Reflecting on gender equity on the 6.37am bus

Reflecting on gender equity on the 6.37am bus
Social democratic newspaper editor Eric Sundström thinks about the position of women in society today.

During the past week, my apartment in central Stockholm was undergoing some renovations, so I spent the week living with my mother in the suburbs of Järfälla where I grew up. Every morning we rode the 6:37am bus to the commuter rail station to get into the city. Every morning the same faces kept showing up on the bus: nine women, a younger guy, my mother, and I.

In its simplicity, this is a story that reminds us that all political questions have a gender equity dimension as we look ahead to International Women’s Day on Saturday, March 8th.

Sure, many of the men living near my mother are handymen and need to take their car to work. Some are hopefully home on parental leave. But the fact remains: even public transportation awakens questions about gender equity. Men earn more, have a stronger position in their marriages, and take the car to work.

Women take the bus at 6:37 in the morning with my mom.

There’s no doubt that Swedish social democracy has done a lot in the struggle to build a society that treats the sexes equally. We haven’t shied away from reforms designed to increase gender equity. Measures such as separate tax returns for husbands and wives (1971) and the transformation of maternity payments to parental leave insurance (1974) were controversial then, but seem self-evident when viewed from today.

Two problems currently on the agenda are unequal use of parental leave insurance, as well as the fact that so many women are stuck in part-time jobs. Dads take out about 20 percent of all the available parental leave benefits. Nearly half of the women in the Swedish Trade Union Confederation (LO) work part-time. Three of four part-time workers are women.

One has to ask why one of the world’s best parties was so handicapped in its ability to act during its twelve long years in power. Things aren’t going to be better when the latest concrete reform—the gender equity bonus (jämställdhetsbonus)—comes from the right. After all, it’s the right which has used its bully pulpit to worsen gender equity through steamrolling the labour market and offering more money to stay-at-home parents who don’t use state-funded daycare (vårdnadsbidrag).

Someone who wants to implement smart reforms following the 2010 elections, if for nothing else than to compensate for missed opportunities, is Mona Sahlin. She is most certainly aware of the conflict between freedom of choice and boosting gender equity.

Sahlin ought to lead the way to new and daring gender equity goals, but others also have to help formulate strong proposals that can be a part of the 2010 campaign. An individualized or at least a three-part parental insurance programme ought to be a part of the reform package.

March 8th is also an opportunity to draw attention to the extreme oppression under which women live in other parts of the world. It’s worth remembering how the religious police in Saudi Arabia stopped a group of school girls from leaving a burning school building because they weren’t abiding by the religious dress code.

Fourteen girls died in the blaze—burned to death—and the event inspired a classic scene in the TV-series The West Wing. You can check out the scene on YouTube by searching for “CJ Saudi Arabia”. Doing so should give you a real eye-opener as we head toward March 8th.

Eric Sundström is Editor-in-Chief of Aktuellt i Politiken, a weekly publication distributed nationally in Sweden which examines political and societal issues from a social democratic perspective. It is produced by AiP Media Produktion, a subsidiary of the Social Democratic Party.