Norway prides itself on being among the world’s most egalitarian countries, but a United States federal court has found it guilty of gender discrimination. Now Norway faces paying out millions in compensation after one of its consulates in the heavily Norwegian-American state of Minnesota paid a former female employee much less than her male colleague.
The local newspaper Star Tribune reported on New Year’s Day that US Federal Judge Susan Nelson has ordered the Norwegian government to pay former employee Ellen Ewald USD 170,594 (NOK 1.26 million), double her lost wages, plus another USD 100,000 for emotional distress after her efforts to receive equal pay failed.
Former US Vice President Mondale testified
The Norwegian government was also ordered to pay USD 1,000 into the state of Minnesota’s treasury for violating its Human Rights Act and faces liability for covering Ewald’s legal fees, which may approach as much as USD 2 million (NOK 14.8 million). Ewald’s lead attorney Sheila Engelmeier told the StarTribune that their fees rose that high because of all the time they had to spend on the case: “Norway fought us at every juncture and refused to do the right thing.”
Ewald had filed suit after discovering that her male colleague earned roughly 40 percent more than she did even though their jobs were comparable. Her boss at the time was the former Honorary Consul General and former US Vice President Walter Mondale. He initially testified that the jobs were not entirely comparable but the pay gap was so wide that he urged Norwegian officials to address the issue.
“To his credit, Vice President Mondale, along with (his successor) Honorary Consul (Gary) Grandrud, attempted to bring this issue to the attention of the (Norwegian) embassy in their letter to the (Norwegian) Ambassador describing the pay differential as ‘unjust and embarrassing,'” Judge Nelsen wrote in her 191-page decision. “It was also unlawful. Unfortunately the pay differential was never corrected and this lawsuit followed.”
For Ewald, who now works for a firm that helps Norwegian companies set up operations in the US Midwest, the decision handed down Wednesday made for a very happy New Year. “I hope this can help other women who still experience discrimination in the workplace,” she told the Star Tribune.
Considering an appeal
Norwegian officials, led by Norway’s former ambassador to the US at the time, Wegger Christian Strømmen, continue to call Ewald’s lawsuit “groundless” because Ewald worked with research and education issues while her male colleague worked with business and innovation. “We have always meant that the pay difference between the two positions was well-founded and based on professional considerations,” Frode Overland Andersen, a spokesman for Norway’s Foreign Ministry, told Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) on Thursday.
Andersen said it was unclear whether the Norwegian government would appeal the US District Court’s verdict. He noted that the government was acquitted on seven of eight points in Ewald’s complaint, in which she also claimed she was harassed, badly treated and demanded higher compensation, but lost on the pay gap issue.
“We will take the court verdict under advisement and study it before we decided what we will do further,” Andersen told NRK.