The pursuit of equality - Income inequality rooted in Denmark’s labour laws

The pursuit of equality - Income inequality rooted in Denmark’s labour laws
Woman holds a sign in the 'March4women' protest against gender pay gap in London, UK (SkyNews)

Lara Hamidi
Researcher for ImpACT International

Income inequality and the gender pay gap has been a cause of distress across many countries and is an issue that is far from being addressed with the urgency it needs. Many of these problems are related to outdated labour laws, unwillingness to reform, and exhaustive bureaucratic procedures, under such processes reforms have been lost in a system that prioritises complex regulations over efficiency and results.

Public sector employees – victims of horizontal sexism

Although the Nordic countries have been recognised for their inclusive labour market, an example of the gender pay gap lies within Denmark's outdated labour laws that leave public sector employees vulnerable to wage capping, and unequal pay, whilst preventing female employees from receiving the same pay as their male counterparts. This is partly due to the horizontal segregation taking place in the market where women and men occupy different professions. This can be seen as most women have taken employment in the public sector whilst male employees will dominate the private sector regardless of education. This trend has created the gender pay gap because the public sector usually pays less than the private sector.

Denmark's outdated labour laws that leave public sector employees vulnerable to wage capping, and unequal pay, whilst preventing female employees from receiving the same pay as their male counterparts.

This issue has been further exacerbated with COVID-19 and the treatment of nurses and healthcare workers, where additional working hours and employment pressure was unprecedented. However, the Danish government did not alleviate this pressure. Nurses receive wages that account for 10 to 20% less than male-dominated positions.

The Danish government decided to sacrifice workers’ rights and gender equity when choosing to place public sector employees on a wage scale which ultimately was done to create more equality within the labour market and greater uniformity of employment conditions. Although the wage scale-built salary increases of 2.75% for the lowest salary bracket and a 5.5% increase for the highest-earning brackets, public sectors dominated by female employees usually fell at the lowest-earning bracket. This limited bracket of salary increases has left female-dominated jobs at a disadvantage. Overall, the wage level for those in this profession is deliberately capped at a low rate.

When investigations were conducted on the correlation between levels of education and wages of public sector workers it was found that the system is inherently embedded with gender roles. These perceived female professions, regardless of their length and level of education, were still placed at a lower wage bracket than that of male professions with similar levels of education.

Furthermore, under the previous Civil Servant Act of 1919, an increase in pay for one group in the public sector would lead to collective bargaining demands from other employee groups. This has made the Danish government even more reluctant to reform its laws.

What is the Public Servant Reform Act of 1969?

Concerns over the gender pay gap in Denmark brought the Public Servant Reform Act of 1969 into law in the hope of paving the way for a more equal labour market. This act had allocated employment sectors that are commonly dominated by female employees, such as nurse work, primary education, and infant care, to lower wages than jobs that may have been seen as more male-dominated such as firemen, police work or higher education.

This reform law was introduced by the state to create a labour market that would work in conjunction with the growth of the welfare state in the 1960s. At the time this law was implemented to modernize the employment process. However, with over 53 years of this law in place, its modernizing effect is no longer applicable due to the evolving nature of the global labour market and international labour regulations. Thus, this modernizing purpose can no longer be used as a justification for the maintenance of the law. 

This act has been criticized by many and managed to reach over 50,000 signatures in the citizen's petition in just 8 days, allowing it to be discussed in the Danish parliament. Initially, this act was introduced to give the state more control over wage fluctuations. However, this current outdated law contradicts the initial purpose of its implementation. Denmark's social democratic government justifies this law by stating that the setting of salaries is left to the labour market and not the state.


The undervaluation of women in Denmark’s public sector should be addressed with a series of policy reforms including the review of outdated laws such as the Public Servant Reform Act of 1969 which has been restricting the advancement in employment rights for many Danish nurses and other female-dominated professions. The removal or reform of this act will ultimately remove the wage hierarchy which has placed employees in the public sector on 40 different pay grades, making it harder to monitor and mitigate the consequences of unequal pay.

The closing of the gender pay gap has been a cause for concern for many international organizations and international policy documents such as that of the Equal Remuneration Convention (No. 100) of 1951 that called for equal remuneration for men and women for work of equal value. Yet, as voiced by the International Labour Organisation (ILO), if current trends prevail, it may take up to 70 years for the gender pay gap to close (ILO, 2016).

Collective bargaining should be respected and followed to allow employees in the lower wage bracket to vocalize their concerns regarding the gender pay gap and pay inequality.

Denmark’s wage scale should be reviewed to allow a thorough evaluation of an employee's educational background rather than capping employees with different capabilities at the same wage bracket. This will ensure that employees in the public sector, specifically in female-dominated professions, can have a fair evaluation of skills and be provided with equal pay. There should be a relationship between the level of education and employees placed on Denmark’s wage scale.


Rubery, J. and Koukiadaki, A., 2016. Closing the gender pay gap: A review of the issues, policy mechanisms and international evidence. [online] Available at: [Accessed 5 February 2022].

Sørensen, A., 2019. Gender segregation in the Nordic labour market. [online] Available at: [Accessed 7 February 2022].

Sorensen, A., 2021. Unequal pay in Denmark: The impact of an outdated law. [online] Available at: [Accessed 7 February 2022].


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