Why Swedish workplaces aren't as equal as you think

By Maddy Savage
Business reporter, Stockholm

image captionAmanda Lundeteg wants to expose Sweden's lack of equality

Sweden may have a global reputation as one of world's most gender equal societies but when it comes to female representation in business, campaigners question whether the Nordic nation is right to keep basking in the spotlight, as progress slows down back home.

Amanda Lundeteg, already a chief executive aged just 32, is in one way a poster girl for gender equality in the Swedish workplace.

She holds a degree in Business Economics, started her career in banking and has already served on three different boards.

Yet the sole reason Allbright, the non-profit company she manages, exists is to expose the limitations in career opportunities for women in Sweden.

Despite giving fathers the right to take paid time off since the 1970s and one of the world's most generous parental leave packages (currently 480 tax-funded days to share between a couple) and heavily subsidized day care - capped at some 1,230 Swedish krona ($141; £108) a month - Ms Lundeteg argues Sweden is less progressive than many might think.

"We're really good at bragging about how good we are... but if you ask most women in Sweden I definitely don't think that they are satisfied."

Gender stereotypes

On the plus side, more than 80% of mothers work and Sweden leads the industrialised world in terms of public sector gender equality, according to the OECD; but Allbright's research shows the private sector - and the rapidly growing startup scene - is struggling to keep up.

In 2016, more than 80% of managers at listed Swedish companies were men and not a single new business on the stock market had a woman boss.

image captionMartin Hector: "There's still a lot of fathers who don't take their parental leave"

The main reason for this imbalance is that traditional gender stereotypes prevail, despite decades of legislation designed to even things out, says Ms Lundeteg.

"It's possible to live a gender-equal life in Sweden, but we don't do it because of traditions.

"As a man you're supposed to be the one who works and brings home the meat to the cave. It's about stereotypes and privileges that will take time to break down."

Part-time roles

Figures from Statistics Sweden confirm that women still take more than 80% of a couple's parental leave while their first child is under the age of two.

Women also remain much more likely to work part-time than men. When it comes to the wage gap, Sweden is close to the OECD average and drops to 35th place on the World Economic Forum's gender equality ranking.

It isn't difficult to find Swedes who are willing to talk about the discrepancies.

"There's still a lot of fathers who don't take their parental leave so it's not perfect yet," says Martin Hector, 32, as he takes his baby son for a stroll in Ralambshovs park in central Stockholm.

"Over the summer, for three months or something like that, feels the most common."

He's planning to take a total of nine months off work.

Hiring gap

Camilla Dath, a lawyer who is also braving unusually chilly May temperatures of 2C with her seven-month-old, is taking 11 months' leave and says her husband will take a similar period off work.

But other parents might not have the same opportunities, she argues, if one partner earns substantially more than the other or because they work in organisations with more old-fashioned cultures.

"I have friends working in big law firms and they have a harder time to take parental leave," she says.

image captionLawyer Camilla Dath and her husband may be sharing their parental leave - but many other Swedes are not

When it comes to the number of women in management, the biggest discrepancies are still in the traditionally "male" industries of manufacturing and technology.

However, Allbright's research suggests that financial services and property companies have made "significant" improvements in recent years.

Rental accommodation firm Heba, for example, recently climbed 100 places in Allbright's rankings after replacing several of its top male executives, resulting in a female majority in management.

However its chief executive, Lennart Karlsson, is candid enough to admit that reaching gender equality was not his original goal.

"I thought competence was the main thing - competence and attitude - not sex, but I've changed my mind. The workplace works better because of the [gender] mix," he says.

"The discussion climate is better, you have a better conversation and a better understanding for each other."

Positive correlation

Amanda Lundetag argues this should boost his business too, citing several recent studies including a high-profile report for the Peterson Institute for International Economics, which concluded that there is a positive correlation between the presence of women in leadership roles and an organisation's performance.

It's a link that is definitely not lost on the Swedish politicians spearheading what they've described as "the first feminist government in the world".

The Nordic nation's Left-Green coalition pushed through a new law in 2015, aimed to encourage men to take a greater share of the parental leave. Ninety days are now reserved for fathers on a "use it or lose" it basis.

"What we want to see is an equal participation from the parents in the long run... but we also have to take it slowly so that families will be able to adapt to the changes," says Annika Strandhall, Sweden's Minister for Social Security.

image captionSimone French says the law is fine but the traditional culture drove her back to work early

Next year will even see the launch of a new Gender Equality Authority, an admission, according to Ms Strandhall, that Sweden's world-famous feminist initiatives have not been as joined-up as they might have been.

Split views

Yet while creating equal opportunities for men and women appears largely hard-wired into the national psyche, Sweden is split on the extent to which the state should intervene to pick up the pace.

The government's attempt to introduce legislation that would fine listed companies which fail to appoint women to at least 40% of board seats was rejected by parliament in January.

The fear of potential penalties seems to have acted as a catalyst, though; 33% of those put forward for board seats so far in 2017 are women, up 2% on last year, says Allbright, putting Sweden behind only Norway and France, both of which have legally-binding quotas.

However, the nationalist Sweden Democrats (currently the second-most popular party in the polls) and the smaller centre-right Christian Democrats -voted against the 90-day parental leave quota for fathers. They want families to have a greater choice when it comes to organising parenting.

"There is a societal pressure... because everyone goes back to work. I felt I would be going against the norm if I had stayed at home," explains Simone French, a 46-year-old who is originally from Australia.

She says she would have welcomed the opportunity to stay at home until her son started school. Instead she ended up taking just a year off from her digital marketing career amid pressure from her employer and relatives.

"It was my maternal instinct to be with my son - every fibre in my being fought against going back. It's not really talked about here but I have actually met a couple of Swedish women who felt the same."

'A culture thing'

However those cheerleading Sweden's march towards a completely gender equal society argue that evening out parental responsibilities is as much about giving fathers the same chance to bond with their children while they are young, as it is giving women greater opportunities to climb the ladder back in the workplace.

image captionSweden's laws on equality aren't lacking - banking analyst Andreas Lundvick is one of the rare fathers making the most of them

"You become closer with the children - a better connection," says Andreas Lundvick, 38, one of the other fathers back in Ralambshovs park.

He's taking time out from his job at a major Swedish bank to look after his six-month-old son while his wife is studying full-time, a move he believes will have "no impact" on his future career.

"I feel lucky, when you speak to people from other countries, and you hear about their situation, it's mostly the mum being home with the children. It's a culture thing."

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