Men control Norwegian nature

Women are more or less absent in the management of outfield and nature conservation areas. Gender equality has been neglected within Norwegian nature management, according to researcher.
Men possess the most important positions when questions concerning nature conservation and area management are to be decided, according to a new PhD thesis. The picture shows a man hiking in the Dovrefjell-Sunndalsfjella National Park. Foto: GuoJunjun/Wikimedia Commons

Should we allow snow scooter driving or not? Should the wild reindeer be left in peace, or is the development of new holiday cabin estates more important? Where should the ski tracks go? And how many wolves should we allow in Norway?

Indeed, how should Norwegian nature be managed? This is decided by Norwegian politicians, but also by board members, local councils, committees, tribunals, and associations, all with their own mandates. They are there to represent different interests and to participate at the right arenas in order to ensure that the management is legitimate and democratic. 

Aase Kristine Lundberg has written her PhD thesis on how legitimacy is ensured in Norwegian nature management. She found that the interests of hunters, fishers, land owners, the tourist industry, hikers and environmentalists are all represented. But, by and large, they are represented by men, and it is the men who make the decisions.

Norwegian nature management is controlled by Norwegian men above the age of fifty.

“I didn’t really think that gender would be an issue in my research. I was interested in the various actors, whether they were hunters, fishers, land owners or others. But I wasn’t really interested in who these people were,” says Lundberg.

“But then I was challenged: does gender play a part here at all? And then the absence of women became too visible. I had spoken to mayors, I had spoken to representatives of various user groups, people in all kinds of important positions – and they were all men.”

Thus, gender does play a part in Norwegian nature management:

“Norwegian nature management is controlled by Norwegian men above the age of fifty,” she states.

Conflicts require legitimate management

The use of Norwegian nature has always been a topic of conflict. Since the beginning of the 1960s, areas have been designated national parks and protected zones in order to protect them from development and destruction. As much as 16,8 per cent of Norway’s mainland area is designated national park or other types of protected areas. In total, there are  approximately 2.700 protected areas on the mainland and on Svalbard. The degree of protection varies, and there is also room for interpretation within the Nature Diversity Act.

Aase Kristine Lundberg has studied gender equality in Norwegian nature management. Photo: Mari Lilleslåtten

“There are many differing opinions concerning the use of natural resources and how to best look after them. There are also discussions concerning who should make the decisions: Where should the decision-makes be positioned? What types of interests should be represented?” says Lundberg.

“What is decided to do with protected areas is significant for the local communities.”

In 2009, the Norwegian Storting introduced a reform for local management. The responsibility for the management of large protected areas was transferred from the County Governor to protected areas boards appointed by the Norwegian state. Lundberg has focused on these boards in her doctoral research.

The restructuring was meant to make the management more legitimate, by transferring the responsibility closer to those who were actually affected by the decisions. The boards consist of politicians on local levels such as mayors. But the reform also changed one management requirement: they now have to pay heed to the gender equality legislation stating that all boards have to consist of at least forty per cent women.

Women requirement a formality

Despite the requirement for gender balance in the boards, men’s interests are still dominant, according to Lundblad.

“Those who are appointed to sit in these boards are the mayors. In many rural municipalities, the mayors are men. The mountain authorities are also highly important within nature management. Leadership positions within the mountain authorities are typical positions for mayors to retire into after having served in local politics. Thus, these positions are also occupied by men.”

Following the 2009 reform, there is now a requirement for a forty per cent share of women in all boards. According to Lundberg’s overview there is an overall total of forty-seven per cent women in the relevant boards. Lundberg is nevertheless critical to the effect of this.

“It is just figures, they don’t have much impact on the power distribution,” she says.

Those representing the local authorities have more weight in these questions than those representing the county municipality, who are more peripheral.

“But the protected zone boards are following the gender equality legislation, and in several cases there are more than forty per cent women in the boards. How could this possibly have no impact?

