Women in Swedish Politics: An Irreversible Model of Gender Equality?

Lenita Freidenvall. Women and Politics around the World: A Comparative History and Survey. Editor: Joyce Gelb and Marian Lief Palley. Volume 2: Country Profiles. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, 2009.


For many years Sweden has been recognized for its gender-equality policies and high representation of women in politics. Scholars and politicians usually describe Sweden and the Nordic countries as world leaders and models in terms of gender equality. This can be noted in many of the various ratings and indices, such as the number of women in politics, women executives in public administration, women professionals, etc. For instance, according to the United Nation’s (UN) Gender Empowerment Measure, which measures women’s opportunities to participate actively in economic and political life, Sweden is ranked number two, after Norway and before Finland, Denmark, and Iceland (UN Development Programme 2008). When it comes to the representation of women in national parliaments, Sweden has been among the top three countries (together with Finland and Norway) in the world since universal suffrage was introduced in 1919. In the 2006 election, 47 percent of the members of parliament were women. Furthermore, since 1994, more than 40 percent of the cabinet has been women (the current figure is 45 percent). Voting participation has not displayed any marked differences between men and women since the 1970s.

Such ratings have led scholars and activists to turn their attention to Sweden and the other Nordic countries for explanations regarding women’s inroads to formal politics as well as for studies of the development of gender equality as a central political issue. Some scholars argue that because of the high descriptive representation of women, the Nordic countries offer a unique opportunity to study women’s substantive representation, that is, the outcome of more women parliamentarians (Bergqvist et al. 1999). Others have suggested that there is a special Nordic “passion for equality” (Graubard 1986) and that the Nordic countries can be seen as a laboratory of gender equality (Gomard and Krogstad 2001).

At the same time as Sweden scores high on gender-equality indices, many Swedish feminist scholars are highly critical of the Swedish gender-equality model. Women are not represented in the corporate world to the same extent as men, women earn less money than men, and women are responsible for the unpaid work at home and for family and children to a greater extent than men. Thus, there are certain problems, and the Swedish gender-equality model has been criticized for being ineffective, for being based on heteronormative norms, and for excluding immigrants and ethnic minority groups who do not fit into the model. Moreover, violence against women, trafficking, and increasing gaps between different groups in society are just some of the problematic issues that have not been eradicated or fully combated within the boundaries of the Swedish gender-equality model (Gustafsson, Eduards, and Rönnblom 1997). Scholars argue that gender-equality policies always have to “yield a little” to other policy areas that are perceived as more important (Skjeie and Teigen 2003). Some argue that since it took 80 years for Sweden to develop a (numerically) gender-equal parliament, Sweden cannot be seen as a model, or at least not the only model in this respect (Dahlerup and Freidenvall 2005).

Thus, there are different views on whether Sweden is a model or not with regard to gender-equality issues. This essay will problematize the Swedish gender model with a special focus on women in politics. In addition, the essay will investigate what can explain the high number of female parliamentarians in Sweden and the impact women’s political mobilization and representation has had on politics. Finally, the problems related to the Swedish gender-equality model will be scrutinized.

Analytical Approaches

To fully understand women’s inroads in political decision-making positions in Sweden, it is important to pay attention to the various feminist analytical approaches that Nordic scholars have applied. One strand of research has explicitly dealt with women’s political exclusion and marginalization and the patriarchal state (Haavio-Mannila et al. 1985). This approach has hypothesized that the political arenas where women have entered have been emptied or deprived of power and constitute “shrinking institutions” (Holter 1981). Or more precisely, “where women go in, power goes out,” as the slogan goes. In Demokrati och makt i Sverige, the influential historian Yvonne Hirdman (1990) discusses the conditions of women’s and men’s democratic inclusion. She argues that a gendered power system separates women and men into different political spheres (the principle of dichotomy) in a hierarchical manner (the principle of hierarchy). When women enter arenas established and dominated by men, such as the political arena, the principles of dichotomy and hierarchy contribute to an internal segregation and ordering. Thus, gender power relations are seen as relatively stable and hard to change.

