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The Women-Friendly Welfare States Revisited

  • Aalborg University Copenhagen Denmark


The concept of the women-friendly welfare states, introduced by the Norwegian political scientist Helga Maria Hernes in 1987, has had a considerable influence on welfare theory and research. In this article the normative basis and the analytical potential of the concept are explored. The concept can be criticized for its bias towards social democratic welfare states, which has challenged its analytical potential. Instead of abandoning it altogether, the authors suggest that an alternative could be to reformulate and contextualize the concept with gender equality as the key notion. The reformulation would make it possible to distinguish analytically between women-friendliness and policies that promote gender equality between different dimensions of welfare, and between civil and political from social aspects of citizenship.
Woman-friendly Policies and State Feminism:
Theorising Scandinavian Gender Equality
Anette Borchorst and Birte Siim
Social equality became a core value of the Scandinavian countries (comprising Sweden,
Norway and Danmark) during the twentieth century, and the welfare states were
expanded due to broad compromises between the political parties supported by the
social partners. The social democratic parties led the way towards the adoption of
redistribution policies aimed at alleviating class differences. Feminist organisations argued
for gender equality with a certain success, and in the 1970s and 1980s, when many forces
pulled in the direction of integrating women into the labour force, a number of policies
were adopted to strengthen women’s access to the public sphere. This development was
conceptualized as ‘a passion for equality.’ and, along the same lines, Norwegian political
scientist Helga Hernes concluded that the Scandinavian welfare states might become
“woman-friendly” and “state feminist.” (1987, 9-29). She emphasised that these countries
adopted welfare policies, such as generous parental leave schemes and extensive public
care services for children and the elderly, and had a relatively high political representation
of women that allowed them to influence political decisions. Our overall concern in this
article is to reflect upon the potential of Hernes’ ideas for understanding the far-reaching
changes in the Scandinavian gendered welfare policy models and their normative value as
visions of gender equality. In the first part, we compare Hernes’ concepts with other
theoretical approaches such as Yvonne Hirdman’s theory of the gender system and
Nancy Fraser’s normative theory of justice. We discuss the underlying theoretical,
political and normative assumptions about gender equality and social justice related to
dimensions such as redistribution, recognition and representation.
Feminist Theory 2008: 9.2) 2008: 207-224
In the second part of the article, we focus on the analytical potential of Hernes’
work for understanding developments related to gender equality in Scandinavia, with a
focus on three debates in particular. First, we address the public-private split in relation
to woman-friendly policies. It is a widespread conclusion that this split lost some of its
gendered meanings in Scandinavia during the feminist movement, when policies were
advanced in a woman-friendly direction. In recent years the framing of the public and
private, boundary has been rearticulated and renegotiated. We focus on the political
debates in the three countries about parental leave, childcare, and age restrictions in
marriages involving foreigners. We then explore state feminism in relation to women’s
political mobilisation, representation and gender equality. We analyse debates about
women as social and political actors and whether their political representation makes a
difference and to what extent it has led to the adoption of feminist policies. The
underlying issues we explore are who has the power and authority to represent whom,
what is the relation between feminism, the women’s movement and the political elite,
what difference women’s representation makes for Scandinavian politics and policies and
about the meaning of representation. We then address national variations in and
contrasting views concerning the analytical potentials of state feminism. Finally, we
address different approaches to woman-friendly policies in debates about the best
response of the western welfare states to globalisation, ageing populations and
multiculturalism. We identify two contrasting positions about welfare policies. The first
position, which was expressed in the context of a debate about the European Union’s
(EU’s) economic strategy, claims that Scandinavian style woman-friendly policies make
up the best solution to the challenges faced by welfare states. The second, which was
articulated by the Danish Welfare Commission, holds that these same policies impede
economic competitiveness. Throughout the article, we differentiate between academic,
public and political debates based on the identity of the main participants and the
primary sites of the debates.
Woman-friendliness and State Feminism
The concept of woman-friendliness was coined by Norwegian political scientist Hernes
in the late 1980s. She defines woman-friendly states as such:
A woman-friendly state would enable women to have a natural relationship
to their children, their work and public life… A woman-friendly state would
not force harder choices on women than on men, or permit unjust treatment
on the basis of sex. In a woman-friendly state women will continue to have
children, yet there will also be other roads to self-realization open to them.
In such a state women will not have to choose futures that demand greater
sacrifices from them than are expected of men. (1987, 15)
This definition underlines the significance of reproduction and women’s options
compared to men’s. Hernes also challenges the universal approach to the state that had
characterised feminist theory and the rather pessimist conclusions that had been reached
by feminist scholars like Fraser (1986) and Carol Pateman (1987) about the patriarchal
nature of the welfare state. Hernes’ arguments for Scandinavian exceptionalism
resonated with the development in welfare state research at large, which took a
comparative turn during the late 1980s and early 1990s. This development implied
increasing academic attention to differences between welfare states and the role of
politics for institutionalising specific welfare and gender models. It is, however,
noteworthy that almost at the same time, Swedish historian Hirdman (1990) reached
conclusions about the development in the Swedish welfare state that contrasted starkly
with Hernes’ analysis. In the Swedish power study, Hirdman argued that the gender
system had remained intact due to its two operating logics: gender segregation and
hierarchy based upon a male norm. Scandinavian feminist theory scholars commonly
depict Hirdman and Hernes as the pessimist Cassandra versus the optimist Pollyanna,
but Hirdman (1996) has questioned this interpretation. She gives an account of their
different conclusions about the Scandinavian development that stresses the difference
between her emphasis on the labour market and Hernes’ preoccupation with the welfare
It is true that Hernes was very pessimistic about the potential for achieving gender
equality in the market, but another interpretation is that the opposing conclusions are
attributable to the fact that Hernes highlights the role of women’s agency, whereas
Hirdman downplays the significance of actors and underlines the role of structures of the
gender system. For Hirdman, the latter operates according to two logics: gender
segregation and hierarchy based on a male norm. In this way, Hernes and Hirdman also
represent two extremes in the longstanding debate in social science about structure and
agency. Today, there is widespread consensus that both dimensions matter and that they
are mutually constituted, but there is no agreement about how they interact or the role of
state institutions in reproducing or diminishing gender inequality. Both Hernes and
Hirdman ignore the fact that gender inequalities intersect with other types of
differentiations, such as class and ethnicity. The concepts of woman-friendliness and the
gender system were both based on the premise that women have common and collective
interests. Hernes did, however, emphasise that a woman-friendly welfare state was a
state where injustice on the basis of gender would be largely eliminated without an
increase in other forms of inequality, such as among groups of women” (1987, 15). She
did not elaborate, however, on whether and how differences among women would
occur, and by which dynamics. At the time, immigration had not yet become a political
problem and a key issue in the public debates in Scandinavia. It is questionable whether
different groups of women may have interests in a diversity of care policies and care
arrangements, which accentuates the issue of options that was central to Hernes’ concept
of woman-friendliness. A central argument in Hernes’ conception of Scandinavia’s
potential for woman-friendliness was that the boundary between the public and the
private had undergone a marked change owing to the expansion of public care policies.
