Six myths about gender, family and work life in Norway

Woman and child outdoor in hiking gear.

Two key arenas for understanding the role of gender and the position of women in society are the family and working life.

OsloMet professor Silje Bringsrud Fekjær and journalist Thea Storøy Elnan have written the book Mothers in the Balance. Stories and Facts about Norwegian Mothers and Working Life ("Mamma i balanse. Fortellinger og fakta om norske mødre og arbeidslivet"). The book debunks a number of stubborn myths about gender equality in Norway, while lending support to others. 

Myth 1: Half of all marriages end in divorce

"This is a commonly-held myth, and we hear it so often that we believe it is true," Professor Bringsrud Fekjær explains.

The number of people who get divorced is difficult to count because we can't put together accurate statistics until people's lives are actually over. The best measurement tool is therefore a prognosis. This is not a definitive figure, but the best estimate we can make based on current divorce trends. 

"Almost four of ten couples will divorce if the current divorce pattern remains unchanged. In other words, many people do divorce, but not every other marriage as conventional wisdom would have us believe." 

Myth 2: Both parents in most Norwegian families work full-time

A work-life imbalance in which both parents work full-time is often viewed as the norm in Norway. However, many Norwegian families’ everyday lives do not revolve around full-time work and a traditional nuclear family. 

Only around half of Norwegian families have two parents in full-time work. – Silje Bringsrud Fekjær

"Only around half of Norwegian families have two parents in full-time work," according to the professor. 

Parents work a total of 70 hours or more per week in just over half of families that feature two parents with children under school age. In three out of ten families, the mother works part-time and the father full-time. The mother does not work at all in 10% of Norwegian families, and in an additional 10% of families, the father works part-time or not at all. 

"The ideal that is usually referred to in debates over family policy in Norway is both parents in full-time work. This can create the impression that there are more families that match this description than is actually the case"

Myth 3: Having three children is trendy

"Many people in Norway have the impression that having three children is becoming more and more popular, while the opposite is actually true. Fewer and fewer people are deciding to have a third child," according to Bringsrud Fekjær.

One explanation is that younger women tend to want fewer children than older women. While fifty-year-old women are more likely to say that having more than two children is ideal, twenty-year-olds these days tend to think that two children is enough. Younger women also tend to say the optimal age to have their first child is slightly later than their older counterparts. 

"Incidentally, we found in looking at this question that the families that are most likely to decide to have a third child are those that already have two boys," Bringsrud Fekjær told us. 

Portrait of Silje Bringsrud Fekjær

Myth 4: Women do twice the work that men do

There is a widely held view that many women have two full-time jobs—that is, that they spend the day at work and then go home to do the housework, while men are off for the day when they leave the office.

"This view is not borne out by the data. On average, men and women work the same amount, but there is still an imbalance in the way the work they do is distributed. Women spend more time doing housework and less time at their paid jobs than men do," Bringsrud Fekjær explains.

Statistics Norway’s survey on how Norwegians spend their time in the course of a typical day found that men spend a significant time with their children and on doing things in the home. The typical Norwegian man spends a total of three hours and 28 minutes per day doing housework, a figure which includes household chores, caring for children, home maintenance and shopping. 

Myth 5: Women are paid much less than men for the same work

We often hear that there is a significant, persistent pay gap between women and men in Norway. But does that also apply when men and women are employed in the same type of work and work an equal amount of hours? 

Most of the gender difference between women and men is due to men working more and in occupations with better salaries. – Silje Bringsrud Fekjær

"It’s not that simple," the OsloMet professor explains. "Most of the pay gap between women and men is attributable to men working more and in occupations with better salaries. When we take these differences into account, men "only" earn 7% more than women do." 

However, if we compare what men and women earn per year without looking at how much they work and what they do, the pay difference is huge: Men earn 31 per cent more than women. 

"Which figure gives the most correct or interesting version of the pay differences between women and men depends on what question we ask."

Myth 6: The Norwegian housewife is extinct

Many people believe that Norwegian people's homes are deserted during the day, with the parents off at work and the kids in school. But is that actually the case? 

"It's an exaggeration to say that the housewife is extinct in this country," Professor Bringsrud Fekjær argues. "One in ten Norwegian women still work only a few hours a week or stay at home full-time. At the same time, it would not be accurate to think of them as housewives in the traditional sense, because a significant portion of them do spend some time working outside the home."

About 9% of Norwegian women work fewer than 20 hours a week. The corresponding figure for women who are between the ages of 25 and 59 and are married or live with their partner is 10%. 

"If we compare the situation in Norway with that of neighbouring countries, we see that slightly more women spend most of their time at home in Norway than in Sweden or Denmark."

The notion that housewives are well-to-do women with high levels of education does not stand up to scrutiny either. Quite the contrary—most housewives are women who did not complete upper secondary school. 


Fekjær, S.B. Elnan, T.S.: Mamma i balanse - fortellinger og fakta om norske mødre og arbeidslivet. Humanist forlag (2019).


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Published: 21/08/2019
Last updated: 04/01/2021
Text: Heidi Ertzeid
Photo: Simon Rae / Unsplash and Sonja Balci (portrait)