“The boards have a forty per cent share of women. But the way in which this is distributed is not even. Women primarily represent the county municipality whereas men represent the local authorities.”

“Those representing the local authorities have more weight in these questions than those representing the county municipality, who are more peripheral. For instance, the local authorities are the ones who carry out land-use planning, which may be affected by area protection. The local authorities’ representatives are thus perceived as more affected than the county municipality, and therefore their views are considered more legitimate.”

“So do the women have a weaker position than the men?”

“Yes, due to the level they represent and who has the various positions. If you count the leaders and deputy leaders, there are more men in these positions. There are indeed several female deputy leaders, but my material shows that 29 out of 40 board leaders are men.”

In addition to the boards, interest groups are also important for nature management. Tourist associations, land owner associations, travelling agencies, nature and environmentalist organisations and others possess seats in so-called counselling committees. Here, twenty-six per cent are women.

“The counselling committees are meant to reflect the interests of the local communities. They are not appointed by the state, and they are not required to follow specific legislation, and they are not governed by anyone. Here, gender is neglected.”

“But if the relevant actors are represented in the boards and the interest groups, what is the problem?”

“The remaining question is whether there are other interests or voices that are not being heard or are not considered relevant simply because they are not there. But when gender is not discussed we don’t know the effects or the consequences of the imbalance.”

Men hunt, women pick berries

Surveys mapping Norwegian’s use of nature have shown certain gender differences. In general, men go for longer hikes and go hunting and fishing, whereas women go for shorter hikes in the local area and pick mushrooms and berries. This has consequences for how they express their interests.

“Hunters and fishers organise. The same applies to land owners, whereas women’s interests such as picking berries and mushrooms are considered more individual.”

Lundberg links the gender question to the question of which interests we attach value. For instance, if you are a member of a wild reindeer tribunal, hunting experience is an advantage. Since few women hunt, men are favoured for these positions.   

“It has to do with what you associate with the use of nature. But also with what you consider important versus less important use of nature. This may be developed into knowledge. What kind of knowledge is perceived as important when decisions are being made, and what is considered less important?” 

Much environmental deterioration is connected to a male dominated, profit oriented and anthropocentric approach to nature.

The questions with which the boards and interest groups are dealing are not about whether nature should be protected, this is already established. But there is a certain leeway within this protection.

“It is possible to interpret the regulations for protection within the management plans. The plans are important tools for further management. In the process of their making, one may pull things in a more or less liberal direction within the regulations.”

Lundberg thinks it would be useful to look at Norwegian nature management in a wider perspective, and consider gender here.  

“It would demonstrate which values are brought up in the discussions on protection and use of nature.”

“The development of holiday cabin estates is an example of financial activity in nature which has to do with the use of nature. Here it would be interesting to see whether there are differing interests and whether these are gendered,” she says.

“Should women take an active part because they have a different relation to the environment and are more preoccupied with environmental protection?”

“There are certainly differences in values. At the same time, this may become very deterministic, therefore it is difficult to say anything bombastic in one or the other direction,” says Lundberg.

“Much environmental deterioration is connected to a male dominated, profit oriented and anthropocentric approach to nature. But we know little about how gender more concretely affects decision processes related to nature.”

See also: Old farms, new men

Gender neglected

It took some time before Lundberg became aware of the gender dimension in her project, and she therefore didn’t ask her informants about gender equality in the first place. According to her, it is conspicuous that no-one brought up gender, as the questions she asked were about legitimacy and representability. 

“The informants from boards and interest groups could say things like ‘we’re a widely composed group’ or ‘we represent many different interests’. But gender is not one of those interests,” she says.

“It becomes a paradox when it is argued that the transferral of management responsibilities to more local actors make the decisions more legitimate, democratic and just. The question remains who are to be represented, and how is the gender balance within the body of representatives.”

Men and women practice outdoor life in different ways.

“They don’t connect gender to justice, legitimacy and broad processes. It is not made relevant in nature management.”

“How do you think it is relevant?”