In this way, she contributed to a rethinking of the public-private split, which has been a
dominant theme in feminist thought about citizenship and power. Feminist scholarship
in Anglo-Saxon countries, which have been permeated by a liberal ideology, has argued
that a public-private dichotomy, especially with regard to the division between family and
state, has cemented a patriarchal order. Further, it has formed a barrier to women’s full
citizenship, because women and men have been incorporated in different ways as citizens
(Pateman 1989; Lister 2003).
Hernes claimed that the Scandinavian welfare state potential for woman-
friendliness interacted with state feminism. This latter concept encompassed both
notions of politics and policies, and it captured the synergy between women’s political
and social citizenship and the dynamic interrelation between feminism from above and
feminisation from below in Scandinavian politics (Borchorst and Siim 2002). She defined
state feminism as “feminism from above in the form of gender equality and social
policies and the feminization of welfare state relevant professions.” This was combined
with “feminization from below” through the mobilisation of women in political and
cultural activities (Hernes 1987, 153). This definition of state feminism emphasised
women’s political agency: their mobilisation and representation. Hernes’ approach rejects
the most common understanding, that is, the one in which “state feminism” refers solely
to the efforts by women’s policy machineries to pursue social and economic policies that
are beneficial to women (Outshoorn and Kantola 2007, 2-3). The relationship between
feminism from above and feminism from below has taken on very different forms in the
three countries, with Sweden as the most institutionalised model and Denmark as the
most bottom-up oriented model (Bergqvist et al 1999). All three countries have witnessed
an increase of women’s representation and participation in politics during the last thirty
years. State feminism is often associated with the feminisation of the political elite
through the integration of women into the political parties. The political developments
and feminist debates illustrate that it is important to differentiate between women in
politics and feminist influence, and between the different arenas in which feminist agency
is exerted. In Denmark, the extra parliamentary feminist movement was very strong in
the 1970s and 1980s, but feminist issues never gained ground in the political parties. It
was the other way round in Sweden, where feminist influence was strongest within the
political parties. It is remarkable that the majority of the Swedish political parties call
themselves feminist, whereas gender issues are placed low on the political agenda in
Denmark, and the political significance of gender is limited. Norway is placed somewhere
in the middle, and the much stronger role that the Christian party has played has added
to more ambivalent results where gender equality policy is concerned. This analysis
illuminates the many different meanings of feminism in Scandinavia in terms of
normative visions and practical policies
Normative Perspectives and Visions of Gender Equality
Hernes’ conceptual framework was clearly biased, in a normative sense, towards
Scandinavian solutions. In her account, these solutions were embedded within a grand
vision of gender equality, based on the idea that women’s integration in politics and in
breadwinning was regarded as the primary route to gender equality. It has, however, been
criticised by feminist scholars outside Scandinavia because it tends to ignore that there
are other possible routes to gender equality (Pfau-Effinger 1998). Fraser distinguishes
between different visions (1997, 41-66), which we use to illuminate Hernes’ normative
point of departure. The focal point of these visions is the gendered division of care and
breadwinning, and the configuration of market, state and the family. Yet, unlike Hernes,
Fraser distinguishes between three different visions for achieving gender equality, and
she outlines a plurality of normative principles, such as poverty, exploitation, income
distribution, leisure time, respect, marginalization and androcentrism, as markers for the
assessment of the strengths and weaknesses of different feminist visions for gender
equality. Fraser’s first ideal type, the universal breadwinner model, aims at universalising the
breadwinner role. It emphasises gender sameness. It intends to turn women into citizen
workers like men by, among other things, moving care work from the family into the
market and the state. The second ideal type, the caregiver parity model, keeps care work in
the family context and seeks to revaluate informal care work through public assistance,
such as caregiver allowances. It preserves the gendered division of caregiving and
breadwinning, but seeks to make gender difference costless and to upgrade women to the
status of citizen caregivers. The third ideal type, the universal caregiver model, aims at
removing gendered segregation by making women’s life patterns the norm for both
women and men. It is based upon the principles of shared parental role-playing with
respect to care and breadwinning. Fraser claims that this model has the potential to foster
gender equality in the post-industrialist phase of capitalism, where women are being
integrated into breadwinning, and the collapse in male wages diminishes the viability of
the male breadwinner norm.
Fraser prefers the third model because she finds that it is the only one that
adequately manages post-industrial dilemmas and moves beyond the equality-difference
impasse in feminism. Her claim is that this model combines the best part of the two
others and that it is able to dismantle the gendered opposition between care and
breadwinning altogether. Since the ideal types are based upon analytical distinctions, they
may coexist, but their policy logics are to some extent contradictory, especially where the
universal breadwinner and the caregiver parity models are concerned. This has to do with
the fact that the two models are constructed around very different perceptions of
whether care for dependent persons should be located solely within the realm of the
family, or whether public responsibility for care is a precondition for achieving gender
equality. Fraser’s models raise important theoretical, analytical and normative questions,
and we find that her typology represents a multifaceted approach to analysing visions of
gender equality that acknowledges that there may be different trajectories for achieving
gender equality. However, the best part of Fraser’s work consists in her contribution to
political theory. She is not precise about how the different models interact with the state-
market nexus and her empirical examples are influenced by the political context of the
US. She wrote her piece about ten years later than Hernes’ major work, at a time in
which the shortcomings of the universal breadwinner model had become more visible.
On the other hand, we find that Fraser’s analysis is too optimistic. We question whether
the universal-caregiver ideal type could actually deconstruct gender and the sameness-
difference duality that has plagued feminism for the last century. We are particularly
skeptical about this potential when we consider the problem of transforming this abstract
analysis into everyday politics.
