Sweden: Equality, no longer a public convenience
25 June 2010
A long-standing pioneer in the field of gender equality, Sweden appears to have lost its enthusiasm for social reforms of benefit to women. None of the country's major political parties has tabled concrete proposals on the issue in the run-up to general elections this autumn.
On 1 January 2009, the Swedish parliament decided to set aside the "sexual equality law" which had been in force in the country for 28 years. MPs voted to replace it and six other anti-discrimination measures with a single law to combat discrimination. In enacting the new legislation, the Swedish government aimed to simplify anti-discrimination protection, a field in which Sweden has now fallen behind the United States and the rest of Europe.
Has the reform era reached its conclusion?
However, the new law, which no longer directly promotes women's rights, marks a significant change in official policy. The goal of the original equality law was clearly stipulated: "first and foremost to improve the status of women in the working world." This objective has been ignored in the new legislation, which has also waived an obligation for annual reporting on differences in salaries paid to men and women. Reporting on the gender earnings gap will now be conducted every three years, and will involve a smaller number of companies.
Sweden benefits from a reputation as one of the world's most egalitarian countries, and the leaders of all of the parties in the Swedish parliament – with the exception of the Christian Democrats and the Moderates – claim allegiance to the feminist cause, but the reality is that 25 years have gone by without one major political initiative in the field of sexual equality. In their campaigns for next autumn's general election, neither the right nor the left is proposing a significant reform to achieve greater equality, which leads me wonder if one of the major social projects of our era has now reached its conclusion.
Most women work in part-time jobs
For years, Sweden was a pioneer in the field. The golden age of equality legislation in the 1970s was marked by a plethora of measures to improve conditions for women: the introduction of maternity benefit and parental leave, the axing of joint taxation for married couples, a new law on abortion, funding for crèches and the granting of the right to a six-hour working day for the parents of young children. Thereafter, new measures were thin on the ground and there was change in the nature of debate.
In the 1980s and 1990s, the emphasis shifted to the representation of women in political world, and in corporate and other organisations. In recent years, the focus has been more on the problem of violence against women, in particular on honour crimes, and the drive to introduce more severe penalties for sexual offenders. But these policies have as much to do with the will to fight crime as they do with the promotion of equality. Today, decisions and reforms that would have a direct impact on day-to-day relations between the sexes are conspicuously absent. Ongoing debate has raised only one real issue: the reform of the parental insurance system, which regulates parental leave and shorter working hours for parents, to encourage men to spend more time with their children.
Equality no longer a priority
But the question is highly controversial. According to a 2008 survey conducted by the Unionen trade union, 40% of its 4,400 members expressed a desire to preserve the current system. And the majority of those who were in favour of change wanted to be "entirely free" to choose who should stay at home, and against measures that might constrain their personal liberty. Another question that has been in the news is the right to full-time work, which the left-wing alliance is now presenting as a pro-feminist measure because most women work in part-time jobs. However, once again, there has been no definite pledge to introduce legislation.
Why are there no more major reforms? From a theoretical standpoint, the fact that today's men and women enjoy the same range of possibilities even if they do not always have the same effective freedom of choice could be the reason. On a more practical level, politicians are wary of intervening in the field of family policy, which is seem as a potential electoral minefield."Equality does not figure as a priority in this election campaign because the traditional political parties have adopted a patriarchal position, which treats it as a secondary issue," says Gudrun Schyman, a spokeswoman for the Feminist Initiative party.
Political parties increasingly opportunistic
Schyman is hoping her party will parallel the success of the Green Party, which overcame the initial difficulty of raising the profile of environmental issues to the point where they now feature in the policies of all the parties in parliament. There are many reasons why parties have trouble addressing issues of equality in their political programmes. One of them is that political dominance is now more fragile than it was in the past. Parties like the Swedish Social Democratic Party, which at one point ruled what was almost a de facto one-party state, had the privilege of being able to implement policies based on ideological convictions without worrying about their short-term impact on public opinion.
Today the situation has changed. Parties are increasingly opportunistic and equality is seen as a theme that involves major risks and relatively little in the way of benefits. That said, the right-wing alliance – which is relative novice in equality policy – is now attempting to enter the field in a bid to attract more women voters, who tend to favour left-wing rather than right-wing parties. This does not seem to bother Gudrun Schyman, who remains convinced that the Feminist Initiative Party will emulate the success of the Greens, so that in the future every party will be obliged to adopt a position on issues of equality.