A second strand of scholars has highlighted women’s inclusion in formal politics and active citizenship and described the state as being “women friendly” and a potential ally (see Hernes 1987; Dahlerup 1988; Skjeie 1992; Bergqvist 1994; Karvonen and Selle 1995; Wängnerud 1998; Bergqvist et al. 1999). According to this perspective, an increasing number of women politicians will contribute to more “women friendly” policies (Hernes 1987; Skjeie 1992). This perspective and its focus on actors and agency have been strong since the 1990s, and it can be seen as a reaction to the structural view on the state. However, although this dilemma between the two perspectives is well known, there is a lack of focus on the core problem: while a focus on structures risks undervaluing the opportunities of individuals to make a change, a focus on actors risks overvaluing the importance of agency (Wängnerud 1996). Current research on gender, politics, and the state stresses the relationship between structures and actors and the multidimensional aspects of the state.

A third, more recent and growing strand of scholars uses a poststructural perspective to address the lack of focus on minority women and ethnic minority women in research on women in politics (De los Reyes, Molina, and Mulinari 2003; Siim 2003). Building on intersectional perspectives on gender, this strand of scholars tries to break down the category “woman” into its multiple identities, such as class, ethnicity, race, nationality, age, and sexual orientation. All these analytical approaches suggest that the issue of women in politics has been a major—and a highly controversial—research area among Nordic feminist scholars.

Historical Context: From the “Apolitical” to the “Obligatory” Woman

The demand for universal suffrage was a key issue during the first decades of the 20th century. The process toward women’s access to formal politics began, however, in the late 19th century. Because of the 1862 municipal reforms, a few women had obtained the right to vote in local elections. These were unmarried women who either owned a certain amount of property or had an income above a specified amount.

In 1902, the question of women’s voting rights surfaced in the parliament. It was now argued that because married women would vote in the same way as their husbands, the extension of voting right to women was unnecessary. This spurred women to mobilize. Landsföreningen för Kvinnors Rösträtt (The National Suffrage Society) was founded in 1902, organizing thousands of women all over Sweden. The society campaigned for women’s right to vote and stand for elections by writing petitions, arranging demonstrations, and summoning public hearings (Rönnbäck 2004; Florin 2006). In 1919-1921 the society’s efforts paid off, when the universal and equal suffrage reform was introduced by a coalition government consisting of liberals and social democrats. The reform was introduced gradually, first extended to all men in 1907-1909 and subsequently to all women in 1919-1921.

During the first 50 years after suffrage was achieved—from 1921 until 1970—the number of women parliamentarians increased from 1 to 14 percent. Parties rarely nominated women, especially in winnable positions. Instead, women were usually symbolically included and assigned places further down on the party list. Nomination committees argued that the party tickets had to be balanced with respect to geography ensuring that all regions of the constituency were represented (Östberg 1997). Traditionally, the parties nominated just a few women candidates in each constituency—“the obligatory woman”—to comply with the demands made by the women’s sections (Karlsson 1996).

This situation prompted women to mobilize in a series of ways, both inside and outside the parties, to force party elites to select more women. One example of women’s mobilization can be dated to the late 1920s, when a group of women, associated predominantly with the Liberal Party, established women’s lists for the election to local councils in 1927 and the election to parliament in 1928. These attempts were unfruitful, resulting in no more than 0.5 percent of the votes. Another example of women’s mobilization can be dated to the mid-1930s, when women involved in the Fredrika Bremer Association—one of the oldest nonpartisan and feminist organization in Sweden—called a meeting in 1934 with 25 women’s organizations to discuss possible solutions to the problem of women’s underrepresentation in politics. This network recognized the need to target the political parties and encouraged women to join the parties and become involved in the nomination processes to promote women candidates. In 1937, the network established the Committee for Increased Female Representation, which was aimed at raising public awareness on the question of women’s political representation.

