If you’ve ever been to Scandinavia’s land of plenty, you’ll have experienced some of the benefits of a country that has spent much of the past half a century devoting its energies to social and gender equality.
The streets are clean, lined with tidy houses with freshly painted exteriors and underfloor heating, owned by generous taxpayers. If the economy is healthy, gender equality has a similarly shiny surface. It’s not hard to spot men pushing strollers in the street (on their own) and sipping cappuccinos and rocking their babies in trendy coffee shops. The Swedes worked hard to bail themselves out of a financial crisis and hefty national debt in the early 1990s, and they’ve worked with equal gusto to create a society of gender equality. 40 years ago, the government began their mission to encourage women back to work after childbirth. The government put in place a policy that offers either household earner 90% of their salary for 180 days, per child.
Today, 90% of Swedish men take paternity leave, and in 2012, 24% of men took all of the 60 days paternity leave offered to them. Equality is not only fast becoming a fact of life, but of language. In 1966 Sweden introduced a new gender-neutral pronoun, ‘hen’, to sit alongside ‘hon’ (she) and ‘han’ (he). The objective here was to refer to babies in a gender-neutral way – this practice is commonplace in nursery schools nationwide – which might stimulate their growth into people, rather than gendered social subjects. Whether or not you think the Swedes are on to something, you can’t deny the effort and thought that’s gone behind these policies, and what’s more, the enthusiasm of the social bodies and individuals that make it happen. That’s both the dads that say yes to their parental leave, the companies that encourage them to and their colleagues that don’t complain. It’s impressive. And the effects are vast: in 2012, female employment was only 3% below men. Women work on average 5 hours a week less than men, a smaller difference than any other EU member state. In 6 years, between 2006 and 2012, Sweden saw a 7% increase in the share of women heading public companies. Sweden has also been highly successful in enabling women to climb the ranks of the political system: 45% of government positions after the 2010 election went to women (a 2% slip from the year before), and 13 of the present 24 government ministers are women.
This wasn’t always the case. The year that Sweden implemented its gender-neutral paid leave, our daddy heroes of gender equal childcare took a mere 0.5% of all paid parental leave. The word ‘hen’ only caught on in national media 35 years after it was first suggested in government. This means that Swedish people aren’t perfect from the get-go (phew!). It also suggests that UK policy makers should aim high, and patiently encourage social bodies and individuals to join in. It might not feel ‘natural’, it will most definitely take time, but the results might be game-changing for women.