“The ability to participate is a right in itself. It has to do with interests and resources. Different people bring along different experiences and are able to contribute differently.” 

“Men and women practice outdoor life in different ways. This also has significance for which measures receive resources and priority,” according to Lundberg.

Equality was the elephant in the room

Hanne Svarstad is a sociologist and professor at Oslo and Akershus University College of Applied Sciences. She recognises Lundberg’s analysis from her own research on the establishment of national parks in the 2000s.

“During my first field-work on protected areas we interviewed a man who was a member of a committee working to ensure local participation in a protection process. He was a representative for the land owners in this case. While we were talking to him his wife served coffee and something to eat. We asked her a few questions, and she was at least as verbal and reflected as he was,” she says. 

“It turned out that the wife was the actual land owner. She was the farmer, and she took care of both infield and outfield, whereas the husband had another position outside the farm. Yet he sat in the committee in which they hadn’t found room for a single woman.”

In the districts, these have been the interests of the local male elite.

Svarstad found the same tendency in other councils and committees. In the National park plan between 1992 and 2010, forty new and fourteen enlarged protected areas were established. Reference groups were assigned to create local participation in the protection processes. In a survey of fifty-four reference groups, Svarstad’s research team found that less than eleven per cent of the local participants were women.  

Area management and nature conservation are often considered highly important political cases in rural communities.

“It is often mayors, previous mayors, and mostly middle-aged to older men – men of significance to the local community - that have been local representatives in such cases.”

Despite the requirement for forty per cent women in public committees, Svarstad is of the opinion that the local authorities, the county governors, the at the time Norwegian Directorate for Nature Management (now under the Norwegian Environment Agency) and the environment ministers all turned the blind eye to the fact that the share of women was too low when it came to area management and nature conservation.

“They all failed with respect to gender equality in this area.”


“In the districts, these have been the interests of the local male elite. It has been difficult to create legitimacy for the processes themselves among these local elites, and therefore the authorities at the higher levels have not wanted to provoke them.”

According to Svarstad, that is the reason why gender equality became the elephant in the room.  

“It was completely quiet, and no-one made sure that the forty per cent rule was observed.”

See also: Tough love on the farm

Important internationally, but not at home

Within research on area use and management of natural resources in developing countries, many researchers use gender perspectives. In Norwegian aid to developing countries, gender equality is a goal in itself. Additionally, equality considerations should be integrated in all questions, among them questions concerning climate and natural resources. According to Svarstad, it is a paradox that Norway has linked questions of gender equality to sustainable development – abroad.

“It became particularly obvious when the Kenyan biology professor and environment activist Wangari Maathai visited Norway in 2004 to receive the Nobel Peace Prize. In her work in rural Africa, she emphasised how people need to take part in their own sustainable development. Maathai further emphasised that women in particular have to be active participants in such processes,” she says.

“In Norway, we point to the lack of gender equality within nature management in Africa, but there has been little willingness to do the same in our own country.”

Aase Kristine Lundberg makes the same observation:

“When talking about developing countries it is perfectly OK to use gender inequality to explain decision making processes concerning nature, whereas here we don’t talk about it. Few gender researchers study the use of nature, and few outfield nature researchers are interested in gender. It is simply a blind spot.”

And according to her, the result of this blind spot is problematic:

“The whole premise is that nature management has become better and more legitimate, and that these men represent all interests equally. I would deny that, because they don’t.”

Translated by Cathinka Dahl Hambro. 

Read more about how gender is integrated into global development strategies in the articles Women central to the global fishing industry and Prize for research on agrarian rights.


About the researcher

Aase Kristine Lundberg defended her PhD thesis Handling legitimacy challenges in conservation management: case studies of collaborative governance in Norway at Norwegian University of Life Sciences in November 2017. One of the articles in the thesis addresses gender equality in conservation management.

Latest news


News Magazine

Our news magazine is an independent online newspaper and a member of the Norwegian Specialised Press Association Fagpressen.