“A feminist foreign policy is an analysis of the world.”
— Margot Wallstrom, Sweden’s foreign minister, who introduced a feminist foreign policy in 2014, placing gender equality at the core of Sweden’s international relations
What’s so great about Sweden? Every year, the Nordic nation seems to rank highly on lists of the happiest, friendliest, most environmentally conscious countries in the world. But its another title it often claims that struck me: one of the best places to be a woman.
This week, Sweden was one of the top three countries (along with Iceland and New Zealand) on the Women in Work Index 2019, a comprehensive assessment of female economic empowerment across 33 member countries in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. (You can find the United States at No. 23, dropping two slots since last year’s report.)
But what does it really take to become one of the world’s most gender-equal societies? In Sweden’s case, it’s largely policy and legislation.
Here are several ways Sweden leads on gender issues.
Putting “feminism” front and center
In 2014, Sweden became the first government to use the word “feminist” to describe a policy approach. (On its official website, the nation even refers to itself as “a feminist government.”)
Sweden’s feminist foreign policy (yes, really) places gender equality at the core of the government’s priorities — from decision-making to resource allocation.
In 2016, Margot Wallstrom, Sweden’s foreign minister, who introduced the policy, told The New York Times that a feminist foreign policy uses the usual tools of diplomacy to address three questions: Do women have equal rights? Are women at the decision-making table? And are resources equitably distributed to women?
Policy objectives include women’s and girls’ freedom from physical, psychological and sexual violence; political participation and influence in all areas of society; economic rights and empowerment; and sexual and reproductive health and rights.
Offering 480 days of parental leave
Sweden, which has a population of about 10 million people, has the most generous paid parental leave policy in the world. Parents get 480 days of leave to share, 390 of which are paid out at 80 percent. (Single parents are entitled to the full 480 days.) These days can be used until the child turns 8. Sweden’s parental leave policy also applies to adopting parents.
Deconstructing gender in education
Starting with preschool, many of Sweden’s government-funded schools are doing what they can to “counteract traditional gender roles and gender patterns,” my colleague Ellen Barry reported last year. State curriculum even “urges preschool teachers and principals to embrace their role as social engineers.”
How are they doing that? Preschool teachers, for example, “avoid referring to their students’ gender,” Barry reported. They say “friends” instead of “boys and girls,” and play is organized to prevent children from sorting themselves by gender.
Today, girls generally earn better grades and perform better in national tests than boys, according to Sweden’s official website. And women now earn nearly two-thirds of all university degrees in Sweden. (Oh yeah, another thing: Swedish colleges and universities are free.)
Adopting gender-neutral pronouns (and quickly)
In 2012, the gender-neutral pronoun “hen” was introduced and swiftly absorbed into mainstream Swedish culture, something that, linguists say, has never happened in another country.
Prosecuting crimes against women
Last year, the Swedish Parliament passed a law requiring explicit consent from participants before they engage in a sexual act. “Sex must be voluntary — if it is not, then it is illegal” was the language used in the law, which aims to change the way sexual crimes are prosecuted in the country.
And 20 years earlier, in 1998, Sweden passed the Act on Violence Against Women, which pertains to crimes against women by current or former spouses or live-in partners. Under the law, men can be sentenced for each instance of physical abuse or sexual and psychological degradation against a woman.
Navigating ups and downs in business and politics
Women held only 6 percent of chief executive positions in Swedish companies listed on its stock exchange, 29 percent of company board seats and only 5 percent of board chairs, according to a biannual report on gender equality published in 2016 from Statistics Sweden, a government agency.
And on average, women’s monthly salaries are about 88 percent of men’s, or 95.5 percent when profession and sector are taken into account.
Yet on the flip side, 97 women and 102 men led Sweden’s public agencies in 2015, positions appointed by the government, which also sets the salaries for the posts. And of the 10 highest paid appointees, four were women.
Sweden also has one of the world’s highest proportions of female lawmakers. After the 2018 election, women occupied 161 of the 349 seats.
If you could bring one of these policies back to your home country, which would it be? Write to firstname.lastname@example.org.
What else is happening
Here are five articles from The Times you might have missed.
“It’s been tough at times to have men tell me they will not work for me because I’m a woman.” Forty servicewomen and veterans share the stories that have stuck with them the most from their time in the military. [Read the story]
“Why International Women’s Day isn’t going away.” For all the progress women have made, they are still a long way from true equality. [Read the story]
“I thought I was strong, but felt powerless.” Senator Martha McSally, the first woman in the Air Force to fly in combat, said a superior officer had raped her while she was serving. [Read the story]
“The mind-set was, ‘Don’t be like us.’” As fertility rates across the United States continue to decline, some of the largest drops have been among Hispanics. One big reason: generational difference. [Read the story]
“Is one new statue of a righteous, working, trailblazing achiever enough? No.” New York will add for statues of women to help fix “glaring” gender gap in public art. [Read the story]
31 Days of Women: Noor Inayat Khan, Indian princess and British spy
For women’s history month, we’re highlighting stories of trailblazing women you may not know, but should. We’ll bring you two women each week in this newsletter; head over to our Instagram for daily posts.
Noor Inayat Khan was not what one would expect of a British spy. She was a princess, having been born to Indian royalty, a Muslim, a writer and a musician. But she was exactly what Britain’s military intelligence needed in World War II.
She joined the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force in 1940 and became the first female radio operator to be sent by Britain into occupied France. Within 10 days of her arrival, all the other British agents had been arrested. Her superiors wanted her to return to Britain, but she refused, saying she would try to rebuild the network on her own. Read more about Noor Inayat Khan here.
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