Fraser’s analysis is fruitful for distinguishing the different routes that the three
Scandinavian welfare states have taken and the related implementation problems. The
countries in the region have supported different configurations of gender equality. In
Denmark, the universal caregiver model never gained any influence. Here, the universal
breadwinner model has been the all-dominant vision, and it has been supported by the
establishment of extensive childcare facilities. In Norway, policies have been ambivalent,
since all three approaches to gender equality have coexisted. Norway has adopted cash-
for-care schemes, thereby supporting the caregiver parity model. But it has also set up
childcare facilities, advancing the country toward the universal breadwinner model, while
establishing a daddy quota in parental leave,
and thereby moving Norway towards the
universal caregiver model. In Sweden, the universal breadwinner model was for many
years promoted as the main approach where gender equality was concerned. However,
during the past decade it has gone furthest of all the countries in the region in the
universal caregiver direction. It has adopted a daddy quota within its parental leave policy
of two months (Ellingsæter and Leira 2006).
Fraser makes the underlying normative
premises explicit, and her ideal types allow us to point out the differences between the
Scandinavian countries where gender equality measures are concerned. Both Hernes’ and
Fraser’s analyses fall short insofar as they only focus on care and breadwinning, to the
neglect of issues such as domestic violence. Hernes’ framework was embedded in the
history and culture of Scandinavia. She also attempted to conceptualise the ongoing
political developments. We judge Scandinavia’s public care programs to be superior to
those related to the needs of battered women and that the region appears to be more
advanced in terms of gender equality.
Fraser’s contribution has stimulated a debate about the normative foundation of
feminist approaches. She conceptualises a dilemma between principles of redistribution
and of recognition, a dilemma that at the same time constitutes two dimensions a
political-economic and a cultural-valuational and she applies these dimensions as
markers to assess the strengths and weaknesses of different feminist visions for gender
In a country with a daddy quota clause in its parental leave policy, the
transferability of leave time within the custodial couple is limited. For example, a parental
leave program might allow for thirteen months of earnings-related benefits to care for a
child. If the child has two parents with joint custodial rights, each parent is entitled to
half of the benefit-supported leave time. Fathers typically transferred all of their
entitlement to their female partners. Under the daddy quota, the leave program reserves a
certain length of benefit eligibility for the male parent alone. With a daddy quota of two
months in a thirteen month program, a heterosexual mother could receive benefits for a
maximum of only eleven months. If her male partner refused to take the two month
leave himself, the couple would forfeit this eligibility period altogether. Single parents are
typically eligible for the entire leave period.
Iceland has gone further by adopting a three-three-three model of parental leave
with three months reserved for the mother, three for the father and three shared months.
equality. A key point in Fraser’s approach to recognition is her distinction between
“identity” and status.” The “status” model presents a critique of identity politics and
places demands for recognition within a larger social frame based upon “participatory
parity” as the normative standard (2000). This focus on misrecognition as an
institutionalised relation of social subordination opens up the possibility for linking
claims for recognition with claims for redistribution. Hernes’ theory about woman-
friendliness and state feminism primarily constructs redistribution as an instrument for
obtaining providing social justice. In this sense, she underestimates the centrality of
cultural differences and the official recognition of cultural diversity. It is, nevertheless, a
strength of her analysis that she provides a theoretical linkage between social equality and
political representation as two dimensions of equal citizenship. She highlights the
interaction between women’s roles as mothers, workers and citizens. Inspired by the
emphasis on universal social rights in Scandinavia, she theorises the links between social
equality, women’s political mobilization and equal representation in democracy. She also
mentions the new interest in civil rights and the protection of personal autonomy
(Hernes 1987, 140). Fraser has recently argued that social justice should be three-
dimensional and that redistribution and recognition in times of increasing globalisation
need to be supplemented with representation (Dahl et al. 2004). The move towards
incorporating democratic justice in her model is the basis for a critique of existing
governance and decision making structures. Yet Fraser has not explored the practical
implications of these relationships for women’s role as citizens, which is a key aspect in
Hernes’ framework. The strength of Hernes’ model is the conceptualisation of the
interdependence of woman’s different roles as workers, mother caregivers and citizens.
However, Hernes’ focus on equality has led to a relative neglect of cultural recognition as
an independent dimension of citizenship and social justice. We find that the strength of
Fraser’s status model is the focus on participatory parity that links claims for
redistribution with claims for cultural recognition. The inclusion of representation as a
third dimension of social justice in her recent work is promising, but the theoretical and
practical implications for gender equality need to be further elaborated.
Woman-friendly Policies and the Public-Private Split
Hernes argued that the introduction of woman-friendly polices implied that
reproduction had gone public. Indeed, there is a consensus among feminist scholars that
the public-private split lost much of its gendered significance in Scandinavia during the
1970s and early 1980s. This happened during the golden era of the new feminist
movement, which pushed for an expansion in the public assumption of reproductive
tasks. However, the boundary between public and private is fluid and subject to
negotiation and different framings. Furthermore, during the past decades, the split has
become more significant in political rhetoric about human reproduction. The
private/public divide has become more salient in the context of arguments for increased
marketisation as the principles of new public management have been introduced. The
resurgence of the split has also come to the fore in the midst of various attempts to re-
familialise reproductive tasks. In each of these instances, the ideal of “free choice” has
been repeatedly invoked in the political debates. The debates on home care allowances
and the dedication of parts of the paid parental leave for fathers are illustrative in this
regard. Parents’ ‘free choice’ was a dominant theme when Norway adopted a ‘cash for
care scheme’ in 1998. The underlying policy objective was to make it possible for one of
the parents in a two-parent household to stay at home and perform carework full-time
(Leira 1998; Ellingsæter 2006). The proposal was above all championed by the Christian
Democratic Party, and it was strongly supported by the women in the party. The cash for
care scheme was adopted during a period in which the Christian Democrats headed the
government. Five years later, Norway became the first country in the world to dedicate a
month of paid parental leave for the father. This ‘daddy quota,’ which could not be
transferred to the mother, was framed as a win-win situation for fathers, mothers and
children. In Sweden, a home caregiver allowance was brought into effect less than a year
later as rhetoric about free choice abounded. The home caregiver allowance represented
a compromise that was reached by the right wing government. The latter also adopted a
‘father’s month’ one year after Norway did.
