Women Leaders and Transformation in Developing Countries
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Dr. Gro Harlem Brundtland (1939-)

Director General, World Health Organization (July 1998 - present)
Prime Minister of Norway (1981, 1986-89, 1991-96)

Norway Flag of Norway

Life Before Politics


Brundtland was born in Oslo, Norway on April 20,1939. Politics and medicine were fixtures of her life from the earliest days of her childhood. Brundtland's father was a medical doctor who specialized in rehabilitation medicine. When Brundtland was 10 years old, her family moved to the United States after her father received a Rockefeller scholarship to study. She was influenced by her father and became fixated on one day starting her own career in medicine. When her father accepted a position in Egypt as a United Nations expert on rehabilitation several years later, his family went with him, and Brundtland had her first experience with the UN System.1

After her family returned to Norway, Brundtland remained dedicated to pursuing medicine. Her father, who was also a prominent member of the nation's Labour Party, was appointed Defense Minister of the Norwegian cabinet. Brundtland's father had already convinced his daughter join the Party's children's organization: young Gro had been a member of the Labour Party since age 7. Political debate, she recalls, was always present in her home, and was always fascinating to her. 'There were always political and intellectual challenges," she says. At dinner time, she often questioned her father about the political issues he faced in cabinet. "I was always asking, 'Why are things so? Why can't we do more?" In addition, Brundtland's parents encouraged their daughter to believe that women can achieve the same things in the world as men.2

Education and Medical Career:

Brundtland received a Doctor of Medicine degree from the University of Oslo in 1963. In 1965 she received a Master of Public Health degree from Harvard University in Massachusetts. From 1968 until 1974, she worked for Oslo's Department of Social Services as the Assistant Medical Director of the Oslo Board of Health. There, her career focused on children's health issues.1


Brundtland is married to Arne Olav Brundtland, a prominent member of Norway's Conservative party, the opposition to Brundtland's Labour Party. Also an expert on international relations he said in a 1989 interview with Time, "My field is analysis of international relations. Her field is doing international relations. That makes for very good morning seminars." The Brundtlands have four children and eight grandchildren.2

  Political Chronology
1970s Lobbies for abortion rights in Norway.
1974-1979 Serves as Minister of Environment.
1977 Becomes one of the Labour Party's members of parliament.
1981 Becomes Head of the Labour Party.
Becomes Norway's youngest ever and first female Prime Minister. Appoints 8 women to the 18 total positions in her cabinet--a first in Norway.
1981-1986 Labour party loses power, Brundtland leads the Party in opposition to the new government.
1983-1984 Upon a request by the UN Secretary General, Brundtland establishes the World Commission on Environment and Development. She chairs the convention, which created the term "sustainable development."
1986-1989 Labour Party victorious, serves as Prime Minister.
1989-1990 Labour Party loses power again, Brundtland leads opposition.
1990-1996 Reappointed Prime Minister when the Labour Party again regains power.
1992 After the suicide-death of her son, Brundtland resigns as Labour Party Leader, but remains Prime Minister.
1995 Attends and speaks at the Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing, China.
1996 Resigns as Prime Minister, is rumored to be seeking the position of UN Secretary General.
1998 Elected first female Director General of the UN World Health Organization

First 100 Days as Director-General of WHO

"There is a very close connection between being a doctor and a politician. The doctor tries to prevent illness, then tries to treat it if it comes. It's exactly the same as what you try to do as a politician, but with regard to society."

--Gro Harlem Brundtland2

Brundtland has only been Director General of the WHO for a few months. But she is already putting her combined medical and political skills to work at her new job.

Brundtland's first act as Director-General was to completely alter the structure of the WHO. The organization now consists of programs in nine separate "clusters." Each cluster is headed by an Executive Director. Following in the tradition she established in Norway, a majority of the Executive Directors -- five of the nine ministers -- are women.

Brundtland's agenda for the organization includes:

  • Two programs aimed at stopping non-communicable diseases, "Roll Back Malaria" and the "Tobacco Free Initiative"
  • Bringing aid to the victims of Hurricane Mitch
  • Working toward developing an AIDS vaccine
  • The "Stop TB Project," which aims to curb the spread of Tuberculous
  • Developing a "sustainable health financing system," aimed at helping nations financially support programs and doctors to combat diseases.
  • Confronting the problem of global poverty. "WHO has to be the vocal force to drive home the message that poverty remains the biggest source of ill health--and that ill health in turn breads poverty," Brundtland said in a November 10, 1998 speech to the Permanent Missions of the United Nations in Geneva. "We need to present the evidence and develop the language to demonstrate that the right investments in health -- to all -- but especially to children and women -- means investing in a strong economy..."3

Women in Norway4

  • In 1965, nine out of ten mothers did not work. Today, nine out of mothers have jobs outside of the home.
  • In 1978, Norway enacted "Act no. 45 on Gender Equality." The Act stated, "Differential treatment of women and men is not permitted." Among other things, the Act stipulated that women must be given equal pay, equal access to education, and established that 40 percent of the members of all public bodies with more than four individuals must be women. The act is strictly enforced.
  • In the 1993 elections, both candidates for Prime Minister were women.
  • Between 52 and 55 percent of the students in Norway's universities are women.

