‘Sweden made me re-think affirmative action’

'Sweden made me re-think affirmative action'
Photo: Niklas Ehlén/Försvarsmakten; Ulf Huett Nilsson/Image Bank Sweden
Although Sweden’s emphasis on gender can at times seem a bit much to a foreigner, the battle to change perceptions of how a gender equal society can look, has made it a model to follow, Ruben Brunsveld observes.

Reacting to my latest contribution on The Local, some readers questioned if I wanted to live in Sweden or whether it would not be better to move (back) to another country.

One commentator even “marvel(ed) at Mr. Brunsveld’s almost neverending knitpicking of Sweden’s endless flow of ‘faults and inadequacies’’. So let me begin with stating the obvious: Sweden is a marvelous country in which to live!

So many important core values are anchored in society in a way that few other countries have managed. Transparency, equality, the rule of law, and many other human rights values are not only incorporated in the constitution but also woven deeply into the fabric of society.

And yes, sometimes I wonder if it doesn’t go too far.

For instance when a perfect stranger can find out my phone number in the middle of the night just from taking down the number plate on my car. But the bottom line is that when it comes to human rights, it is better to have a cup too much than a spoon too little.

And in one crucial area of human rights – gender policies – Sweden is one of the leading countries in the world, albeit with some work left to be done.

Despite the massive progress, the topic remains sensitive however, as demonstrated by the reactions to the article entitled “Men sue Swedish police for sexual discrimination” published on The Local on November 14th.

It reminded me of a negotiation I witnessed while working in Brussels over a decision to send an EU military peacekeeping mission to Africa.

The Swedish delegation delayed the vote because they could not accept a military mission that was so gender imbalanced.

At the time, Sweden’s focus on gender equality seemed excessive to me, but since moving to Sweden, my views on gender-based affirmative action have changed.

I used to be against it (not in the least because of the effect it can have for the women that are seen to be chosen for the mere fact of being a woman).

And while I still fully agree that jobs should in principle be fulfilled on the basis of merit, if candidates are equally suitable, it can be a merit for an organization to increase the number of female employees and that affirmative action can be used as a positive tool.

What prompted my shift on the subject?

As a foreigner in Sweden, one quickly notices that almost every commercial for childcare products shows men, while every recruitment posters for the army, police, or rescue services features women.

In addition, gender sensitivity is emphasized to any new company trying to make it in the Swedish market and anyone working in the field of communication and marketing will tell you that making a faux pas within “gender” in Sweden is extremely damaging to your image.

Around 70-80 percent of the way we communicate and the way we see the world is defined at an unconscious level. It is not in “logos” but in “ethos” and “pathos”. It is not in our brain but in our underbelly; our gut instinct which some say stems from that mysterious bundle of nerves known as the solar plexus.

It is the feeling we feel, not the knowledge we know, that defines to a large degree how we view the world around us.

So how did gender awareness become so rooted in Swedish society?

In order to change people’s perceptions of what a gender equal society looks like, the image of that society needs to change first. In Sweden, the “instinct” of people has changed when it comes to gender. The picture of society they see in their minds is no longer shaped by traditional gender-based stereotypes.

In some cases, quotas (explicit or otherwise) may be put in place to help shift the image presented by society. In other cases, more subtle measures may be applied such as a strong emphasis in media images. But they serve the same goal: to be a crowbar to the solar plexus to shift perceptions at an unconscious level.

They are a way of forcing the old image out and of getting people used to the new image of society. It is not until a society gets used to gender equal images that it will start to apply them in practice. A lesson Sweden understood early on.

Although Sweden’s emphasis on gender can seem like a bit much at times to a foreigner, I believe it has worked. By repeatedly showing gender equal images the norms have shifted, after which people start to apply it unconsciously.

So do I still secretly smile when I walk by an army recruitment poster that only features women? Do I still wonder if it is representative and functional?

Yes. But I’ll still take that cup too much any day of the week.

Ruben Brunsveld is the Director of the Stockholm Institute for Public Speaking (StIPS), which offers training in Intercultural Communication, Public Speaking & Negotiation Techniques

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