There was a certain irony when I turned up in the world’s most notoriously gender equal nation a year ago as a single woman in my early thirties.
Back in London, I’d left behind a bunch of friends with young children. Most of the mothers were stressed about how to juggle their careers with parenthood and expensive childcare. The fathers worked such long hours they barely saw their babies awake.
I was aware that by contrast I had chosen to take a job in a country that offers generous parental leave for both partners, coupled with affordable daycare. But with no children myself, I didn't think this would be relevant to my life.
I couldn’t have been more wrong.
The fact that Swedish fathers can – without harming their careers – take months off work to look after their children or leave the office at 4pm to pick them up from school, is part of a much bigger jigsaw of gender equality policies that benefit the entire population. When sharing childcare becomes normalised, so does the idea of having a balance of men and women in senior jobs, regardless of whether they have kids.
One of the first things I noticed when I moved to Sweden was the number of female role models in public life compared to other countries. Most obvious were the three party leaders in parliament, two of whom have had babies this year and are sharing their parental leave. The UK may have beaten Sweden to getting its first woman prime minister in 1979, but the late Margaret Thatcher remains the only female head of a nationwide parliamentary party in history.
Similar comparisons can be made in the fields of science, business and technology. And I continue to be surprised by the prominence given to women’s sport on Swedish television.
During the ten years I spent working as as reporter in the British media, I lost count of the number of times I was told how “hard” it would be to continue my career as I got older, given the often erratic hours. It was assumed both that I would want children and become their primary caregiver. Over the last thirteen months, not one person in Sweden has commented on my gender in relation to my job.
The Local's Editor Maddy Savage worked in the British media for ten years before moving to Sweden. Photo: Benoit Derrier
Of course the UK is still much more progressive than many other countries. And I am aware that there are plenty of women around the world facing far, far greater oppression. But living in Sweden has made me realise just how much I was surrounded by sexism back home.
Here in Stockholm I don’t get whistled at by builders. I don’t get taxi drivers asking if I have a boyfriend. I don’t get computer repair staff suggesting I ask a male friend to help me install new software.
There is a sexual freedom to being a woman in Sweden too. While I’ve only dated one Swedish man during my time in Stockholm, it’s clear that sleeping with someone on the first night is far from taboo here, whatever your gender. As one Swedish guy I know put it: “How can we judge girls who are just behaving in the same way as us. Everyone gets a bit lonely sometimes”. Trust me, it’s not the same in the UK.
I am well aware that things aren’t perfect in the Nordics. That three quarters of all board members of listed Swedish companies are men. That a similar proportion of professors in higher education are also male. That it is still much more common for parents who work part time to be mothers, rather than fathers.
And on the other hand I’ll admit that there are times when I long for the more gentlemanly aspects of traditional male behaviour that also stem from centuries of perceived female inferiority. I miss having doors opened for me and being offered help with a heavy bag.
But I’m more than happy to forgo these experiences in return for the sheer liberty I feel as a woman living in Sweden. If I wasn’t a feminist before I moved here, I am now.
Do you agree with Maddy? Share your views in the comments section below