Share this story
Close X
Switch to Desktop Site

Sweden's Liberation Goes Only So Far

Women here say this socially progressive country still has some changing to do

Five years ago Cecilia Omo was just another optimistic student preparing to graduate from dental school and begin a career in one of Stockholm's many state-run clinics.

Today, Omo and her partner, now in private practice, run a booming business and make more money than their husbands.

About these ads

"If I were a woman, I'd rather be a woman in Sweden," Omo says, taking a hurried break between patients. "We can do anything that men in other countries want to do. Women in Sweden have it the best in the world."

Sweden has long had a reputation for being among the most sexually emancipated countries in the Western world. Both men and women here espouse such progressive views on gender that they would be considered radical in many other countries.

Compared to women in many countries, the typical Swedish woman has it all: a great career, 2.1 children, and a husband who is as willing to fry the bacon up in a pan as he is to bring it home.

Homemaking and baby-care classes have long been required school subjects for both boys and girls. Discrimination laws make it difficult for employers to hire or fire on the basis of gender, and liberal maternity and paternity leaves, along with subsidized quality day care, facilitate women combining career and family. Fifty percent of all government ministers and 41 percent of the parliament are women.

But despite such statistics, Swedish women still talk of gender-bias problems. While Swedish women in general seem happier with their lot than their counterparts around the world, they are still likely to complain of a "mommy track" and inequality in the workplace.

For instance, while 84 percent of Swedish women work, only 48 percent have full-time jobs. And women who work full time earn 80 percent of what men earn.

While the gains Swedish women have made are considerable, feminists note that they have come about only in recent years. And although the status quo is changing rapidly, some achievements seem more style than substance.

About these ads

Still, a 1995 United Nations report measuring women's participation in political, economic, and professional activities gives Sweden the highest marks of 130 countries investigated. In a gender index contrasting female literacy, life expectancy, and economic data compared with men, Sweden came in first place with a score of 0.92 out of a possible 1.

"This is a country where women don't have to choose between having a job and having children," says Ebba Witt-Brattstrom, a well-known feminist, literature professor, and soon-to-be mother of four. "We have state feminism."

Swedish feminism often begins at birth, when both mothers and fathers are encouraged to stay home with their infants until they are old enough to enroll in day care.

All Swedish women are paid 80 percent of their salaries from the state if they take time off to be with their children.

Also, the government pays allowances of 750 kruna (about $100) a month per child, regardless of family income, to encourage women to have children, until the child turns 18. Child support and alimony legislation is also generous in favor of mothers.

Since few men have have taken paternity leave in the past, a new law encouraging them to do so offers parents 90 percent of their income, instead of the usual 80 percent, for 90 days - if the father stays home with the child for at least one month.

Such a climate may be behind the country's having the highest birthrate in Europe: 2.1 children per woman of child-bearing age. Roughly 90 percent of all Swedish women become mothers, putting the country second only to Ireland, where Roman Catholicism encourages high birthrates. In Sweden birth control is freely available and sex education in schools begins early. Abortions have been legal for more than 20 years.

On the whole, Swedish women often have their first child relatively late: when they are in their late 20s or early 30s. Russian art historian Margareta Tillberg says she began thinking about becoming a mother just last year.

"I've always done what I wanted to do. I've always followed my own wishes, and now I feel prepared to settle down without regretting that I should have done this or that," says Ms. Tillberg, who has lived in Switzerland, Russia, and Japan. "Now that I feel like a whole person, I feel I have something to give a child."

But the nuclear family here is not considered to be quite as important as it is in the United States. Sweden ranks high among countries where people choose to live together rather than get married. Hence the word "sambo," the Swedish equivalent of "significant other," which can be applied to a man or a woman and literally means "living together."

"In the '70s, nobody got married," says journalist Katarina Bjarvall, who has been living with sambo Mustafa and his three-year-old daughter, Zara, on alternative weekends for two years. "But in the '80s, there was a reawakening of conservative values and traditions." Ms. Bjarvall says she would eventually like to get married and have children of her own.

Her ideas conflict with many among her mother's generation, who scorned the idea of matrimony. "They thought marriage was only stupid symbols and empty traditions," Bjarvall says. "They would say that it's love that counts, not the symbols."

But for some, these symbols are gaining importance. "We could have lived together, but we wanted to confirm that we'd try to stay together for the rest of our lives," says technical writer Eva Solum, who married sambo Mats in August, nine months after the birth of son Martin.

Stained-glass-window designer Renee Kuhn, on the other hand, split with sambo Mikel when son Joakim was 2. She and Joakim, now 5, live together in a modern Stockholm suburb. The boy sees his father about four days a month.

"My brother is like a father to Joakim because they have everyday contact," Ms. Kuhn says. "And he sees his grandparents every afternoon. Without them, I don't think I could manage, I'd have to stop work earlier and make less money."

Many women in Sweden still complain of workplace discrimination. Women rarely fill top academic and corporate positions; only 7 percent of university professors are women. And low paid, traditionally female jobs, such as teachers and nurses, are still filled largely by women.

Like many women, Kuhn at first found it daunting to work in her traditionally male field. "When I first started ... people would look at me like, what are you doing here? Are you here to do the accounts?" she recalls. "I said 'No, I'm here to repair the windows,' and they all stared at me."

The workplace gap between the sexes is widening, many say. Some women are reluctant to take full advantage of maternity leaves, saying they return to work only to find they have been passed over for promotion or missed vital training, which their employers refuse to make available later upon their return.

"You often feel you are caught in the classical woman's trap, when you are suffering from a bad conscience whatever you do," says Ms. Solum, who has been working only part-time since Martin was born. "You're either abandoning your child or you're abandoning your career."

"There is a special Swedish blend of emancipation," says Professor Witt-Brattstrom, who specializes in Nordic women authors at Stockholm University. "There has been an unwritten contract where the stronger sex says to the weaker sex, you can have a job as long as you stay below us. You can be my secretary, but I don't want you to be my boss."

This was demonstrated most colorfully in the early 1990s, when the conservative government was in power. As the number of women in politics had dropped considerably, a group of prominent feminists, including Witt-Brattstrom, formed a group to lobby for expanded female representation.

Jokingly calling themselves the "Support Stockings," the group rapidly gained popularity. On the eve of last year's parliamentary elections, a poll indicated that the group would gain 43 percent of the vote if it formed a political party. The liberal Social Democrats, who would later win the elections, panicked.

Prime Minister Carlsson met with Witt-Brattstrom and another leader of the group and offered them a deal: If the Stockings refrained from forming a political party, he promised that 50 percent of his government would be female.

The result, while strikingly progressive for other European countries, was disappointing to these women.

"Only some of the [female] ministers have power, like the deputy prime minister," says Witt-Brattstrom, who is still pushing for greater representation. "Most have low ministerial positions with tiny budgets."

Still, she says, there is hope. While Sweden is far from perfect, the country has come a long way in the last few years.

She uses her husband, Horace Engdahl, as an example. It took half a decade before he turned into a sensitive '90s guy.

An arts critic with Dagens Nyheter, Sweden's largest morning newspaper, Mr. Engdahl is the first to admit he was a classic "male chauvinist pig" when the two first met.

"In my own family we didn't even carry our plates to the kitchen ourselves," he recalls with a hint of embarrassment, sitting in his spotless kitchen in Stockholm's fashionable Old Town after watching two hours of cartoons with his two youngest sons.

"It took Ebba five years to train me," he says, "I was disgusting in the beginning."

Follow Stories Like This
Get the Monitor stories you care about delivered to your inbox.