“This year my colleague did something really bitchy to us: she got pregnant” says the guy sitting across the dinner table in my French New Year’s Eve 2014. I almost choked on my slice of camembert. I’ve been living in Norway for 4 years and never have I ever heard such negative comments associated with pregnancy. “She left for 3 months on maternity leave. I mean seriously! And then you wonder why employers don’t want to hire women in their 30’s”. This did not seem to shock anyone around the dinner table, including a guy with his baby son in his arms and my 8-month pregnant friend.
“She just leaves us like that, and then what are we supposed to do?”. I suggested a shy “Replace her until she comes back?” (I know, I have such revolutionary ideas sometimes). And I added that in my Norwegian office, at least one person goes on a parental leave every year, and for much more than 3 months. The person is replaced and comes back after the leave and everything goes quite smoothly. And, as both women AND men take a leave, employers can’t think while hiring someone that women are more likely to take a leave as both parents will take one anyway. This sounded very foreign, and not at all as a practical solution to him.
“But it takes time and energy to replace someone, the guy adds. She should have warned us that she was trying to get pregnant so we would have time to plan for this. It was quite unprofessional of her”. I can only imagine the solution to this “unprofessionalism”: an update at staff meetings where women report on a monthly basis whether they are planning on getting pregnant, the date of their last periods and an ultrasound picture if necessary. Now my turn to say…seriously?
Before living in Norway, and previously in Denmark, I had never really realised how bad it is to be a woman outside of Scandinavia. Of course I was experiencing sexism on a daily basis in France. Whether it was at work (I had a student job in a bakery) where my boss was making comments about how he had the same “éclair au café” in his pants if I was ever interested in seeing it. In the metro, where I had to make sure I wasn’t touching any man around because I had found myself several times with men taking an accidental light touch as an invitation to put their hand on my bum or even between my legs. You can imagine how hard it is to figure out whose hand it was when you are in a Parisian metro totally packed. When going out at night, I had to re-think what to wear depending on whether I would walk home alone later that night. Then I could not wear a skirt or a dress, because I would then be “asking for it”. I thought about all this on a daily basis without realising how much space it was taking, and that it doesn’t have to be this way.
“Men are just like that, they can’t help it” is the common mantra one hears regularly when discussing daily sexism in France. They have “needs” women don’t have (hum). Being attracted to a person walking passed you in the street or a colleague is one thing, but showing it with whistling or kissing sounds, insults, or jokes about your breasts is something quite different. In France this happens even in Parliement where female MPs are regularly harassed. Last year a female MP was hushed because wearing a dress, and another one, this year, had to go through her speech with chicken sounds made by another (male) MP.
Strangely enough in Norway no one seems to accept such attitude, whether it is in the street, at work or in politics. Men seem to actually respect women, and those who don’t get huge social blame for it. Colleagues look at you in the eyes, not in the breasts, and female co-workers are considered as equals, not as coffee and photocopy machines. My first day at work in my Norwegian job my boss even asked for my opinion. As it was the first time in my working life that had happened, I looked around to make sure he was actually talking to me. Even when I go out I don’t consider anymore what to wear depending on whether I will walk home alone. Sexism has stopped colonizing my everyday thoughts.
Of course most French or other non-Scandinavian men also respect women, but it is so socially accepted not to that the situation becomes unbearable. Women aren’t always the ones criticizing this situation. Like my 8-month pregnant friend, in the same dinner, who thought it was a normal reaction for her employer not to renew her contract when learning about her pregnancy. Laws exist but are rarely followed, and sexist comments are “jokes” that women like me don’t laugh at because of a lack of sense of humour.
I know that the other way around, there is also everyday sexism in Norway, as well as late night rapes and domestic violence. But we are talking about a completely different league here.
No matter how much I love my country, I realise now I am not ready to leave the joys of being a woman in Norway for any lower equality standard (that probably means I can never move away from this country). I want to continue seeing my male colleagues leave work early to pick up their kids, and hear only congratulations when a colleague is pregnant. I am not really sure what happened here for Vikings to become equality champions where men take months off to push their kids prams, but it all sounds good to me. I respect all of those, women and men, who fought and continue to fight for gender equality in Norway. If you aren’t sure how good this is, take a plane. I can tell you you have come a long way and I am so glad to be part of it!
This article was published in Aftenposten under the title De likestilte vikingene.