In Denmark, a home caregiver allowance has been an option for municipalities for
many years, but had limited impact. In 1997, a center-left coalition passed a two week
‘daddy leave.’ A right-left cleavage was salient, and the proposal was not subject to much
debate. Four years after, the issue became highly politicized. After a right wing takeover
of the government, the ‘daddy leave’ was abolished in 2002. The Liberal Party, which
headed the new government, rearticulated a public-private split, framing the ‘daddy leave’
as coercion and interference in the private affairs of the family. It was labeled as a gender
quota by the Liberals as well as several other actors, including center-left politicians and
the media. The invocation of the idea of an invidious gender quota had a strong impact
on the debate. By the same token, the fact that mothers could apply for fourteen weeks
of public support after the birth of an infant the most generous support for new
mothers in the entire Scandinavian region – was not framed in the same way. The public-
private dichotomy is thus framed with gender-specific and site-specific arguments.
Gender quotas and political initiatives are considered particularly controversial when it
comes to women’s position in the labour market and in politics, and to men’s
relationship with carework in the family. The dichotomy is also ethnically specific. In
2002, the Danish right wing government, together with the extreme right, adopted a
mandatory minimum age of twenty-four for Danish citizens who wish to marry non-
citizens. This anti-immigration move was legitimised by arguments about preventing
forced marriages (Siim 2007).. It was not framed as interference with private family
matters. This illustrates the contrast between the government’s strict regulation of
immigrant families and the dominant liberal non-interference in family matters for the
majority population.
The public-private balance reflects the influence of the feminist movement, which
is currently most fragmented in Denmark and strongest in Sweden. It also mirrors a left-
right cleavage; the right wing parties are reluctant to strengthen the role of the state in the
redistributive social policy arena. Yet, this cleavage and the electoral balance between
right and left only partially explains the variations, since there are distinct national
variations among the Scandinavian right wing parties in terms of the role that public-
private split occupies in their rhetoric. We can grasp these particular trends by looking at
the different policy responses towards gender equality and immigration on the part of the
Swedish and Danish right wing parties. During the 1990s, the right wing parties in
Sweden argued for strengthening gender equality policies. This strategy reflected the
influence of a structural approach to the gender system. Feminist scholarship, and
Hirdman’s gender system theory in particular, enjoyed substantial prominence, even with
the right-wing parties. In contrast, the dominant discourse on the Danish right is that of
the anti-immigrant Danish Peoples’ Party (DPP). The latter became the third largest
party in 2001 and shored up the Liberal-Conservative coalition government with its
support. The DPP has seldom supported policies of gender equality. In fact it claims that
gender equality has already been achieved for the majority population. Gender inequality,
according to the DPP, only exists among the immigrant minority. Further, the DPP
alleges that that inequality is caused by cultural factors as the immigrant minority strives
to maintain the patriarchal family through family unification and forced and arranged
marriages. To sum up: the Scandinavian welfare states have come far in terms of
providing public childcare and granting generous parental leave schemes. However, the
process toward “reproduction going public” has not taken a linear form in the manner
that Hernes anticipated (1987, 17) and there is a growing awareness that the boundary
between public and private is fluid and socially constructed. The public/private divide is
subject to conflicts, negotiation, and various framings. The outcome depends upon the
relative capacities of historical forces vis-à-vis the establishment of a hegemonic
State Feminism: Women’s Mobilisation and Representation
Hernes’ conclusions about state feminism were inspired by women’s political
mobilisation in Scandinavia, their inclusion in the political elite through the political
parties, and the institutionalisation of gender equality policies. This was the golden era of
Scandinavian feminism and it was reasonable to expect that women politicians would be
advocates of gender equality and women-friendly social policies. Female representation in
national parliaments in Scandinavia today ranges between 35 and 45 per cent. Nordic
political scientists have claimed that the inclusion of women in politics and their
increased political representation represents the most radical changes in Nordic politics
since the Second World War (Karvonen and Selle 1995). In many countries, female
representation is on the increase, and women are increasingly running for office
(Outshoorn and Kantola 2007). The political changes in parliamentary politics have
triggered debates about why gender parity is important and to what extent it will actually
change policies and transform sexual power relations in society. The underlying questions
are many. Who has the power and authority to represent whom, and what groups and
issues are not represented? What do women across different social and cultural groups
and across the different political parties have in common? The question of women’s
common interests and their willingness and abilities to influence politics and policies is a
crucial element in any assessment of the analytical potentials of Scandinavian state
feminism. There have been two opposing positions. One followed Hernes’ claim that
politics matters. From this perspective, it was anticipated that women politicians would
be able to influence social and equality policies. Another followed Hirdman’s claim that
an ‘iron law’ of gender tended to reproduce new forms of gender segregation and gender
Feminists have presented various arguments for the importance of women’s
representation, situating their arguments within competing paradigms, each with its own
theoretical approach, vision of gender equality, and preferred political strategy.
Representation has been interpreted either as a principle of justice, as an expression of
women and men’s different experiences and values, or as an expression of their different
interests. Feminist scholars have supported Drude Dahlerup’s argument that any
significant change in the male-dominated political culture that reigns in parliament
requires a critical mass of women – that is, about 30 per cent representation (1988). Many
refer to female and male politicians’ different values and interests and expect women to
support greater gender equality and woman-friendly social policies (Wängnerud 2000).
This claim is based on the premise that women, in spite of their differences, have
common interests as ‘women,for example, in relation to childcare and abortion. Anna
Jonasdottir (1991) has challenged the argument about women’s substantial interests as
‘women’ but she claims that they may have common interests in being present in politics
and in challenging the male hierarchy. Her position found support in Hege Skjeie’s
analysis of the women’s political elite in Norway (1992). Skjeie demonstrated that women
politicians may have common interests in putting special issues on the agenda for
example, on issues such as abortion, gender equality and childcare. However, these
women politicians tend to prefer different policy solutions to these issues with their
different positions reflecting their political-cultural identities and values and their
identification with the various political parties. Jonasdottir and Skjeie support the idea
that women’s interests and identities are not an effect of their structural position within
the patriarchal order itself, but rather that their identities tend to be created through the
political process (Phillips 1995; Siim 2000). As long as women’s mobilisation tends to be
different from men’s, women may prefer different channels of political activity and
forms of communication. Scandinavian women do make up a critical mass in national
parliaments, and the institutionalisation of gender equality policies and the adoption of
many so-called woman-friendly policies followed women’s political mobilisation and
increased representation. However, it is debatable what caused these political changes.
