Lessons from a Feminist Paradise on Equal Pay Day

sweden flag with a fabric...
sweden flag with a fabric...

Sweden seems to be an egalitarian, feminist utopia. So why are American women ahead of their Swedish counterparts in breaking through the glass ceiling?

On the surface, Sweden appears to be a feminist paradise. Look at any global survey of gender equity and Sweden will be near the top. Family-friendly policies are its norm -- with 16 months of paid parental leave, special protections for part-time workers and state-subsidized preschools where, according to a government website, "gender-awareness education is increasingly common." Due to an unofficial quota system, women hold 45 percent of positions in the Swedish parliament. They have enjoyed the protection of government agencies with titles like the Ministry of Integration and Gender Equality and the Secretariat of Gender Research. So, why are American women so far ahead of their Swedish counterparts in breaking through the glass ceiling?

In a 2012 report, the World Economic Forum found that when it comes to closing the gender gap in "economic participation and opportunity," the United States is ahead of not only Sweden, but also Finland, Denmark, the Netherlands, Iceland, Germany and the United Kingdom. Sweden's rank in the report can largely be explained by its political quota system. Though the United States has fewer women in the workforce (68 percent compared to Sweden's 77 percent), American women who choose to be employed are far more likely to work full-time and to hold high-level jobs as managers or professionals. They also own more businesses, launch more start start-ups and more often work in traditionally male fields. As for breaking the glass ceiling in business, American women are well in the lead, as this chart shows.

What explains the American advantage? How can it be that societies like Sweden, where gender equity is relentlessly pursued and enforced, have fewer female managers, executives, professionals, and business owners than the laissez-faire United States? A new study by Cornell economists Francine Blau and Lawrence Kahn gives an explanation.

Generous parental leave policies and readily available part-time options have unintended consequences: instead of strengthening women's attachment to the workplace, they appear to weaken it. In addition to a 16-month leave, a Swedish parent has the right to work six hours a day (for a reduced salary) until his or her child is 8 years old. Mothers are far more likely than fathers to take advantage of this law. But extended leaves and part-time employment are known to be harmful to careers -- for both genders. And with women, a second factor comes into play: most seem to enjoy the flex-time arrangement (once known as the "mommy track") and never find their way back to full-time or high-level employment. In sum: Generous family-friendly policies do keep more women in the labor market, but they also tend to diminish their careers.

According to Blau and Kahn, Swedish-style paternal leave policies and flex-time arrangements pose a second threat to women's progress: they make employers wary of hiring women for full-time positions at all. Offering a job to a man is the safer bet. He is far less likely to take a year of parental leave and then return on a reduced work schedule for the next eight years.

I became aware of the trials of career-focused European women a few years ago when I met a post-doctoral student from Germany who was then a visiting fellow at Johns Hopkins. She was astonished by the professional possibilities afforded to young American women. Her best hope in Germany was a government job -- prospects for women in the private sector were dim. "In Germany," she told me, "we have all the benefits, but employers don't want to hire us."

Swedish economists Magnus Henrekson and Mikael Stenkula addressed the following question in their 2009 study: Why are there so few female top executives in the European egalitarian welfare states? Their answer: "Broad-based welfare-state policies impede women's representation in elite competitive positions."

It is tempting to declare the Swedish policies regressive and hail the American system as superior. But that would be shortsighted. The Swedes can certainly take a lesson from the United States and look for ways to clear a path for their high-octane female careerists. But most women are not committed careerists. When the Pew Research Center recently asked American parents to identify their "ideal" life arrangement, 47 percent of mothers said they would prefer to work part-time and 20 percent said they would prefer not to work at all. Fathers answered differently: 75 percent preferred full-time work. Some version of the Swedish system might work well for a majority of American parents, but the United States is unlikely to fully embrace the Swedish model. Still, we can learn from their experience.

