees, vast differences have apparently made themselves felt when it comes to maintaining focus on gender equality policy. Firstly, the two cases show that a connection between women politicians taking top posts and the more general representation of women in the municipal council does not necessarily exist. Secondly, that it is important to maintain a debate about, and push for, municipal gender equality. Drude Dahlerup has called this the necessity of maintaining an argument of exclusion – that is, an argument for a more equal representation (as opposed e.g. to arguments that women have other priorities in life than men) (Dahlerup, 2001).

All in all, we may conclude that women's representation on the municipal level has stagnated at a low level of less than 33 per cent. The extensive structural reform with its new distribution of duties and merger of municipalities has done nothing to change this. On the contrary, the already low percentage of female mayors has now dropped to seven – the lowest ratio in more than 25 years. Studies show that there is a tendency that the number of inhabitants and the degree of urbanisation in a municipality may favour a higher percentage of women in the municipal council.

However, this tendency is based mostly on the Capital Region of Denmark, whereas other major cities – such as Aarhus – demonstrate just how unstable and tied to local political culture and developments, women's representation can be. The results thus also indicate that establishing a local focus and debate on gender equality – in the individual municipalities – is an important parameter for women's political representation. This focus of the gender equality effort was overlooked in the debate over the structural reform. Instead, we must conclude that gender equality on the municipal level looks even more dismal following the reform, with 73 percent of municipal council members and 93 percent of mayors being men.
 

Playing Catch-Up, Male Power Hierarchies, or Women Opting Out?

How are we to explain this development? In general, researchers have proposed competing explanations for women's lack of political representation. In Text 2 Drude Dahlerup presents the four most popular theories: the theories of gender power, theories of playing catch-up, theories of satiation, and theories of the discursive framework/the significance of the women's movement. There is no doubt that these theories may furnish us with elements that go a long way towards explaining the lack of gender equality in municipal politics. Christensen & Damkjær (1998) and Bach (2005) outline another typology, which makes a distinction between the marginalisation hypothesis, which emphasises gender power and the continued subordination of women when it comes to political representation, and the catch-up hypothesis, which claims that it takes time for women – as a newly mobilised group – to become fully integrated into the political sphere. Christensen & Damkjær argue that neither the marginalisation hypothesis nor the catch-up hypothesis is capable of furnishing satisfactory explanations. This is first and foremost due to the fact that general and systemic explanations are not applicable to this particular field. "Instead, a broad and multivalent framework for interpretation capable of accommodating the complexity that characterises the field must be established" (p. 32).

Today – ten years later – I would still argue for the necessity of developing more complex explanations. These would have to, on the one hand, be capable of considering the variation between different political arenas (e.g. the EU, national parliaments, and municipal councils), and, on the other, be sensitive to changes which are often asynchronous (for instance, the percentage of women increases in some areas, while it decreases in others).

In light of this, I will, by way of rounding off, discuss some of the different explanations – not in terms of general or systemic interpretations, but specifically tied to the outlined developments in women's representation in local politics in Denmark.

In Norway, studies have shown that there is a particular element of catch-up in women's political integration on the municipal level, one of the explanations for which is that the local level often involves a more traditional outlook on relationships between the sexes (Raaum, 1995). There is no doubt that some of the roadblocks that women come up against may be explained by local gender-stereotypical ideas. The analysis in the above of the relationship between "high" and "low" municipalities shows that there seems to be particular problems involved in gender equality in areas west of the Great Belt. On the other hand, the analysis also shows that the second-largest city in Denmark, Aarhus, has developed severe problems with gender equality even after having previously had a relatively positive gender equality status. This cannot be explained by mechanisms of cultural catch-up, but rather, it would seem, by a shift from a strong to a weak discourse of gender equality.

There is no way around power and influence if we are to explain such levels of male overrepresentation in local officeholders. The "birds of a feather"-mechanism seems to be alive and kicking in areas with strong, male-dominated local hierarchies of power. It would seems that these hierarchies of power armed themselves for the struggle of hanging on to existing positions of power in the face of the coming structural reform and merger of municipalities. This became clear, for instance, in the debate over the merger of municipalities, where existing municipalities clearly worked diligently to maintain or increase their influence. The fact that there were now fewer seats in municipal councils, and fewer mayoral positions, to vie for did not seem to favour women's representation. Arguments were rarely tied to gender, centering instead on parties and localities.

A third explanation that is important in any attempt to understand the latest developments is the question of discursive frameworks. As mentioned, gender and gender equality were overlooked in the debate over the structural reform. The question was not put on the agenda "from the top down" in connection with the work of the structural commission, and the government paid little attention to it. Likewise, the degree to which gender and gender equality was put on the agenda "from the bottom up" – that is, in the municipalities and in the political parties, for instance in election meetings and when making up lists of candidates – seems random and sporadic.