One position argues that it was mainly pressure from below, another emphasises the
important role of female parliamentarians’ feminist orientations, while another points
towards the importance of ‘path-dependency’ the institutionalisation of gender equality
policies, and women’s policy agency within the state apparatus. The different
interpretations are contradictory and context-bound.
The question of the representativeness of female politicians and women’s policy
agencies is another crucial element in determining/reviewing the analytical potential of
state feminism. Increasingly, the question about the way in which women politicians
represent their constituencies leads to an emphasis on diversity, e.g. in terms of political
values and identities, race/ethnicity and age/generation. The women’s movement and
feminism have always organised a minority of women, but the lack of a unified women’s
movement and increased diversity among women have accentuated the question of
representation and accountability. For example, new feminist demands to combat
violence against women have emerged, and feminist groups have had competing
positions organized in relation to key issues like the EU and immigration. Finally,
increased migration, growing inequalities among women and the lack of immigrant
women in political parties have inspired debates about representation from the
perspective of ethnic minorities. Immigrant women have only recently started to become
organised, and one of the new and current challenges is how to relate state feminism and
the democratic principle of gender parity in politics to all women, as well as to ethnic
minority groups. One position claims that the lack of integration of immigrant women in
politics illustrates a key problem for Scandinavian state feminism. Since the latter is
premised upon women’s common interests, it is difficult to deal with the intersection of
gender and other kinds of inequalities in this context. Another position argues that
(Swedish) state feminism has indeed managed to deal with diversity among women, for
example by integrating longstanding feminist demands for “equal pay for equal work of
equal value” with radical feminist demands for “combating violence against women”
(Bergqvist et al 2007, 231-2). The premise that women and marginalised social groups
have common interests and ought to be represented in politics is a strong democratic
principle and many Scandinavian feminists rank political representation as equal in
importance with recognition and redistribution. The principle of gender parity in politics
is, however, both contested and contextual. The Scandinavian case illustrates that the
meaning of representation and whether it makes a difference is not only dependent on
the political mobilisation of citizens and the political opportunity structure, including the
strength of the gender equality machinery, but also on different theoretical frames.
National Difference and the Challenge to Western Welfare States
Recent debates about the analytic potential of Scandinavian state feminism refer to
women’s mobilisation, to feminism, to women’s representation as well as to the gender
equality machinery. All three countries have witnessed similar changes in women’s
political agency: There is no longer a unified women’s movement that speaks for all
women: feminism is fragmented into different networks and voluntary associations.
Further, the link between women outside and within the state has been weakened. There
is, however, no agreement on the implications of this development for the analytic
potential of the concept. The national debates about woman-friendliness and state
feminism illustrate that there are crucial differences both in the discursive and
institutional frames of state feminism and in the gender equality policies in the three
Scandinavian countries. One example is the political focus in Denmark on strict public
regulation of family unification and forced and arranged marriages, while the Norwegian
and Swedish approaches emphasize dialogues with immigrant families. Feminist research
has demonstrated that the feminisation of the political elite has had different implications
in Denmark, Norway and Sweden (Bergqvist et al 1999). Denmark has the weakest
version of state feminism; indeed, the Danish case illustrates the problems with Hernes’
concept. In Denmark, the women’s movement was rather quite prominent, but a strong
linkage between the feminist mobilisation outside parliament and female politicians was
never sustained. One of the results of the missing link was a weak institutionalisation of
gender equality policies. With the demobilisation of the women’s movement, gender
equality almost disappeared from the public arena in the 1990s. In Norway and Sweden,
by contrast, gender equality has remained a relatively salient issue.
The Danish case represents the failure of state feminism. Since the change of
government in 2001, there has been a growing gap between the official version of gender
equality and feminist accounts. The official version has primarily interpreted gender
equality as a problem for immigrant women who are oppressed by their patriarchal
families (Andreassen 2005) while feminist scholars have criticized the lack of efficient
gender equality legislation and equal opportunity machinery (Borchorst 2006). Sweden in
many ways represents the success of state feminism. Here feminist scholars have recently
emphasised both the revitalization of the feminist movement during the 1990s and the
gradual strengthening of state feminism (Bergqvist et al 2007). These developments have
given rise to a national gender equality plan that combines old and new feminist
concerns, for example equal access to positions of power and influence and measures to
combat violence against women. According to Christina Berggvist et al, the simultaneous
strengthening of the feminist movement outside parliament, gender equality, and the
gender equality machinery in government, represents the positive effect of feminist
thinking; in this case, the state has operated as a vehicle and as an arena for women’s
activism (2007, 244-5). This positive conclusion is, however, challenged by a group of
post-colonial scholars, who have voiced a strong critique of the Swedish gender equality
model, especially insofar as the latter is premised upon women’s common interests. They
claim that the model neglects the discrimination against, and marginalisation of,
immigrant women. They criticise feminist scholarship for ignoring the diversity of
women and the intersection of gender and ethnicity (de los Reyes et al 2003).
In recent years, welfare policies have become the object of increasing political
attention. Globalisation and ageing populations have been interpreted as severe
challenges to the provision and financing of welfare benefits and services for coming
generations. This has prompted debates about the sustainability of the Scandinavian
welfare models. The role of woman-friendly welfare policies has been subject to
contrasting framings in the debates. The Belgian presidency of the European Council
asked Gøsta Esping-Andersen and other welfare state scholars to provide policy
recommendations for implementing the Lisbon strategy. This sought to make the EU the
most competitive and dynamic knowledge-based economy in the world. Woman-friendly
policies occupied a central role in their work. Esping-Anderson et al concluded that these
policies should be considered as win-win solutions to problems posed by globalisation
and the ageing population. Further, these scholars argued that the woman-friendly
policies could be exported to other EU member states. The experts concluded that
woman-friendly policies, including affordable day care, paid maternity and parental leave,
and provisions for work absence when children are sick, are also family- and society-
friendly. They secure economic competitiveness by increasing the labour force. They
reduce the graying of populations and they combat social exclusion and poverty at the
same time (Esping-Andersen et al 2002, 68-95). The EU Commission also highlighted
solutions such as childcare in analyses of the so-called flexicurity phenomenon, that is the
combined emphasis on a flexible labour market and high security. Contrary to
conventional neoliberal wisdom, woman-friendly policies do not impede economic
growth. The OECD has also highlighted the Danish childcare and parental leave policies
as good solutions to the family-work balance problem that contributes to falling birth
rates (2002).