In addition to these strategies, women worked inside the political parties to lobby for the selection of female candidates (Sainsbury 1993; Freidenvall 2006). They were primarily involved in the women’s sections within the parties, and most activities revolved around the recruitment of women to party work and the placement of individual women on party lists. Many times “at least one woman” meant “no more than one woman.”

Values and Women’s Place in Society

The 1970s has been considered a breakthrough concerning gender equality in Sweden. Historians argue that this period in Swedish history can be seen as a “bloodless revolution,” a period when gender equality was politicized and institutionalized (Florin and Nilsson 1999). A new word for gender equality was even invented—jämställdhet, which literally means standing side by side—to distinguish equality between the sexes from jämlikhet, which primarily concerned equality between the classes. Ever since, gender has been seen as a natural part of political debates and gender equality has been established as a societal goal (Lindvert 2002). The Nordic countries have been classified as the most gender equal and women friendly with regard to women’s welfare and the harmonization of work and family responsibilities (Hernes 1987; Sainsbury 1999). So what happened in the 1970s?

In the mid-1960s, the so-called “sex roles debate” flourished in Swedish public life. This debate was initiated by academics, publicists, and politicians, who stressed the importance of socialization into female and male sex roles. According to proponents, greater equality between women and men in all aspects of life should be fostered: men should assume greater responsibility for child care and housework, and women should engage in more work outside the home, in professional life, and in politics. Gender equality was seen as a win-win situation—a double emancipation—with benefits for both women and men.

The sex roles debate was followed by a new socialist and radical women’s liberation movement that mobilized thousands of young women during the 1970s and 1980s. The slogan “the personal is political” became a united call and incited women to rise up against pornography, prostitution, and violence against women. Women challenged the traditional male concept of citizenship, arguing that an all-male political assembly was undemocratic and unacceptable (Dahlerup 1989).

Besides mobilizing in feminist groups, women were also active in movements with a focus on issues such as anti-nuclear energy, environmental issues, and international solidarity and development aid. Together with the mobilization of farmers’ and labor organizations, these new second-wave social movements contributed to changing values and attitudes and influenced political decision making.

The sex roles debate occurred at the same time as an economic boom in Sweden, a severe labor shortage, and concerns about the declining birthrate (Lindvert 2002). To facilitate women’s entry to the labor market, a series of family-friendly reforms were introduced. These included separate income tax assessment for wife and husband (1971), shared parental allowance for parents upon childbirth (1974), subsidized child care (1974), the right to six-hour working days for parents of small children (1979), and the law against sex discrimination in the workplace (1980). Earlier family-friendly reforms had been instituted in the 1930s: in 1938, reforms such as child support assistance, financial assistance to mothers, and universal maternity allowance were introduced, and in 1939, a law banning employers from dismissing women on the grounds of marriage or pregnancy had been adopted.

Besides these labor market-oriented reforms, additional women-friendly reforms were introduced, such as the approval of birth control pills (1974) and the right to abortion (1975). Furthermore, in 1982 all assaults and battery against women were made subject to public prosecution even if committed on private property, and a ban on pornographic “live shows” in public spaces was introduced.

In the 1970s, gender equality was also institutionalized. Since 1976, the overall responsibility for gender equality resides with the minister of gender equality, who is a permanent member of the government, even if he or she may have additional areas of responsibility. The minister is assisted by the Division for Gender Equality (Jämställdhetsenheten), which was established in 1982. Its main task is to help the minister develop gender-equality policy, prepare gender-equality legislation, and coordinate this legislation with other ministers. The minister also meets with the Council on Equality Issues (Jämställdhetsrådet) four times each year. The council is an advisory body consisting of representatives from the political parties, nongovernmental organizations, and social partners. Such ad hoc advisory groups as the “daddy group” and the “masculine roles group” have also been set up. An equal opportunities ombudsman (Jämställdhetsombudmannen) and an Equal Opportunities Commission (Jämställdhetskommissionen) were established in 1980 to oversee the observance of the equal opportunity acts. Since 1994, each minister has a responsibility for gender-equality issues within his or her portfolio, according to the principle of gender mainstreaming. Also, 21 gender-equality officers attached to the county administrative boards serve as the government’s extended hand in the counties (see Bergqvist, Blandy, and Sainsbury 2007 for further reading).

