‘Why Sweden’s #MeToo wave is not despite but because of its gender equality’

'Why Sweden's #MeToo wave is not despite but because of its gender equality'
Swedish actors read out anonymous reports of harassment. Photo: Jonas Ekströmer/TT
OPINION: With its wave of #MeToo stories, Sweden is once again leading the way for gender equality, argues leadership coach Ruben Brunsveld.

“#MeToo campaigns shatter country's reputation for equality,” shouts the Daily Mail online. Other comments on social media include headings such as: “The myth of Swedish gender equality crushed” and “So much for Swedish feminism”. However, I believe that the wave of sectoral #metoo hashtags that we are witnessing in Sweden right now is not despite the fact that it is the most gender equal country on earth, it's because of it.

Like many people, I too have been shocked and appalled reading the first-hand accounts of so many brave women (and some men) on how they have been sexually assaulted in their workplace. In January of this year I wrote an article: “Why men are colour blind and privilege is not visible to those who have it“. In it I describe what happens when the blinders on gender equality come off and we see the world in full colour. But at that time, I still had no idea of how big and pervasive the issue of sexual harassment in the workplace truly is.

It's disturbing to hear and read the testimonies not only of anonymous lists of women but of friends and colleagues. And the interesting part is that while dozens of Swedish friends have shared their stories on social media or otherwise, I hear far fewer of them from other countries. On my social media I've hardly seen any personal stories coming out of my Dutch circle of family or friends nor from any other country.

Elin Ahldén, one of the people behind the PR industry's #MeToo call, recently attributed the wave of sectoral hashtags to Swedens collectivist tendencies. “We shout in unison, because that's what we do,” she said.

But while it's true that Sweden has a long tradition of joining forces for social change, this does not explain the large amount of sharing by individuals nor why this movement became so big in Sweden with over twenty sectoral hashtags. Something else must be at play. And with all these revelations coming out it is easy to jump to the conclusion that Sweden is “as bad as the rest of the world” when it comes to gender equality.

But could it be the other way around? Could it be that by opening up Sweden is once again demonstrating how much further it is in gender equality than the rest of the world?

In the famous intercultural research done by Professor Geert Hofstede Sweden has long been identified as the most “feminine” society in the world (had he been Swedish he would have chosen a different term). Femininity in his definition stands for a preference for cooperation, modesty, caring for the weak and quality of life. Society at large is more consensus-oriented.”

In 'feminine' societies, gender inequality also tends to be smaller than in strong masculine societies and they are characterized by less competition and more openness. In business terms, 'feminine societies place more important on creating a supportive environment than creating competition to achieve the best results.

In the parable of the sower, it is said that a seed that falls among thorns yields no crop, but a seed that falls on good soil, produces a crop – a hundredfold (Matthew 13:8). Sweden has prepared its soil for decades. So when the #metoo seed was sown, the soil was fertile. The world's most gender equal and “feminine” society had already created the environment for the global hashtag to be embraced, localized and taken to the next level.

Sweden – like every other country in the world – still has large problems with sexual harassment in and outside the workplace. But the way it is confronting it, illustrates not that “Sweden's reputation for gender equality has been shattered” but that once again it is showing all of us how to move forward.

Ruben Brunsveld is head of culture and leadership at Enact Sustainable Strategies. This opinion piece was first published on LinkedIn.