The picture of woman-friendly policies as win-win solutions supporting economic
competitiveness has been challenged by scholars embedded in neo-classical discourses in
the Danish Welfare Commission (Velfærdskommissionen 2004). The Danish
commission was set up by the right-wing government and consisted mainly of neo-
classical economists. They were asked to analyse future challenges to the Danish welfare
system and to suggest policy recommendations. The Danish commission adopted a very
narrow utilitarian approach to welfare, concluding that the present welfare state
architecture poses serious problems where future fiscal budgeting is concerned. Based on
calculations about net contributions (taxes) and net deductions (take-up rates of services
and benefits), it concluded that a Danish citizen is, on average, a net recipient of 0.8
million DDK over a life span. The figures were broken down along gender lines and
revealed that a newborn girl over her lifetime can expect to get 2.4 million DDK from
the welfare state, whereas a newborn boy will contribute with 0.8 million DDK. This
difference results from the fact that women tend to take up parental leave much more
than men and tend to live longer. The conclusion triggered headlines in the newspapers
like “women cost big bucks” and that “men pay the bill” (Borchorst and Goul Andersen
2006). In its final recommendations, the Danish Welfare Commission suggested cuts in a
number of benefits, but it did not recommend changes in expenditure for childcare
facilities or parental leave. One of the economists in the commission concluded that the
woman-friendly policies have a boomerang effect upon women’s position on the labour
market. Women’s higher parental leave has a negative impact on the gendered pay gap
and women’s career chances. The discourses about woman-friendly polices are thus quite
contradictory. These policies are presented as both the problem and the solution to
current challenges. It is not altogether clear what will emerge as the dominant discourse.
The recommendations of the EU experts and the Danish Welfare Commission were not
adopted, but there is strong support for the solutions that promote a universal
breadwinner model. Indeed, the latter is widely regarded as a central solution to declining
birth rates and ageing populations. Interestingly enough, neither the EU experts nor the
Danish Welfare Commission argued for increased immigration or better integration of
ethnic minorities as a solution to the problems with globalization and ageing populations.
The EU experts saw the woman-friendly policies as the solutions to the welfare state
challenges, whereas the national Danish economists labeled them as the problem.
Hernes’ concepts about woman-friendly welfare states and state feminism fostered
helpful debates into comparative differences within the Scandinavian region. Indeed,
Hernes has influenced the research agenda on women and the welfare state for the last
twenty years and this article has explored the theoretical, analytical and normative roots
of these concepts that had enormous influence on the international research agenda as
well as on the political debates inside and outside Scandinavia. They constituted
compelling metaphors, but their analytical strength was less impressive. The same was
true of the empirical applicability, since it was far from clear which criteria policies could
be characterised as woman-friendly or not and what state feminism implied. It is certainly
true that Scandinavia has achieved significant gender equality gains. However, Hernes
underestimated the resilience of the gendered power structures that became the focus for
Hirdman. Today, there is a growing awareness that Norway, Sweden, and Denmark are
not forerunners in all respects. The public-private gender segregation of the labour
market has been exacerbated which, in turn, has shored up the gender pay gap. New
dimensions of gender inequality have surfaced in relation to, for example, old age
pensions and immigration. Gender equality has not progressed in a linear way. During
some periods over the last two decades, the inequality between men and women has
been very stable; at others, it has even increased. Further, differences among women
have also expanded. Feminist scholars have challenged Hernes’ concepts from social
constructivist and post-colonialist perspectives, and they have questioned the underlying
premise about women’s commonality. They have criticised the dominant majority
discourse and norms that tend to contribute to the oppression of minorities with a
different religion, language and culture. Still others have attacked the focus on collective
strategies and solutions for impinging upon individual autonomy. In their work, the focus
has been placed upon the expansion of individual choices in social policies. For them,
market solutions take priority over public regulation. From an analytical perspective, new
challenges related to globalisation and multiculturalism have changed the social
conditions for women-friendliness and state feminism. The Scandinavian population has
become more diverse in terms of religion, culture and language. This development has
raised critical questions about ability of the Nordic welfare model to include immigrants
in the labour market and about the normative foundation of the dominant Nordic model
of gender equality and women-friendliness.
The debates touch upon the desirability, feasibility, and the theoretical strength of
the Scandinavian welfare and gender equality model, and they raise questions about its
underlying normative, empirical and theoretical premises. Two main positions have
emerged. One argues that the model from a welfare and gender perspective is still alive
and going strong and only needs minor readjustments. The other position claims that
structural changes in the labour market, and in social and equality policies are needed.
The notions of woman friendliness and state feminism were proposed by Hernes during
the golden period of Scandinavian gender equality policies. The combined effects of a
strong feminist mobilisation and favorable political opportunity structures enabled
female policy makers to use the state as an arena for political activism for advancing
gender equality and for adopting women-friendly policies. We suggest that both notions
were based upon an underlying premise of women’s common interests, a premise that
needs to be reformulated from a perspective of intersectionality under new socio-
economic and political conditions influenced by globalization, European integration and
increased immigration. The analytic potential of Hernes’ concepts, state feminism and
women-friendly policies, are challenged by increased diversity among women and men,
not only according to gender and class but also increasingly according to race/ethnicity,
religion and nationality. Such diversity requires negotiations and reformulations of some
of the key policies, strategies and normative foundations. The Scandinavian societies
have emphasised social and gender equality as key normative principles, and there is a
strong norm about equal political representation along class and gender lines. These
values are still important, but from a perspective of intersectionality, they must be
balanced with the equally important principles of securing equal representation for
immigrants and granting recognition for cultural diversity, including diversity among
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... In Nordic countries, the state has been, and continues to be, a central actor in shaping women's citizenship, labor market opportunities, and caring roles. Especially publicly funded welfare services and policies that facilitate the reconciliation of work and care have played a major part in advancing women's labor market participation (see, e.g., Bergquist et al. 1999;Borchorst & Siim 2002;Ellingsaeter & Leira 2006;Siim & Stoltz 2015). The institutional framework of Nordic welfare state policies has been central to what has been called the 'social democratic public service route' (Walby 2004). ...