Also during the 1970s, the male breadwinner model was gradually replaced by an individual earner and carer model. Individual responsibility, self-sufficiency, and economic independence were highlighted as key concepts. By participating in paid professional life, women would be emancipated from economic dependency on men, and with men’s greater responsibility for domestic work and the care of children, the problem with stereotypical sex roles would be addressed and eventually rectified. In order for Swedish women to become independent and equal citizens, with full rights to social welfare benefits, they had to join the workforce (Florin and Nilsson 1999). Simultaneously, women’s issues were increasingly seen as party issues or societal issues (Sainsbury 2004). Women were indeed a political category to which attention had to be paid.

During the course of the 1980s and 1990s, gender-equality policies have been reinforced several times. For instance, in 1995, the “daddy month” was introduced, according to which 30 days of the total amount of 360 days of paid parental leave for each child had to be used by the mother and 30 by the father, and the remaining 300 days would be split up any way between the two parents. These days are reserved for each parent and cannot be transferred. In 2002, the number of such days was doubled, to 60. Since 2006, the maximum number of parental allowance days is 480 per family. The parental allowance is paid for 390 days at 80 percent of earnings (up to an income ceiling of 33,000 SEK per month), and for 90 days at a flat rate of 180 SEK per day. Sixty of the 480 days are reserved for each parent and cannot be transferred. According to predominant norms in Sweden, women and men should not be forced to choose between paid work and having children. In practice the outcome is somewhat different, which will be discussed later in the essay.

Despite the fact that gender-equality policies have been reinforced several times over the past three decades, the feminist criticism of the state has continued to be vigorous. In contrast to the focus on labor market issues and gender roles in the 1970s, a more critical posture toward the predominant gender order developed in the 1990s. Terms such as “discrimination,” “male dominance,” and “patriarchical structures” were increasingly used to frame gender-equality policies. Policy areas such as prostitution, men’s violence against women, and trafficking made their way onto the public agenda. Five of seven political parties have claimed to be feminist, ranging from liberal feminists, center feminists, and green feminists to socialist and radical feminists (Dahlerup 2004). A new political party, the Feminist Initiative, was formed in 2005, questioning the feminist intentions of the established parties.

Political Participation and Representation: Country-Specific Data

In the literature on women’s political representation, institutional, socioeconomic, and cultural factors are usually presented as important in explaining differences across countries. It is commonly assumed that the proportional representation electorate system, high district magnitude, closed party lists, socioeconomic advancement, and egalitarian and secular contexts are all factors contributing to a high representation of women, although many country-specific exceptions exist. In recent years, many Nordic scholars have argued that these factors function only as a starting point. To get a fuller picture, additional factors such as processes, party strategies, and the activities of women themselves need to be taken into account (Bergqvist 1994; Freidenvall 2006; Sainsbury 1993, 2004, 2005; Wängnerud 1998; Wide 2006).

The 1970s represented a takeoff phase with regard to women’s political representation. The number of women elected took a major leap and the 20 percent threshold was passed. Women were thus seen to a greater extent as a legitimate interest with a right to representation. Party ticket-balancing strategies changed, and special measures to increase the number of women in politics were introduced in all political parties (Freidenvall 2006). To most parties it became evident that simply including one “obligatory woman” on the party lists was an insufficient measure to deal with the matter of representation of women. The arguments for more women in politics were framed as a question of democracy. Since women constituted half of the population, they were entitled to half of the power, it was argued. Without an equal balance, Sweden would be an unfinished democracy (Sainsbury 2004 ; Freidenvall 2006).

