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Scandinavia and Gender Equality

Sunday, April 26, 2015 0:28
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The Scandinavian countries (more precisely the Nordic countries) of Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Finland, and Iceland have been the most successful nations at eliminating hindrances to female participation in the society.  They have not just removed blockades to their advancement, they have taken positive steps to ensure equality in the ability of men and women to live autonomous lives and participate in all areas of society.  Equality between the sexes is essentially a state requirement.  It is of interest to examine what striving for this national goal has meant in practice, and it is also of interest to try to ascertain why the Nordic nations made gender equality such a high priority, and why they managed to be so successful.
Lynn Parramore produced an article for Reuters addressing the uniqueness of the Scandinavian experience: Why Scandinavian women make the rest of the world jealous.  She begins by providing some data produced by the World Economic Forum.
“The Global Gender Gap Report ranks countries based on where women have the most equal access to education and healthcare, and where they can participate most fully in the country’s political and economic life.”
“According to the 2013 report, Icelandic women pretty much have it all. Their sisters in Finland, Norway, and Sweden have it pretty good, too: those countries came in second, third and fourth, respectively. Denmark is not far behind at number seven.”
“The U.S. comes in at a dismal 23rd, which is a notch down from last year. At least we’re not Yemen, which is dead last out of 136 countries.”
To help make the point that things are different in Scandinavia, Parramore provides this delightful photo of a Danish member of the European Parliament at work in one of the parliament’s sessions.
Parramore proceeds to examine the reasons why the Scandinavians might have been so successful.  Before going there we will first examine the policies put in place to implement equality between genders.  While Sweden managed only a fourth-place finish, it has, perhaps, been the most aggressive nation in implementing policies that not only encourage equality, but mandate it.
The Swedish government provides a description of its goals and policies: Gender Equality in Sweden.  This article begins by equating gender equality with fairness.  This notion of fairness seems to provide the basis of and the justification for the welfare policies for which Scandinavia is so famous.  If fairness is the goal, it means that everyone must have as equal an opportunity as possible, whether rich or poor, male or female. 
Their policy objective on gender equality is provided.
“Gender equality is one of the cornerstones of modern Swedish society. The aim of Sweden’s gender equality policies is to ensure that women and men enjoy the same opportunities, rights and obligations in all areas of life.”
Note the focus on shared obligations “in all areas of life.”  To ensure compliance with its policies, the Swedish government has a Minister for Gender Equality.
Learning susceptible to state influence begins at birth.  Consequently, education and preschool childcare is critical if fairness is to be attained.  There are two concerns to be addressed.  The first is that fairness demands these be provided to everyone at comparable levels of quality and at comparable expense.  In Sweden, formal education is free up through university level.  Childcare is available to everyone at a low cost that is proportional to parental income. 
Public provision of education and childcare is critical if fairness is to be maintained.  If education is left to market forces the wealthy will always figure out a way to obtain a high priced, and better education for their children.  Private education inevitably leads to inequality of opportunity.
The second concern related to childcare and education with respect to gender equality is that the service provided must not impose cultural or educational features that might favor the potential success of one sex over the other.  This can be a quite difficult task.  If a young boy shows interest in playing with a doll, should it be taken away from him?  Should girls be encouraged to play with dolls?  If a girl wishes to engage in potentially risky activity such as climbing trees should she be discouraged from that?  If a boy falls down and begins to cry is he told to tough it out or is he embraced and comforted?  How should a girl be treated in the same situation?  Sweden worries about these things.
“Ideally, gender equality should reach and guide all levels of the Swedish educational system. Its principles are therefore increasingly being incorporated into education in Swedish preschools.”
“The aim is to give children the same opportunities in life, regardless of their gender, by using teaching methods that allow each child to grow into a unique individual. The issue of gender equality is addressed continuously throughout elementary school to prepare students for further education.”
One of Sweden’s more controversial experiments involves gender-specific language.  In Swedish hon means she and han means he.  The word hen was selected as a gender-neutral pronoun.  Should the usage of hen be encouraged?
“Advocates say hen avoids the need to refer only to one gender or to use the cumbersome inclusive form of he/she, while also opening up the language for people who might not identify themselves as either male or female, or who wish to avoid referring to themselves as one sex or the other.”
“Critics argue that the word dilutes and damages the Swedish language and leads to confusion, particularly among children. Hen is being seen increasingly on Swedish websites and in print.”
This might be seen as going a bit too far, but there is some logic to it.  How can a girl feel equal to boys if the very words she has to use to describe herself imply a lower status: female versus male, woman versus man?  Most of us were taught that in English if the gender of a person need not be specified one should use the masculine pronoun.  In other words, if the person is worth writing about it is probably a male?  Even the word “queen” has the implication that one is in charge only because a suitable male wasn’t available to be king.
Let Sweden perform these experiments for us; we obviously still have a lot to learn.
How has this quest for gender equality worked out in terms of educational outcomes?  Sweden fears it may have been too successful.
“Today, a greater proportion of women than men complete upper secondary education in Sweden, which has come to attention as a reverse gender issue. Significantly more women than men also participate in adult education. Women comprise roughly 60 per cent of all students in undergraduate university studies and almost two-thirds of all degrees are awarded to women. Equal numbers of women and men now take part in postgraduate and doctoral studies.”
