Has Sweden got it right on gender equality?

I’m a bit late with my blog post this week as I spent the long weekend in Stockholm (which was awesome, by the way, definitely well worth a visit if you haven’t been!). During our stay my husband (aka the Architecture Geek) and I went to see the famous City Hall, designed by Ragnar Östberg and inaugurated in 1923.

During the visit, our tour guide educated us about the local and national political systems in Sweden; interestingly the Stockholm city council, which sits in the City Hall, is made up of 101 members out of which 50 are women. In fact, she noted, it has been a broadly equal split since the 1970s but there have never been quotas or affirmative action initiatives in place. This numerical gender equality has happened organically.

This seemed impressive, and fits with our idea of Sweden as a pretty advanced standard-bearer for gender equality. But . . .  during the same tour, we also encountered the stunning mosaics in the Golden Hall, which culminate in a personification of Stockholm as a huge female figure. On the revelation of this artwork by Einar Forseth, the guide tells us, there was quite a scandal as with her huge eyes and Medusa-like hair, the mosaic was considered ‘too ugly’ to be depicted in such a prominent space at the heart of government, and the artist (who had allegedly based her on his wife) was forced to defend his work. OK, so this was a long time ago, but the fact that this story is retold daily to groups of tourists means it still has currency; the cultural need for women to be beautiful, not powerful, is one that dozens of tour groups from a range of nations can be expected to instantly understand.

By coincidence, the BBC recently published a story about gender equality in Sweden and how it really feels – and the picture here is not necessarily as rosy as you might think. Sweden definitely has a strong record in the public sector, but as the article points out, ‘In 2016, more than 80% of managers at listed Swedish companies were men and not a single new business on the stock market had a woman boss’. Both startups and well-established companies, then, are struggling to really change the dynamic, despite the steps Sweden has taken to give parental rights to fathers and to provide affordable childcare for parents who want to return to work.

It’s a worry. Clearly Sweden has worked hard to legislate and this is a necessary step, but as we in England know, legislation can often feel more about sending a message than forcing real change. We have had equal pay rights enshrined in law in the UK since 1970, but change has been slow in coming, as Emily Thornberry points out in this article calling for an overhaul of current legislation.

What’s the answer then, and what can we learn? Well, it’s nothing new, to be honest, but my time in Sweden made me think about it again – legislation is not, and will never be, enough to really change the gender dynamic. Only when we tackle the cultural positioning of both men and women can we really say we have reached full diversity, inclusion, and equality. Until then, boxes can be ticked – and of course these are important, we should continue to fight for them – but real change cannot be said to have been made.