The Ban on Purchasing Sexual Services

During the 1990s, policy areas such as prostitution and gender-related violence were transformed from social issues to gender-equality issues (Wendt Höjer 2002). An illustrative example of this discursive shift is the legislation prohibiting the purchase of sexual services, which came into force in 1999. For many years feminists and political parties had discussed the problem of an increase in prostitution (Eduards 2007; Svanström 2004). Several government commissions all came up with different solutions to the problem. The core issue was whether a ban on prostitution would result in more covert prostitution, thus making it more difficult for social workers to aid women prostitutes. Those in favor of “criminalising the John,” as the historian Yvonne Svanström (2004) labels the law, stressed the gendered power structures in a society where men are in superior positions compared with women. The proposal to prohibit the purchase of sexual services was eventually adopted in 1999, after years of pressure from female party activists and women’s organizations and intense discussions in media and parliament.

The law was unique, being the first of its kind to target the demand side of prostitution. Selling sexual services was not prohibited. Rather, the law emphasized the buyer, usually a man, as the core problem and as the reason for prostitution. According to political scientist Maud Eduards (2007), the official view of men’s sexuality was changed, from having been seen as a natural force difficult to tame and as a specific male right to being a question of politics to be negotiated. However, the view on men’s sexuality as strong and demanding lingers on, according to Eduards, but now the civilized man (the state) will protect women against the uncivilized man (the buyer). Thus, at the same time as the law enhances the picture of the Swedish man as someone who can be changed, the price for this national perception is that men’s freedom of action has been reduced and men’s homosociality has been broken.

The law can also be seen as an example of women’s substantive representation. It united female parliamentarians from almost all political parties (Svanström 2004). Together with the women’s sections in the political parties and the autonomous women’s movement, female legislators were the main movers behind this innovative law.

Over the course of the 1980s and 1990s, women went from being perceived as a minority interest group within the parties to being seen as a majority of the citizenry (Sainsbury 2004). This development took place as policies for promoting the representation of women slowly radicalized, moving from general recommendations to more specific targets, adopted by a growing number of parties from across the political spectrum (Freidenvall 2006).

Because of women’s continuous pressure for greater access to elected assemblies, the new ideas on overcoming assigned sex roles and the importance of gender equality in all aspects of life were integrated into party programs. By distancing themselves from the “feminists” in the new, radical women’s movement, the women’s sections managed to make their demands for more women in politics more acceptable and thereby they gained new life.

A mapping of these special measures shows that although there was opposition to gender quotas in all political parties represented in the Swedish parliament in the 1970s and 1980s, measures such as general goals or recommendations to increase the number of women were introduced during this period. These goals were often specified as minimum levels. For instance, in 1972, the Folkpartiet (Liberal Party) introduced a recommendation to have at least 40 percent of either sex on party lists. In 1984, this party decided to recommend that seats on the party lists should be alternated between women and men. In 1987, party quotas were adopted by Miljöpartiet (the Green Party) and Vänsterpartiet (Left Party). In general, all these special measures were introduced stepwise, typically by covering internal party committees before being applied to party lists. These special measures would normally first be formulated as general goals and later be specified as voluntary recommendations or binding quotas. A typical pattern was to first make a recommendation to allow a maximum of 60 percent of either sex, then prescribe a minimum of 40 percent of either sex, and finally to require (absolute) gender balance. Thus, the electoral competition spurred a competition between the parties and an increased radicalization over time (Wängnerud 2001, Freidenvall 2006). Once a party had introduced a new measure, the other parties soon followed suit. When party quotas were adopted by some political parties, they consolidated women’s gains rather than motivating them (Dahlerup and Freidenvall 2005). These types of quotas have been referred to as high-echelon quotas, which were (typically) introduced when the number of female parliamentarians was already high (Freidenvall, Dahlerup, and Skjeie 2006).