... Criticism has been directed at how Nordic countries and their women-friendliness has been depicted in overly positive terms (see also Borchorst & Siim 2002;Lister 2009;Koskinen Sandberg 2018;Mandel & Semyonov 2006) In fact, the indexes placing the Nordic countries as comparatively high achievers of gender equality, are based on very crude measures (Kirkebø et al. 2021). It has also been questioned whether policies that aim for women-friendliness improve the career chances of women in the labor market, or whether they ultimately have the opposite effect on women themselves, leading to the 'welfare state paradox' (Mandel & Semyonov 2006). ...
... Consequently, women-friendliness has been criticized for constructing 'women' as a uniform social category within which all individuals strive from similar social positions towards similar goals. Ultimately, there is the danger that the concept of women-friendliness boils down exclusively to white middle-class heterosexual women with (young) children as its only political subject, thus forgetting intersectionality (Borchorst & Siim 2002;Borchorst et al. 2012;Kantola 2004). ...
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Gender equality has been named as one of the normative foundations of Nordic wel- fare states. This is reflected in how, year after year, Nordic states rank among the most gender egalitarian countries in the world (see, e.g., World Economic Forum 2020). In Nordic countries, the state has been, and continues to be, a central actor in shaping women’s citizenship, labor market opportunities, and caring roles. Especially publicly funded welfare services and policies that facilitate the reconciliation of work and care have played a major part in advancing women’s labor market participation (see, e.g., Bergquist et al. 1999; Borchorst & Siim 2002; Ellingsæter & Leira 2006; Siim & Stoltz 2015). The institutional framework of Nordic welfare state policies has been central to what has been called the ‘social democratic public service route’ (Walby 2004).One of the important building blocks of gender equality has been the aim of making policies in Nordic countries ‘women-friendly’. More than 30 years ago, Helga Hernes (1987) identified the Nordic countries as ‘potentially women-friendly societies’. She char- acterized women-friendly societies as those that ‘would not force harder choices on women than on men’ (ibid., 15), particularly in relation to work and care. Hernes also envisaged that woman-friendliness should be achieved without increasing other forms of inequality, such as class or ethnicity-based inequalities among different groups of women.However, achieving gender equality in working life and the sort of womenfriendliness that Hernes envisaged at the societal level has in many ways also proved to be challenging, as the ties between the state and gender equality goals are more complex than what they might seem at first glance. Gender disparities have proven persistent also within the Nordic context. When we issued a call for this special issue, we were inter- ested in various forms of gendered labor market (dis)advantage in Nordic countries. Furthermore, we asked how gender segregation, welfare state policies, labor market policies, and various labor market actors interact to produce, maintain, challenge, or change gender equality in the labor market in the Nordic countries and beyond. The five articles presented in this special issue address the issue of gendered labor market (dis)advantages in Nordic countries from several vantage points, focusing on both on ‘traditional’ questions, such as corporate power and sustainable employment, and ‘emerging’ questions such as intersectionality, gender culture, and aesthetic work.
... In the welfare state, as elsewhere, the gender system operates through gender segregation and hierarchy, positioning women as both subordinate to and separate from men (Hirdman, 1988). 4 Other critics have suggested a reformulation and contextualisation with gender equality as the key notion, focusing on which social policies can be considered to be women-friendly, and for which women (Borschorst and Siim, 2002;Sainsbury, 2006). Feminist scholars have also challenged the idea of the women-friendly state by questioning conventional understandings of the welfare state and women's relationship to it (for example: MacKinnon, 1989;Elman, 1996;Weldon, 2002), including for example the relationship between feminist mobilisation and progressive policy on gender-based violence (Htun and Weldon, 2012; see also . ...
... In the welfare state, as elsewhere, the gender system operates through gender segregation and hierarchy, positioning women as both subordinate to and separate from men (Hirdman, 1988). 4 Other critics have suggested a reformulation and contextualisation with gender equality as the key notion, focusing on which social policies can be considered to be women-friendly, and for which women (Borschorst and Siim, 2002;Sainsbury, 2006). Feminist scholars have also challenged the idea of the women-friendly state by questioning conventional understandings of the welfare state and women's relationship to it (for example: MacKinnon, 1989;Elman, 1996;Weldon, 2002), including for example the relationship between feminist mobilisation and progressive policy on gender-based violence (Htun and Weldon, 2012; see also . ...
... Although family policy is a policy sector on its own, it is also an integral part of Finland's gender equality policy. The Nordic gender equality model combines policies to promote high levels of women's participation in political life and paid work (Siim and Borchorst 2002). These policies include workfamily balance policies, namely, publicly subsidized or paid parental leave arrangements and publicly subsidized childcare arrangements. ...
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This article analyzes the convergences of neoliberalism, neoconservatism, and feminism in the context of Nordic welfare state reform. Using Finland’s ongoing family leave reform as an illustrative example, the article shows that neoliberalism, neoconservatism, and feminism find common ground in welfare state reform where workfare policies are intensified and the dismantling of the public provision is coupled with extended private sphere norms. The article unfolds neoliberal and neoconservative feminisms in the public policy context. It demonstrates that neoliberal and neoconservative feminisms contribute to restructuring women’s labor by locating women as subjects critical to capitalist growth, competitive economies, national wealth, and balanced state budgets as providers of productive and reproductive labor. Moreover, they associate women’s productive and reproductive labor with freedom and emancipation.
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There is a broad consensus across European states and the EU that social and economic inequality is a problem that needs to be addressed. Yet inequality policy is notoriously complex and contested. This book approaches the issue from two linked perspectives. First, a focus on functional requirements highlights what policymakers think they need to deliver policy successfully, and the gap between their requirements and reality. We identify this gap in relation to the theory and practice of policy learning, and to multiple sectors, to show how it manifests in health, education, and gender equity policies. Second, a focus on territorial politics highlights how the problem is interpreted at different scales, subject to competing demands to take responsibility. This contestation and spread of responsibilities contributes to different policy approaches across spatial scales. We conclude that governments promote many separate equity initiatives, across territories and sectors, without knowing if they are complementary or contradictory. This outcome could reflect the fact that ambiguous policy problems and complex policymaking processes are beyond the full knowledge or control of governments. It could also be part of a strategy to make a rhetorically radical case while knowing that they will translate into safer policies. It allows them to replace debates on values, regarding whose definition of equity matters and which inequalities to tolerate, with more technical discussions of policy processes. Governments may be offering new perspectives on spatial justice or new ways to reduce political attention to inequalities.