This was not the Swedes' intention, but they have demonstrated to the world what the sexes will and will not do when offered the same opportunities. Despite its failure to shatter the glass ceiling, Sweden has one of the most powerful and innovative economies in the world. In its 2011-2012 survey, the World Economic Forum ranked Sweden as the world's third most competitive economy; the United States came in fifth. Sweden, dubbed the "rockstar of the recovery" in the Washington Post, also leads the world in life satisfaction and happiness. It is a society well worth studying, and its efforts to conquer the gender gap impart a vital lesson -- though not the lesson the Swedes had in mind.

Sweden has gone farther than any nation on earth to integrate the sexes and to offer women the same opportunities and freedoms as men. For decades, these descendants of the Vikings have been trying to show the world that the right mix of enlightened policy, consciousness raising and non-sexist child rearing would close the gender divide once and for all. Yet the divide persists.

A 2012 press release from Statistics Sweden bears the title "Gender Equality in Sweden Treading Water" and notes:

The total income from employment for all ages is lower for women than for men.
One in three employed women and one in ten employed men work part-time.

Women's working time is influenced by the number and age of their children, but men's working time is not affected by these factors.

Of all employees, only 13 percent of the women and 12 percent of the men have occupations with an even distribution of the sexes.

Confronted with such facts, some Swedish activists and legislators are demanding more extreme and far-reaching measures, such as replacing male and female pronouns with a neutral alternative and monitoring children more closely to correct them when they gravitate toward gendered play. When it came to light last year that mothers, far more than fathers, chose to stay home from work to care for their sick toddlers, Ulf Kristersson, minister of social security, quickly commissioned a study to determine the causes of and possible cures for this disturbing state of affairs.

I have another suggestion for Kristersson and his compatriots: Acknowledge the results of your own 40-year experiment. The sexes are not interchangeable. When Catherine Hakim, a sociologist at the London School of Economics, studied the preferences of women and men in Western Europe, her results matched those of the aforementioned Pew study. Women, far more than men, give priority to domestic life. The Swedes should consider the possibility that the current division of labor is not an artifact of sexism, but the triumph of liberated preference.

In the 1940s, the American playwright, congresswoman, and conservative feminist Clare Boothe Luce made a prediction about what would happen to men and women under conditions of freedom:

It is time to leave the question of the role of women in society up to Mother Nature -- a difficult lady to fool. You have only to give women the same opportunities as men, and you will soon find out what is or is not in their nature. What is in women's nature to do they will do, and you won't be able to stop them. But you will also find, and so will they, that what is not in their nature, even if they are given every opportunity, they will not do, and you won't be able to make them do it.

In Luce's day, sex-role stereotypes still powerfully limited women's choices. More than half a century later, women in the Western democracies enjoy the equality of opportunity of which she spoke. Nowhere is this more true than Sweden. And although it was not the Swedes' intention, they have demonstrated to the world what the sexes will and will not do when offered the same opportunities.

Today is Equal Pay Day. But as most feminists know by now, the wage gap is largely the result of women's vocational choices and how they prefer to balance home and family. To close the gap, it won't be enough to change society or reform the workplace -- it is women's elemental preferences that will have to change. But look to Sweden: Women's preferences remain the same.

Not only feminists, but also liberal and conservative policymakers should pay attention. Sweden is not the "tax and spend" welfare state of old -- while the rest of the world is floundering in debt, Sweden (along with its Nordic neighbors) has been downsizing, reforming entitlements and balancing its books. The budget deficit in Sweden is about 0.2 percent of its GDP; in the United States, it's 7 percent. But Sweden's generous family-friendly policies remain in place. The practical, problem-solving Swedes have judged them to be a good investment. They may be right.

Swedish family policies, by accommodating women's preferences so effectively, are reducing the number of women in elite competitive positions. The Swedes will find this paradoxical and try to find solutions. Let us hope these do not include banning gender pronouns, policing children's play, implementing more gender quotas or treating women's special attachment to home and family as a social injustice. Most mothers do not aspire to elite, competitive full-time positions: the Swedish policies have given them the freedom and opportunity to live the lives they prefer. Americans should look past the gender rhetoric and consider what these Scandinavians have achieved. On their way to creating a feminist paradise, the Swedes have inadvertently created a haven for normal mortals.

This article has been cross-posted with permission from The American.