‘Swedish feminists should embrace free markets’

Swedish feminists could well secure more support if they decided to embrace free markets rather than left wing ideologies, argues Nima Sanandaji of the Captus think tank.

The modern feminist movement has clear left wing tendencies, with many feminists assuming that market economies are built upon structures that oppress women.

But is this necessarily true? One could make the argument that market economies actually create opportunities for women, while public monopolies within welfare systems limit women’s careers.

Feminist intellectuals in Sweden have become rather influential. Their ideas are supported by the state and incorporated within all levels of public education and research. However, although suggestions such as a “man tax” have been brought forward, feminist ideas have in many cases not been translated into public policy.

The feminist party, Feminist Initiative, was given ample opportunities to reach out to the Swedish electorate during the 2006 elections, but received few votes.

The lack of progress for feminism might be due to the strong influence of left wing ideology, which creates alienation. Many Swedish feminists readily mix Marxist ideas with the women’s cause.

For example, in a speech given at Lund University, one of the leading figures of Swedish feminism, Professor Tiina Ronsenberg is quoted as saying: “Do not be depressed – act. Sooner or later the patriarchy and capitalism will fall, I promise!”

Another example is that of Gudrun Schyman. The leading figure in the Swedish feminist party is also the former leader of the Swedish Left Party, which used to be tied to the Soviet Union. Understandably, feminist ideas become less relevant for public policy decisions when strongly tied to radical left wing ideology.

But is their analysis true to begin with — that capitalism as such is against the interests of women? One can make two simple observations that disprove this hypothesis. Firstly, all countries in the world with high standards of living standard have, in one way or another, adopted market economies. For example, a rapid development from poverty to wealth is occurring in China, Vietnam, India and Eastern Europe due to a transition from socialism to capitalism. This development is undeniably good for both men and women.

Secondly, empirical studies clearly show that women can in fact succeed within market based economies, sometimes even surpassing men. Studies show that young women are actually earning more than men in some American metropolitan areas. A demographer at Queens College has recently reported that women of all educational levels within the age group 21-30 and working full time make 17 percent more in salary than the corresponding group of men. A similar situation is also found in Chicago, Boston and Minneapolis. In Dallas, the gap was 20 percent in favor of women.

In Sweden on the other hand, female entrepreneurship is particularly limited. When the Swedish Federation of Private Enterprises compared 25 European nations, they found that only Ireland and Malta had a higher ratio of male to female entrepreneurs than Sweden. Only 3.9 percent of Swedish women run their own businesses, compared to a 5.7 percent average in the 25 EU nations surveyed.

Limited opportunities for female entrepreneurship in Sweden are strongly linked to welfare policies. Women tend to work in caring services, such as healthcare. These jobs typically fall within various state monopolies in Sweden where entrepreneurship is either not allowed or strictly limited.

Professional women are also hurt by the monopolies, since employment in the public sector is often characterized by low wages. This is the reason why American nurses, who often work in the private sector, have the same salaries as Swedish doctors, usually employed by the public sector. Jobs in the public sector are also associated with bad working conditions. In Sweden, half of those on long term sick leave are found within the public sector, which only employs a third of the workforce.

Creating the opportunities for young women to catch up with, or even surpass, young men requires that we open up public monopolies for entrepreneurship and competition. There is then a case to be made that free markets promote rather than hinder the cause of women. The Swedish feminist movement would gain in popularity and be better able to find constructive solutions if they replace traditional anti-capitalist sentiments with a more open-minded view of the role of free markets.

Nima Sanandaji is president of the Swedish free market think tank Captus. He is currently writing a book for public policy institute The New Welfare Foundation (Den Nya Välfärden) about opportunities for women in the labour market and for female entrepreneurs.