Finally, I should like to mention a fourth issue, which I think has been overlooked in trying to explain the unequal representation of men and women in local politics: the question of differences in the local participation profiles of men and women. Several studies have shown significant differences in men's and women's local participation profiles. While men take part in election meetings leading up to municipal elections and participate in meetings on questions of local and municipal politics to a greater degree than women, it seems that women participate in meetings in local institutions such as schools and day care centres to a greater degree than men. Women are thus interested in local politics, but appear to concentrate their efforts and activities outside the formal political system. Furthermore, working conditions in municipal politics constitute a gendered barrier. Unlike parliamentary politics, municipal politics is not a full-time job, but something you undertake in your "free time" – a free time which women (and men with young children) have a hard time finding in their packed day to day lives. In other words, it would seem that local political culture may often be based on an outdated and traditional division of labour between the sexes, which is more amenable to the everyday lives and family responsibilities of older men. Furthermore, women (and particularly young women) have a very low level of party membership at less than ten per cent. In other words, there's no great female potential poised to challenge the men on local electoral lists (Christensen & Siim, 2001; Christensen & Tobiasen, 2007).

By way of summing up, I would like to point out that the low percentage of women in municipal councils and mayoral positions must be explained by an interplay of different factors. Issues of catch-up may, doubtless, be part of the picture in some municipalities, but they are not the whole explanation. It would seem that the combination of local power hierarchies vying to maintain existing positions in the face of the structural reform and merger of municipalities combined with a lack of focus on policies of gender equality has played a decisive role. In those cases where gender equality made it on to the agenda, it has mostly been kept on a symbolic level.

In the words of Groucho Marx:
"Pardon me , Madam, I would offer you my chair, were it not for the fact that I’m sitting on it myself!"

Strategies and the Road Ahead

It looks like it will take a special effort to channel the local commitment shown by women into municipal politics. It would make sense to concentrate on:

  1. Emphasising that municipal politics is very much about gender.There is need of a more substantive political discussion of developments in the municipalities in later years, including a look at the gender-specific consequences for both users and employees. It is not enough to speak of changed structures and new authority – we must speak of fundamental changes in welfare and social policy. We should not be fooled by talk of closeness and inclusiveness or quality assurance, but should instead render visible the fact that this could mean privatisation and worse and less professional competence
  2. Shining the spotlight on gender equality and gender balance. It is imperative that we render gender imbalances visible and debate gender balance as a democratic ideal. On a parliamentary level, democratic assemblies with a greatly skewed gender balance are no longer legitimate, but on the municipal level, we need an increased focus on women's right to be represented in public assemblies. We also need a discussion on local differences, since ideals and demands for gender balance should not apply east of the Great Belt.
  3. Having a critical discussion of political culture in the parties. The question here is whether the parties are actively working to put women on the ballot in municipal elections. Are women getting good spots on the ballot, or are they still mostly ornamental? Are the parties doing enough with respect to clearly stating that both sexes are needed in local democracy? We also need to concentrate more on the importance of voting for women.
  4. Working conditions in local politics. What is the meeting culture like, and is it based on an "old boys' network" and the everyday lives of men? Could the meeting hours be changed to better chime with a responsible family life with children? Should municipal politicians earn a wage so that they may be released from their jobs? We need to rid ourselves altogether of the idea that municipal politicians are people who have a woman to take care of the "home front".
  5. Women's organisations and women's politics networks. The women's organisations and the women's politics networks face an important task developing collective strategies that will prompt women to run for office and get elected. It is necessary to work together across party lines to jointly foster debate and action on getting more women, with all the diversity and variation they display across the political spectrum, into municipal politics. 

All told, the challenge going forward is to emphasise that a central part of the struggle to preserve and develop the welfare society in coming years is going to take place on the municipal level. And these important discussions and decisions should not be placed in the hands of municipal councils where more than 70 per cent of the members are men, nor of mayors of which more than 90 per cent are men.

Notes
  1. For the sake of clarity, I have not included the level of county council districts (14 local authorities at a higher level than municipalities. Replaced in the 2007 structural reform by 5 regions). Here, too, the percentage of women has stagnated at around 30 per cent. In 2001, it dropped to 27 per cent, but in 2005 (with the shift to regional councils) surged to 34 per cent.
  2. The terms "high" and "low" are relative. Thus, I have defined a "high" representation of women as one being above 40 per cent not because 40 per cent in and of itself is considered a "high" or "sufficient" degree of women's representation, but because it is significantly higher than the 27 per cent average. 

Appendiks

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