In the 1991 election, the continuous increase in women’s political representation came to an unexpected stop when the number of female parliamentarians decreased for the first time since 1928, falling from 38 to 34 percent. Although this percentage was still very high from an international perspective, party elites and women activists were somewhat shocked because it showed that the continuous upward trend was reversible. It thus served as a discursive shift from the Nordic incremental discourse embedded in an optimistic and linear view of future progress (Freidenvall, Dahlerup, and Skjeie 2006).

Women’s groups responded by exerting pressure on party elites and becoming involved in a cross-party network known as Stödstrumporna (the “Support Stockings”). With its demand for “half the power, full pay,” this network threatened to form a women’s party of its own if established parties did not take steps to increase the number of women in elected office. Many female party activists threatened to join the Support Stockings if the parties did not nominate more women for political posts. In 1993, a year before the next election, the zipper system—or the principle of Varannan Damernas—was adopted in the large Social Democratic Party (the single largest party at the time) and most of the other parties adopted stronger measures to increase the number of women. According to the principle of Varannan Damernas, seats on the party lists are alternated between women and men. The term Varannan Damernas literally means “every other one for the ladies” and refers to a dance-floor custom (also known as “democratic dancing”), whereby every other song gives women the right to invite the men to dance. Although the functional equivalent of a quota, this concept appeared to soften demands for a radical redistribution of political power by alluding to sympathetic rules of “taking turns” (Freidenvall 2005). As such, it avoided any reference to conflicts of interest between women and men, enabling calls for equal representation to resonate with dominant discourses of “consensus” and “equality” in Swedish society (Bergqvist 1994; Freidenvall, Dahlerup, and Skjeie 2006; Freidenvall and Krook 2007). As Eduards (2002) has pointed out, a dominant gender political pattern in Sweden is to frame political issues (in particular when the proposals are met by resistance) in conciliatory and nonconflictual terms in order not to threaten men. If possible, it would also be framed as a labor market issue.

The result of these measures was an increase in women’s representation of 41 percent in 1994, 43 percent in 1998, 45 percent in 2002, and 47 percent in 2006, roughly approximating the demand for equal representation. Most political parties have since incorporated the principle of Varannan Damernas, although they differ somewhat regarding the way the policy of alternation is used; the major difference concerns whether the policy is being seen as a recommendation or a quota. At the 2006 election, the number of women elected varied from 37.5 percent in the Christian Democratic Party to 63.5 percent in the Left Party.

Women’s gains in Parliament have also been paralleled in elected office at local and regional levels. In 2006, women constituted 42 and 48 percent of all elected politicians in the municipal and county councils, respectively. Moreover, since 1994 the government has had a minimum of 40 percent female ministers. The proportion of female ministers has increased from 11 percent in 1973 to 25 percent in 1985 and 45 percent in 2006. The current government, elected in 2006, consists of 10 female ministers (45 percent), which is slightly less than the governments of 1994, 1998, and 2002 which were composed of 50 percent women. In general, however, the number of female politicians has increased in all parties and at all levels of elected office.

In sum, women’s entry into formal politics as a process can be characterized by three features: integration, dual strategies, and incrementalism (Freidenvall 2006; Freidenvall, Dahlerup, and Skjeie 2006; Sainsbury 1993, 2004, 2005; Wängnerud 1998, 2005). Integration refers to the fact that women in Sweden have mainly worked inside the established political parties, together with men, albeit many times in women’s sections. They have primarily taken an integrationist perspective rather than a separatist one. Women have also been aided by autonomous women’s movements such as the Fredrika Bremer Association and the Support Stockings. Women have thus used a dual strategy, applying pressure on the established parties from inside and outside. Finally, incrementalism refers to the gradual and stepwise adoption of special measures to increase the number of female parliamentarians, supported by a positive view on historical processes.

