Closing The Gap

Many of the world’s happiest countries are also the best for women, research shows—here’s why

Krysta Alexa, an American expat raising two kids in Bergen, Norway's second-largest city, says Norway provides "a lot of support" to help women balance motherhood and career.
Photo: Krysta Alexa

Some of the world's happiest countries are also the most gender-equal. 

Iceland, Finland, Sweden, Norway and New Zealand all appear in the top 10 of two key rankings: The World Happiness Report's annual list of the happiest countries in the world and the World Economic Forum's Global Gender Gap Report, which ranks the world's most gender-equal countries.

While neither report has been updated since 2023, these countries have been leading the world toward achieving gender equality and boosting residents' happiness for years, ranking high on both lists since at least 2018. 

The UN Sustainable Development Solutions Network, the organization behind the World Happiness Report, uses six factors to score countries' happiness: social support, income, health, freedom, generosity and absence of corruption. 

The WEF compares countries' gender gaps across four dimensions: economic opportunities; educational attainment; health and survival; and political empowerment. 

It's no coincidence that the world's happiest countries also champion gender equality socially and economically. Residents and workplace experts in these countries say that positive attitudes toward gender equality contribute to the overall well-being of its inhabitants.

How Nordic countries use social policies to promote gender equality and happiness 

In its research, the WEF establishes a clear correlation between social policies, families' happiness and women's career advancement. 

The Nordic countries — Iceland, Sweden, Finland and Norway — have some of the most generous paid leave policies for parents in the world. 

In Norway, new parents are entitled to a total of 49 weeks of leave at full pay or 59 weeks at 80% pay. Of these, 15 weeks are reserved for the mother, 15 weeks are reserved for the father, and the remaining 19 weeks can be shared between them as they see fit.

Krysta Alexa, an American expat raising two kids in Bergen, Norway's second-largest city, is currently on maternity leave with her newborn son (for privacy reasons, she declined to share her last name and the names of her children). 

"Here, I feel like I can have it all, I can balance having a career and being a mother," the 32-year-old, who works in project management, explains. "In other countries, you might have to sideline your career and stay at home with your children because of the costs associated with child care, but in Norway, there is clear support to make your professional life flexible around family." 

Access to affordable child care in some of these countries is another resource Nordic residents credit with boosting women's and families' well-being.

"The burden of being a working mother is made a lot lighter in Sweden as compared to the U.S.," says Linda Akeson McGurk, a Swedish-American writer raising her two daughters in southwest Sweden. McGurk lived in the U.S. for 15 years before moving back to Sweden with her kids in 2018. 

As a single mom, McGurk was worried about finding after-school care for her daughters in Sweden, given how expensive — and in some cases, competitive — it was for them in the U.S. 

But the 45-year-old says she was "pleasantly surprised" at how easy it was to find affordable child care, thanks to the government-subsidized after-school programs Sweden offers for students and their families.

Such policies' positive impact on women and families can't be overstated. In Norway, increased federal financing for daycare has prompted more mothers to return to the workforce, while Sweden has one of the highest percentages of mothers in the workforce of the 38 countries counted by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD).

"All of these different components of social welfare help lighten the load of parenthood and diminish the gap between genders," says McGurk. "That makes it a lot easier to hold on to a career, and a life overall, that you're happy with."

Progress on equal pay could mean happier employees

Some of the happiest countries in the world have introduced measures to shrink the gender wage gap. Workplace experts say such efforts could help workers there feel more secure and satisfied in their careers.

In August, New Zealand's government introduced legislation to require large businesses to report the state of their gender pay gaps in a bid to make workplaces more equitable, Bloomberg reports. While it's unclear when, or if, such legislation might pass, New Zealand already has one of the smallest gender wage gaps in the world, standing at about 14%, according to the WEF.

Six years ago, Iceland introduced a policy that requires organizations with more than 25 employees to prove that they pay men and women in the same roles equally.

While the WEF pegs the wage gap between men and women in Iceland at 21%, other sources, including the OECD, put the gap at closer to 10%.

If companies show they pay their employees equally regardless of gender, they receive a certification. Beginning in 2020, certification became a requirement for employers with 25 or more workers, and companies without certification incur a daily fine, according to Ines Wagner, an affiliated research professor at the Institute for Social Research in Oslo, Norway. 

Wagner studied the impact of Iceland's pay transparency policy on workers' well-being and found that both employees and managers reported higher job satisfaction and trust in the workplace after its implementation. 

"People are generally happier in their jobs if they feel that they are being paid fairly," Wagner, who is also a research professor at the University of Oslo in Norway and a JFK Memorial Fellow at the Center for European Studies at Harvard University, points out. "These policies also set a precedent of encouraging employees to advocate for themselves and collaborate to create a healthier, more equitable work environment."

There are other strategies these countries are using to advance equity in workplaces. Finland, Iceland and Sweden offer free college tuition to their citizens, which can help give people more equal access to high-paid work opportunities, says Claudia Bernhard-Oettel, a professor of organizational psychology at Sweden's Stockholm University.

"Research has shown that the happiest countries are often the countries where the gap between the richest and poorest is the smallest," she explains. "The countries that rank high on both happiness and gender equality have managed to build up a country where people feel that they can succeed and are supported in their educational or professional pursuits."

To be clear, the happiest countries — even the best countries for women — are far from perfect. In Iceland, for example, tens of thousands of women participated in a one-day strike in October to protest the ongoing gender pay gap and gender-based violence Icelandic women face. 

Adds Bernhard-Oettel: "Even if we are further ahead than other countries when it comes to gender equality and happiness, there is still a lot of work to be done." 

Correction: This article has been updated to reflect Ines Wagner's current job title at the Institute for Social Research.

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