Gender equality after education can be addressed by public policy applied to the workplace.  Sweden has that Minister to address any issues that might arise.  A more subtle problem arises due to the fact that the mother has traditionally been more responsible for childcare and homemaking tasks.  Since it is quite difficult to compete with males unencumbered by such responsibilities, public policy has been aimed at minimizing that unequal burden.  Providing inexpensive childcare is very helpful at allowing women to return to work as soon as they wish to after childbirth, but that is an obvious move to make.  Sweden has taken a much more aggressive move to balance responsibilities.
Perhaps the most progressive of Sweden’s gender-equality initiatives is its policy with respect to time off from work after birth of a child.  This has been a difficult problem for women in the workplace.  Maternal leave policies in the United States are unevenly available, may not include pay for the time missed, and automatically put a woman who must be absent from work at a significant disadvantage with respect to men who do not have that problem.  Sweden addressed this issue by eliminating “maternal leave” and replacing it with “parental leave.”  Both fathers and mothers are required to take time off after giving birth to a child.  The goal is to encourage fathers to share the childcare burden as equally as possible. 
“In Sweden, parents are entitled to 480 days of parental leave when a child is born or adopted. This leave can be taken by the month, week, day or even by the hour. Women still take most of the days – in 2012, men took about 24 per cent of parental leave.”
“For 390 days, the maximum parental allowance is SEK 946 (EUR 105.0, USD 137.0) a day, as of 2013. For the remaining 90 days, the daily allowance is SEK 180. Sixty days of leave are allocated specifically to each parent, and cannot be transferred to the other. In addition, one of the parents of the new-born baby gets 10 extra days of leave in connection with the birth or 20 days if they are twins.”
“Parents who share the transferable leave allowance equally get a SEK 50 daily bonus for a maximum of 270 days.”
“Adopting parents are entitled to a total of 480 days between them from the day the child comes under their care. A single parent is entitled to the full 480 days.”
Michael Booth provides more information.  Men are required to take at least two months of the allocated leave.  Salary is covered at the 80% level up to the maximum specified above.  This leave can be taken at any time until the child reaches age eight. 
How many US women would be envious of the Swedish women?  How many US men would be envious of the Swedish men?  How has this worked out?  An article in The Economistprovides this assessment.
“One of the most powerful arguments in favour of splitting parental leave more equally is that it has positive ripple effects for women. Since Swedish men started to take more responsibility for child rearing, women have seen both their incomes and levels of self-reported happiness increase. Paying dads to change nappies and hang out at playgrounds, in other words, seems to benefit the whole family.”
Another indicator of gender equality is wage differential between men and women.  Sweden claims it has reduced the wage discrepancy to about 6%—so far.
“Pay differentials between men and women can largely be explained by differences in profession, sector, position, work experience and age. Some, however, cannot be explained this way and may be attributable to gender – these are called unjustified pay differentials. On average, women’s monthly salaries are 94 per cent of men’s when differences in choice of profession and sector are taken into account. Pay differentials are most pronounced in the private sector.”
And remember—Sweden only came in fourth in the assessment of gender equality.
The question yet to be answered is what is it about the Scandinavian countries that led to this dedication to equal treatment for women?  Lynn Parramore takes a shot at it.  The most compelling of her conjectures is the importance of the lack of a strong patriarchal theme in their societies.  This is attributed to turning away long ago from both military adventures and from Christianity, both of which lead to cultures of male dominance.  The countries mainly focused on their internal affairs after the Napoleonic Era.  They were Christianized much later in history than the rest of Europe and spent much less time being influenced by it.  They switched to Lutheranism at the Reformation with state churches being adopted.  Many people nominally still belong to churches—it can take an effort to extract oneself—but blithely ignore them when it comes to public policy.  Consider Sweden for which Wikipedia provides this information:
“As of 2014, about 65% of Swedish citizens are members of the Church of Sweden, compared to over 95% in 1970, and 83% in 2000.”
“Less than 4% of the Church of Sweden membership attends public worship during an average week; about 2% are regular attendees.”
“In a Eurobarometer Poll in 2010, just 18% of Swedish citizens responded that ‘they believe there is a god’….”
Parramore adds this thought:
“They tend to look at morality from a secular point of view, where there’s not so much obsessive focus on sexual issues and less interest in controlling women’s behavior and activities. Scandinavia’s secularism decoupled sex from sin, and this worked out well for females. They came to be seen as having the right to sexual experience just like men, and reproductive freedom, too. Girls and boys learn about contraception in school (and even the pleasure of orgasms), and most cities have youth clinics where contraceptives are readily available. Women may have an abortion for any reason up to the eighteenth week (they can seek permission from the National Board of Health and Welfare after that), and the issue is not politically controversial.”
All of the major Western religions, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, have left a legacy of male dominance and female subservience.  Most of the cultural clashes that exist in the United States can be traced back to religious and associated cultural tenets concerning the freedom of women to live their own lives as they choose.  We can never have a proper welfare state because that would mean supporting an unwed mother and her child when everyone knows that unwed mothers have sinned and must be punished—along with their children—rather than comforted.  The arguments over the right to an abortion have nothing to do with being “pro-life.”  Pro-lifers are quite willing to destroy any life other than what they presume is a living zygote, embryo, or fetus.  In particular, they are willing to let a living mother die in order to save what one day might turn into a child.  This is nothing but a brute force attempt to maintain control of women and their bodies.
God was created in the image of men.  We will bear the burden of that misconception until we also learn to ignore religion in making public policy decisions. 
One can only wonder what the world would have been like if god had been created by women instead.

You can learn a little about a lot of things or you can learn a lot about a very few things. Guess which is the most fun.


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