Limits to Women’s Political Participation and Representation

In contrast to their advances in elected decision-making positions, women have been less successful in gaining appointed positions. For instance, in 2006, the proportion of female state secretaries and women in top administration was 34 and 36 percent, respectively (Statistiska Centralbyrån 2006). In a similar vein, the proportion of female ambassadors and consulate generals was 31 percent in 2004, having increased from 18 percent in 2000, and the proportion of director generals was 28 percent in 2001, having increased from 10 percent in 1989. The average time limit for the director generals was shorter for women than for men, and women were reappointed to a lesser extent (Sandahl 2003).

There are also limits to women’s participation and representation in terms of majority versus minority ethnic groups (11 percent of the Swedish population is foreign born and 6 percent is born in Sweden to foreign-born parents [Statistiska Centralbyrån 2006]). In the parliamentary election of 2002, 11 of 158 elected female members of Parliament were foreign born (7 percent), and corresponding figures were 8 of 191 for men (4 percent). At the municipal and the county council levels, 7 percent of the elected women, and 6 percent of the elected men were foreign born (Statistiska Centralbyrån 2006). Some of the political parties have adopted special measures to increase the number of persons born in non-Nordic countries (Freidenvall 2006). Since 2006, Nyamko Sabuni, born in Burundi, is the minister for integration and gender equality. At large, however, ethnic minority women continue to be underrepresented in elected bodies.

Economic Participation: Country-Specific Data

The employment rate is high among Swedish women. From 1970 to 2005, the share of women aged 20-64 in the labor market increased from 60 to 80 percent. In 1970, 42 percent of Swedish women worked in the public sector and 58 percent in the private sector. In 2005, the situation was more balanced: 52 percent of the women worked in the public sector and 48 percent in the private sector. Of all women in the workforce aged 20-64, 65 percent were employed full-time and 35 percent part-time in 2005. Also, in 2004, women’s income as a percentage of men’s was 92 percent, taking into account the difference between women and men in age, education, full-time/part-time status, sector, and occupational group (Statistiska Centralbyrån 2006). Moreover, the poverty rates of Swedish single mothers are low, in fact much lower than the poverty rates among single women without children (Sainsbury 1999).

Thus, during the past three decades, women have made progress in terms of economic participation, facilitated by the introduction of such welfare reforms as the tax system, parental insurance, and increased public responsibility for children, as discussed previously. An expanding public sector and active labor market measures can also be attributed to the increase in job opportunities for women. As Sainsbury (1999) has pointed out, Sweden has moved toward the individual earner-carer regime.

Limits to Women’s Economic Participation

Despite the significant reduction of the gender employment gap in Sweden over the past three decades, there are still differences in the pattern of male and female integration in the labor market. Women and men differ with regard to work tasks, working hours, pay, responsibility for the unpaid work at home, and use of parental leave benefits. For instance, the labor market is gender segregated. In 2005, women worked as much in the public as in the private sector, whereas men worked in the private sector to a greater extent (81 percent). Although women tend to work in such sectors as social work, health care, education, and science, men tend to work in such sectors as construction, industry, wholesale trade, and communications (Statistiska Centralbyrån 2006).

Moreover, women tend to be employed part-time to a larger degree than men. In 2005, 65 percent of all women aged 20-64 were employed full-time (Statistiska Centralbyrån 2006). The corresponding figure for men was 89 percent. Furthermore, average gross hourly earnings of women as a percentage of average gross hourly earnings of men suggests that a gender pay gap persists. Men still have higher salaries and wages than women in most occupations.

On the domestic level, women tend to take greater responsibility for the care of children. In 1974, when the law on parental allowance for the care of young children (with pay) was introduced, men made no requests for such leave. In 2005, men claimed 20 percent of the days (Statistiska Centralbyrån 2006). According to sociologist Barbara Hobson (2004), a norm seems to have been established in Sweden where men’s parental leave limits itself to a “daddy month.” Men are still seen as the main breadwinner, and a break in their careers is perceived as an economic loss.

Finally, women spend more time on unpaid work than men. Although women devoted more than 28 hours per week on unpaid work in 2005, the corresponding figure for men was slightly below 20 hours (Statistiska Centralbyrån 2006). A study by Ahrne and Roman (1997) shows that although young Swedish heterosexual couples without children tend to be gender equal in terms of taking responsibility for the unpaid work at home, gender-stereotyped differences with regard to paid and unpaid work recur when the first child is born.