For decades, feminist activists and scholars have stressed the importance of integrating gender perspectives into the most defining challenge of our time: the climate disaster. In this article, we analyze official Norwegian policy documents in the context of regional and supra-national levels. We identify a lack of connection between gender equality policy and climate policy in the Norwegian policy documents that is symptomatic of a general silence on gender in climate policy in the Global North. We argue that there is untapped potential for gender mainstreaming in Norwegian climate policy and suggest that gendered, disaggregated data on climate issues could be combined with scholarly insights about the Nordic gender equality model so as to further our understanding of the climate crisis. Finally, we ask whether the absence of gender perspectives in Norwegian climate policy may reflect an unrecognized contradiction between Nordic gender equality policy and sustainability.
Following a qualitative analysis of interviews with 16 current and former social scientists at the University of Iceland, we argue for the existence of an individual and implicit form of resistance to gender equality that we call “hijacking the discourse.” In a neoliberal culture of higher education that favors individual emancipation in an academic marketplace, a collective understanding of inequality as rooted in larger systems of power is in danger of becoming diluted. In modern universities, this is sometimes expressed through performative and inadequately implemented gender equality policies. The hijacking of gender equality discourse among academic knowledge workers echo this performativity of existing policies and maintains the aura of gender equality necessitated by a neoliberal academic culture.
The Scandinavian welfare states stand out when it comes to future-oriented social investment policies and the associated social and economic performance (e.g., human capital formation, equality, inclusive growth). This chapter first explains how the inclusive social investment approach in Scandinavia came about. In the second part, it asks, is Scandinavia able to politically maintain this historical path and uphold its widely praised qualities and inclusive social investment approach? To answer this question, the authors offer an overview of the political conditions under which social investment had emerged as a political and policy paradigm and how this policy legacy structures the contemporary politics of social investment. Universalism/inclusiveness and social investment are two components of the same political-normative sequence that has generated unusually broad cross-class and cross-gender support for the social investment state. An empirical analysis of party manifestos shows that the different parts of the entire political spectrum are connected to form an unusually broad support structure for universalism and social investment. The authors assess if this coalition can be upheld and adjusted so as to be able to cope with new political challenges.
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State social provision affects women's material situations, shapes gender relationships, structures political conflict and participation, and contributes to the formation and mobilization of identities and interests. Mainstream comparative research has neglected gender, while most feminist research on the welfare state has not been systematically comparative. I develop a conceptual framework for analyzing the gender content of social provision that draws on feminist and mainstream work. Three dimensions of qualitative variation suggested by power resources analysts are reconstructed to incorporate gender: (1) the state-market relations dimension is extended to consider the ways countries organize the provision of welfare through families as well as through states and markets; it is then termed the state-market-family relations dimension; (2) the stratification dimension is expanded to consider the effects of social provision by the state on gender relations, especially the treatment of paid and unpaid labor; (3) the social citizenship rights/decommodification dimension is criticized for implicit assumptions about the sexual division of caring and domestic labor and for ignoring the differential effects on men and women of benefits that decommodify labor. Two additional dimensions are proposed to capture the effects of state social provision on gender relations: access to paid work and capacity to form and maintain an autonomous household.
The Golden Age of post‐war capitalism has been eclipsed, and with it seemingly also the possibility of harmonizing equality and welfare with efficiency and jobs. Most analyses believe that the emerging post‐industrial society is overdetermined by massive, convergent forces, such as tertiarization, new technologies, or globalization, all conspiring to make welfare states unsustainable in the future. This book takes a second, more sociological and institutional look at the driving forces of economic transformation. What stands out as a result is that there is post‐industrial diversity rather than convergence. Macroscopic, global trends are undoubtedly powerful, yet their influence is easily rivalled by domestic institutional traditions, by the kind of welfare regime that, some generations ago, was put in place. It is, however, especially the family economy that holds the key as to what kind of post‐industrial model will emerge, and to how evolving trade‐offs will be managed. Twentieth‐century economic analysis depended on a set of sociological assumptions that now are invalid. Hence, to grasp better what drives today's economy, it is necessary to begin with its social foundations. After an Introduction, the book is arranged in three parts: I, Varieties of Welfare Capitalism (four chapters); II, The New Political Economy (two chapters); and III, Welfare Capitalism Recast? (two chapters).
The 1990s have seen dramatic restructuring of state social provision in the US, the UK, Canada and Australia. This has occurred largely because of the rise of market liberalism, which challenges the role of the state. This important book examines the impact of changes in social policy regimes on gender roles and relations. Structured thematically and systematically comparative, it analyses three key policy areas: labor markets, income maintenance and reproductive rights. Largely driven by issues of equality, it considers the role of the state as a site for gender and sexual politics at a time when primacy is given to the market, developing an argument about social citizenship in the process. Eminent scholars in the field, Julia O'Connor, Ann Orloff and Sheila Shaver make a landmark contribution to debates about social policy and gender relations in this era of economic restructuring and deregulation.
Raising children and having a career both rate highly as important life goals for many people. Helping parents to achieve these goals is vital for society: parental care plays a crucial role in child development and parental employment promotes economic prosperity. A failure to assist parents find their preferred work and family balance has implications for both labour supply and family decisions. This study considers how a wide range of policies, including tax/benefit policies, childcare policies, and employment and workplace practices, help determine parental labour market outcomes and family formation in Austria, Ireland and Japan.
Refuting the argument to choose between "the politics of recognition" and the "politics of redistribution," Justice Interruptus integrates the best aspects of both. ********************************************************* ** What does it mean to think critically about politics at a time when inequality is increasing worldwide, when struggles for the recognition of difference are eclipsing struggles for social equality, and when we lack any credible vision of an alternative to the present order? Philosopher Nancy Fraser claims that the key is to overcome the false oppositions of "postsocialist" commonsense. Refuting the view that we must choose between "the politics of recognition" and the "politics of redistribution," Fraser argues for an integrative approach that encompasses the best aspects of both.