Want to Have it All? Work in Denmark
I stared nervously at the outgoing folder, silently willing a stubborn last email to hurry up on out. Send…send! The whole floor empty and dark, I slammed my laptop shut and raced to the floor underneath, desperate to find signs of life. I needed someone, anyone left in the office so I wouldn’t have to figure out how to put the security alarm on. The receptionists had been gone for an hour already, but to my relief, a lone British expat was still there, tapping away to his compatriots no doubt. It was a sunny day, and definitely too late to catch anyone still around or answering emails here. We caught each other’s eye, and exchanged a slightly amused smile between Anglophones.
The time was 5:30pm. Welcome to working late in Denmark.
Like so many Americans, I fell in love with Europe and the lifestyle people lead there after numerous visits and semesters abroad. Surrounded by amazing Old World architecture, languages and European friends was my peak happiness, and I felt like I belonged there. This lifestyle was my dream lifestyle.
You mean, if I work in Europe, I get six weeks of vacation and I live in Europe?
And while most might feel likewise, they usually go home, graduate, and accept their fate of navigating the American work culture and all the “why can’t we have nice things?!” hallmarks that come along with it. Long badge of honor work hours, little vacation (and none of it guilt-free), constant emails at all hours, all around less life more work.
But me? I felt like I knew too much. You mean, if I work in Europe, I get six weeks of vacation and I live in Europe? There had to be a way. Coming home from studying in Poland going into my last semester of university, I vowed to find my first job in Europe right after graduation.
And, I did just that. There I was, at 22 with a marketing job in Paris, France. Don’t get me wrong, that was alright for a year…but having visited, studied in Sweden and made friends there, I realized I was even more attuned to that culture. I made it to Europe, but now living in Scandinavia was my next goal. I pushed for a role in Sweden, but in the end, there was an opening to work in Denmark. Close enough.
I’ll let you in on a secret. France is usually upheld as having one of the world’s best work-life balances, right? But Denmark is heads above, taking it to a whole other level still. A near paradise for anyone, but especially the working woman with knowledge of worse alternatives.
My first tip off was my contract, where it said “working hours are from 8:30 – 16:30 Monday to Thursday, and 8:30 – 16:00 on Friday.” I’m sure on American contracts it says 9 AM until 5 PM, but you’re pressured to stay longer, so I was hoping this wasn’t something similar — because these hours sounded fantastic.
Even in France it’s not as optimal. People arrive leisurely until 10 AM, then take a 1 hour-ish lunch and coffee break, and then leave at 7 or even 8. They stretch things out, and even if you’re super efficient ,you’ll be pressured to stay later (gasp!).
But in Denmark, it truly is a get in, bang out the work, and get the hell out of there scenario. And everyone, from junior to senior to director level does this. Come 4:30 PM — if not sooner — parents start scurrying around, jumping into their cars to pick up their kids. My boss, Pia cheerfully wished me a good day as she left at 4:31 PM every day. Working long hours is not impressive in the least. I wasn’t debating whether or not I could get more done in fewer hours, I was now living – and loving – it.
“Hey colleagues, we’ll be meeting for dinner in town on [a date three to four weeks in the future], hope you can make it!” I’m a super spontaneous person who at first was really annoyed that every meeting with colleagues had to be planned with emails like these weeks in advance. Can’t we just feel like a drink and go for one?
But then I realized, this is another way that Denmark is great for women. There is no “old boy’s club” going out for drinks and informally networking while female colleagues with kids stay at home. The advanced planning makes sure everyone can arrange to be there, and also gives you a window into the main priority for all Danes after work: their families and close friends. No one tries to hide this. Spontaneous drinks with colleagues just aren’t on the agenda, and aren’t needed to get ahead.
What has helped me get ahead in Denmark is the generous maternity leave. No, I wasn’t the one having the kids, but my colleagues were and were gone for one year at a time. I was able to fill in for them, getting great experience in a number of new jobs, while they were spending time with their new baby feeling assured their role was secure. That’s what I call a win-win!
And of course, the six weeks of vacation is here, too. A Japanese expat who hadn’t been in Denmark long turned to me and asked, “What happens if I don’t use all the vacation…that’s so much.” I replied, “I don’t know…maybe even HR doesn’t know…that never happens.”
There is no “old boy’s club” going out for drinks and informally networking while female colleagues with kids stay at home.
Seven years later, I’m still here. It’s not all fun, games and vacation, I assure you. The normal work stresses, pressure and annoyances always find you. But you’re given the balance you need to thrive professionally and personally. Women are given about as equal of a standing as exists in the workplaces of the world, with cultural attitudes and systems that reinforce this. If there’s anywhere in the world where you can “have it all,” and not apologize for it, it’s here. I’m happy that I fought for experiencing it, and didn’t just continue my life lamenting that Europe had the “nice things” I wanted.
What about you? If you’re like I was and aching to truly live in Europe, and really want to attempt to get a professional job here, then I recommend going for it. It’s not impossible; I did it after all. You might even find it’s more doable than you think…and better than even you dreamed it would be. Sometimes the grass just stays greener when you go to the other side.
Top Photo By Magnetismus