'Sweden is not some kind of equality paradise'

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'Sweden is not some kind of equality paradise'
Demonstrators at an International Women's Day rally in Stockholm. Photo: Jonas Ekströmer/TT

It's time to challenge the image of Sweden as the world's gender equality frontrunner, writes Cecilia Schelin Seidegård, head of the Swedish government's special inquiry on gender equality.


Swedish governments often boast about gender equality in Sweden. Government upon government has claimed that these advances have given Sweden a strong international position. The latest is the feminist government, spearheaded by Stefan Löfven, which insists that Sweden is and ought to be a frontrunner in the area of gender equality. On its home page the government writes that Sweden has great international reputational capital to maintain and develop.

I believe it is high time to challenge the image of Sweden as some kind of equality paradise. Even though Sweden has a good position in many international rankings, it does not mean that the country is equal. Rather, it could be understood in relation to insufficient progress in many other countries. Nor does it mean that things are moving forward in Sweden. The country's position in the Global Gender Gap (World Economic Forum) ratings has gone from the top in 2006 to fourth in 2014. The same tendency is visible in the Inter-Parliamentary Union's list of the number of women in national parliaments, where Sweden can nowadays be found as number six, after having enjoyed a leading position for a long time. It is problematic that progress in Sweden is more or less standing still. As Sweden now has a feminist government, it is time to assume a strategic and long-term approach to gender equality policies.

Since April 2014 I have led a special government inquiry to follow up and analyze the progress of equality between women and men over the past ten years. The inquiry will also analyze the implementation of equality policies and assess how efficient political measures have been in relation to the equality political objective – that women and men should have the same power to shape society and their lives. Against this background the inquiry should propose a direction and organization of future equality politics.

On March 8th, International Women's Day, the inquiry released some of the research that has been produced within the scope of our remit. Our preliminary results do not make for a merry read.

1. We can conclude that male dominance in positions of power in politics, state and businesses has not been broken in the past ten years. The number of men in parliament has instead gone up in two consecutive elections, as has the number of men in parliamentary committees and as committee chairpersons. Three-quarters of all board members of listed companies are men and 77 percent of professors in higher education are men. Our reports show that the more hidden the positions of powers in politics and private business are, the greater is the gender gap. Private business has not succeeded in bridging the gender gap by voluntary incentives.

2. As far as financial equality is concerned, the employment market and businesses still have a clear lack of equality. A strong gender divide is still prevalent in the jobs market and a large number of women work part time. But despite a slight decrease in gender segregation – women's work hours have increased and women's levels of education are higher than men's – it has only had a very small effect on wages. Even taking various parameters such as age, education, work hours and that women and men are found in different sectors and work groups, women's salaries have stayed at 93 percent of men's salaries. This figure has remained much the same since the middle of the 1990s. Income inequality between women and men is still 93.500 kronor a year, or about 3.6 million kronor for 40 years of work.

Cecilia Schelin Seidegård heads the Swedish government's equality inquiry. Photo: TT

3. Even though differences between the sexes have decreased in the past decade, women still carry out a greater part of unpaid home and care work. Men continue to claim less parental leave than women and they also take less leave to care for ill children (VAB, 'vård av barn'). In 2013, men claimed 25 percent and women 75 percent. Moreover, our research shows that women generally carry out more unpaid work, but have on average just as long working days as men. In the past ten years, however, men have increased their unpaid work by 12 minutes on weekdays and 15 minutes on weekends. The unequal divisions of unpaid home and care labour lead to lower incomes for women and by extension lower pensions than men.

4. As far as the target of ending men's violence against women goes, close to every third woman in Sweden has been the victim of serious physical or sexual violence as an adult. One in five women has at some point in her life been subject to physical violence, sexual violence where physical violence or the threat thereof has been involved, or to repeated and systemic psychological violence by a current or former partner. Almost 40 percent have been exposed to harassment, including sexual harassment. The figures painfully speak for themselves; men's violence against women has not been eliminated in the past decade, even though the problem has been given a lot of attention.

During the last two parliamentary terms a substantial 2.6 billion kronor effort was made to carry out specific policy initiatives. While there of course were several deliberate and thoughtful measures within the strategic framework, such as putting the spotlight on the issue of men's violence against women, our analysis shows that there were also serious flaws. That there was no overall comprehensive strategy is one example. The work was also generally linked to a project organization that would be dissolved when the specific targets had been met.

This notwithstanding, we note that there is a long way to go towards an equal society. The latest gender equality inquiry from 2005 concluded that there has been progress from 1995-2005, but it has happened slowly. Ten years later it seems that this inquiry, too, can conclude that there has been progress, but it has happened slowly. With the addendum: in some cases it has also moved backwards.

The gender equality inquiry ('Jämställdhetsutredningen') now works to outline proposals for the government on how equality politics can become more strategic, long-term and efficient. We urge the feminist government to put the leader's jersey back on and take responsibility for and control of the gender equality work, once and for all.

This is a translated version of a piece written by Cecilia Schelin Seidegård, head of the government's special inquiry into gender equality, and originally published by Dagens Nyheter.

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