Brundtland on Womens' Rights

"Women power is a formidable force."5

"Women will not become more empowered merely because we want them to be, but through legislative changes, increased information, and redirection of resources. It would be fatal to overlook this issue."6

  • As Prime Minister and as Party Leader, she enforced a strict quota established by the 1978 Act on Gender Equality which stipulated that 40 percent of candidates on her party's ballot must be female and 40 percent of candidates must be male.7
  • During political campaigns, she has been the subject of sexistslander from male opponents, who sneered at her, calling her "Chatterbox" and "Mother."2
  • Brundtland has never had fewer than 8 women in her 18 member cabinet. Norway has the highest proportion of women in "top govemment" positions in the world.8
  • Fought to get legislation passed in Norway legalizing abortion.9


  1. "Dr. Gro Harlem Brundtland." United Nations press release, <http://www.who.org/inf-dg/biographies/gh-brundtland.html> 6/29/99
  2. Gibbs, Nancy. "Norway's radical daughter" Time 25 Sept. 1989.
  3. Brundtland, Gro Harlem. "Address to the Permanent Missions in Geneva." 10 November 1998.
  4. "Human Development report of 1995." Norway's Ministry of Children and Family Affairs, 1995.
  5. Gro Harlem Brundtland, Closing Address, Fourth World Conference on Women, Beijing, 1995.
  6. Gro Harlem Brundtland, International Conference on Population and Development, Cairo, Egypt, 1994.
  7. Technology Review April 1993.*
  8. Serrill, Michael S. Time October 1986.*
  9. Brundtland, Gro Harlem. "Empowering Women." Environment December 1994.

* This citation currently incomplete. It will be updated as soon as it is practically possible to do so.

Map of Norway
Click on map to see full size version.
Click on inset for clickable world map.

Statistical Highlights
Total Population (thousands) - 1996 4,370
Population Growth Rate - 1996 0.52%
Crude Birth Rate (per 1000 pop) - 1996 13.9
Crude Death Rate (per 1000 pop) - 1996 10.0
G.D.P. (Mill. NOK) - 1996 1,017,794
G.D.P. Growth Rate - 1996 5.3%
GDP per capita (Kroner) - 1996 232,320

Gender Equity Information
Women per 100 Men 102
Full Suffrage for All Adult Women Obtained in (year) 1913
Percentage of legislature consisting of women 39%
Percentage of cabinet consisting of women 39%
Literacy Rate (F/M) 99% / 99%
Life Expectancy at Birth (F/M, in years) 80.3 / 74.1

Development Information Score
(of 1.000)
(HDI of 174)
(GDI of 163)
HDI 0.943 3
GDI 0.935 2

Hear the Norwegian National Anthem, from National Anthems of the World
Flag graphic byAntonio Martins, courtesy of FOTW: Flags Of The World website <http://fotw.digibel.be/flags/> 6/29/99
   (Click on flag for full size version)
Map courtesy of theUniversity of Texas' Perry-Castañeda Library Map Collection <http://www.lib.utexas.edu/Libs/PCL/Map_collection/Map_collection.html> 6/29/99
Statistical Information provided by the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs "Minifacts about Norway" page <http://odin.dep.no/ud/publ/1998/statistikk/en/> sections 10 and 15.
7/13/99 (This page is hosted by the "Official Documentation and Information from Norway" [ODIN] server at <http://odin.dep.no/>)
Gender Equity Information provided by Neft, Naomi and Levine, Ann D. Where Women Stand: An International Report on the Status of Women in 140 Countries 1997-1998. NewYork: Random House, 1997.
Development infromation provided by the United Nations Human Development Report 1998 <http://www.undp.org/hdro/98.htm> 6/29/99
   HDI = Human Development Index; GDI = Gender-related Development Index; Click on an index name in the table to view the full chart for that index

Biographical profile ©1999 Hillary Cavanscki. Compilation of country information by Michael Cohen '01. Site as a whole is ©1999 Dessima Williams and CIMTech at Brandeis University. All rights reserved. Further copywright and contact information available at the site index.