New Internationalist

A Glimpse of the Future

Issue 090

Sweden has gone further than any other Western nation to legislate women’s rights. And the changes are having far-reaching effects. Anuradha Vittachi looks at how Swedish men and women are responding to this new equality.

OFFICIALLY, women in Sweden are more liberated than anywhere else in the world. ‘It’s socially unacceptable in Sweden today to think women are anything less than the equal of men,’ I was told by a young male teacher in one of Stockholm’s suburbs. ‘Male chauvinists here have to retreat to the frozen North.’ In every country, rich or poor, the biggest barrier to equality for a woman is her burden of ‘bearing and caring’ for children. That is why you cannot travel in Stockholm now by bus or train without being confronted by government sponsored posters promoting the idea that men should share fully in the task of bringing up their children. ‘Father’s freedom to be with children’ reads the caption ‘it’s natural. Make the most of your rights.’ Now under Swedish law men can take as much as six months ‘paternity leave’ when a child is born, without loss of pay or job security. Or men and women can decide to share ‘parenthood leave.’

Men and women can also take up to three months leave at any time before the child’s eighth birthday if they feel they need to spend time with a son or daughter - for example during the settling-in period at the start of school. And there is now a proposal pending to extend this nine-month total to twelve months.

Men as well as women can take up to twelve days a year leave when their children are sick - and they do. On several occasions in Stockholm I found my appointments postponed because the men concerned had to go home to look after an ailing child. Swedish law also gives couples the right to share one job so they can be free to look after their children equally. Nor can a father of a young child be legally refused his right to work a six-hour day. And there is mounting pressure to pay him for the two hours he spends at home. All these changes mean men have more time for sharing family duties.

To back up these changes there have been other reforms to help equalise the sexes. The retirement age is the same for men as for women. Free abortions are available up to the eighteenth week of pregnancy. Free contraception counselling services are available to all. Husbands and wives are taxed separately. Wives are no longer classified as ‘dependents’. Marriage is seen now as just one form of ‘voluntary cohabitation between individuals’. Custody of children following a divorce may be shared between parents and is not automatically awarded to the mother.

‘There’s a big crisis in Sweden now and it’s a crisis for the men,’ I was told by Lars Nilsson, a young journalist. ‘The men have to face the problem of changing their traditional role to keep up with changes in society and the demands of women. The man who can’t change loses all the time. He is stuck, like Superman where there is Kryptonite About.’

Photo: Reijo Ruster
Lennart 'Hoa-Hoa' Dahlgren, Sweden's champion weightlifter, appears on a series of posters encouraging men to assume their parenthood rights. Swedish men have the right to six months paid paternity leave. Photo: Reijo Ruster

Even men with traditional views of the submissive and domesticated wife can find their expectations shattered by the matter-of-fact acceptance of equality by women. ‘My parents had pretty conservative ideas about men and women,’ said the owner of a small business in his late thirties. ‘But not so my wife. So when I got married I had a problem. It forced me to change. Now my wife and I take care of the business and the children, and the cleaning. At first it was unusual for me - especially the laundry. But now at home we share, fifty-fifty, and I’m happy my 14-year-old son takes sharing for granted. He’s been cooking dinners all week.’ The change has been rapid. ‘In the last generation,’ said a quiet, middle-aged woman, ‘my mother took care of everything in the house. In my generation, my husband “helps” me. In the next generation, the man will not “help” the woman - the work will be shared.’ Says Gudrun, another Swedish mother, ‘I’ve thought a lot about the fact that when he goes out all he says is, “I’m off now.” But when I go out I ask him if he’ll look after the children. They’re his children as much as mine.’

Everywhere stereotypes are under attack. ‘I had to fill out a form sent from New Zealand and it asked if I was a dependent wife,’ says the mother of two teenagers. ‘I refused to fill it in. It’s an insult to a Swedish woman.’

‘We have to take care now not to present images of women in sexist roles,’ confessed a middle-aged advertising executive. ‘There are just too many complaints if we do.’ So the foundations seem to have been laid for achieving equality between the sexes in Sweden. But there is still a long way to go. Cooking and childcare classes for boys and metal work for girls may be compulsory at school but 86 per cent of students in technical courses are still boys and girls still flock to nursing and preschool training colleges. And although men have been entitled to parenthood leave since 1974, less than 10 per cent of fathers have been taking advantage of their rights.

Women may earn equal pay but their access to equal work is only theoretical. The labour market is split between ‘men’s jobs’ in heavy industry and ‘women’s jobs’ in the service sector. Three-quarters of all gainfully employed women work at only twenty-five different jobs’ - and it can be no coincidence that these jobs are badly paid. Even in female-dominated professions the top jobs usually go to men. For instance, teachers tend to be women, but head teachers tend to be men. The management of the hotel I stayed in was almost exclusively male but invariably my bed was made and my room cleaned by women.

Sweden’s radical ideal whereby the ‘time-cake’ of men and of women would be carved into four equal portions - one for paid work, one for family, one for community service, and the last for leisure - is still a dream. But things are on the move. Where else in the world could a woman feel within her rights to complain that her husband ‘only’ took two months leave to look after the baby?

Government investment grants are made to traditionally ‘male’ industries on condition that 40 per cent of the new jobs created are for women - and vice versa. Eva Sandburg, who runs a day-care centre, told me that her staff welcomed men applying for jobs as child-nurses or pre-school teachers. ‘It’s better for the children to see father figures as well as mother figures caring for them.’

One young father who had successfully come through the crisis of changing roles described his experience:

‘The summer I spent with my wife and my son I felt very handicapped because I realised she was very much stronger than I when it comes to expressing feeling. She cries and shows her feelings in thousands of ways. Whereas I take a bicycle and escape … I can’t even cry. Not a tear, not a single tear. Then it comes out in uncontrolled anger. Men go out and drink to try and keep the feelings down. It’s very dangerous, a very explosive situation. I realised I had to do something about it.’

‘It’s always a question of balancing the role of being a father and being a working man. It’s very difficult. I must say I have been helped very much by my woman. She’s very strong on that. She says “You shouldn’t think you are indispensable because you’re not. You can work 30, 40 years more, but your child is young now. Maybe he needs you now, for these five, six years. Isn’t that much more important?” ’

‘I have come to realise that it is much, much more important.’

Alva Myrdal, one of Sweden’s most distinguished public figures, told me that one of her radio speeches in the 1930s was entitled ‘The Lost Father.’ ‘But,’ she said, ‘he isn’t lost any more.’

Anuradha Vittachi

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