Another limit to women’s economic participation is the uneven balance of women and men in managerial positions. This is often referred to as the Nordic paradox: the successful inclusion of women in political decision-making bodies vis-à-vis the inadequate representation of women in top positions in the corporate sector, public administration, and academia (Hirdman 2001). Of the 291 companies listed on the stock exchange in 2006, women constituted only 18 percent of their board members. Five of these companies employed women in permanent positions as managing directors (Statistiska Centralbyrån 2006). Although women accounted for 22 percent of managerial positions for private boards, the corresponding figure for public boards was 56 percent (35, 61, and 50 percent in governmental boards, municipal boards, and county council boards, respectively). A state investigation on gender quotas in the executive sphere, commissioned by the previous gender-equality minister, Jens Orback, proposed gender quotas to be introduced following the Norwegian law, according to which all public corporate boards and all private corporate boards on the stock market must be composed of at least 40 percent of each sex. With the change of government in 2006, this issue was taken off the political agenda.

The proportion of female university professors has also been a matter of controversy. In 1995, only 7 percent of the pool of professors consisted of women, causing Carl Tham, the then minister of education, to recommend affirmative action to promote more women to higher academic positions. Based on the report made by the gender expert and former Support Stocking, Professor Ebba Witt Brattström, 30 new professorial chairs were reserved exclusively for women. The bill created an outcry among male academics, arguing that it was a threat to meritocracy and would give women a state-sanctioned shortcut to academia (Törnqvist 2006). The policy has not been evaluated formally, but the number of women professors had increased to 18 percent by 2007. Women thus remain underrepresented at the high echelons in academia.

Impact of Transnational Feminism

The Nordic Council, established in 1952, has no doubt been very important for policy learning and policy sharing among the Nordic countries on issues related to women. The council has sponsored scholarly publications and handbooks on women in Nordic politics and Nordic gender-equality politics (see, for instance, Haavio-Manila et al. 1985; Dahlerup 1989; Bergqvist et al. 1999). Conferences and a Nordic institute for women and gender studies are other examples of Nordic cooperation. In 1974, AK-Jäm, a committee within the Nordic Council, was established to coordinate Nordic cooperation on gender equality. On several occasions, the Nordic countries have inspired each other, for instance, with regard to establishing women’s commissions and gender-equality machinery and implementing gender-equality policies (Borchorst 1999).

Another source of inspiration has been the UN. Since 1968, Sweden has submitted reports to the UN on the status of women. These reports have provided women—often women within the gender-equality machinery—with a chance for agenda setting. The two reports Step by Step (Steg på väg) and Side by Side (Sida vid sida), submitted to the UN in connection with the World Conferences on Women that were held in 1975 and 1985, legitimized the promotion and implementation of gender-equality policies already undertaken or in the process of being implemented in Sweden (Sainsbury 2004). As the titles indicate, the official policy concerning the promotion of gender equality was framed in incremental and conciliatory terms, key features of Swedish gender-equality policies.

The European Union (EU), which Sweden joined in 1995, is today the strongest institution affecting issues of equality as its binding directives have to be turned into Swedish legislation. Before joining the EU, several commissions were set up to analyze ways in which joining the EU would affect Swedish women and men. The implementation of gender mainstreaming—the integration of gender equality in all policies, at all levels, and in all steps in the policy process—has also been affected by the EU decisions. Although gender mainstreaming was initiated in some form or other as early as the 1970s, commissions were set up to develop new implementation methods (Bergqvist, Blandy, and Sainsbury 2007). The policy of gender mainstreaming has not gone uncriticized. Women’s movements have criticized the policy for inadequate implementation and for focusing on broad projects at the expense of special projects for women. It has also been criticized for being dependant on personal commitment, thus jeopardizing the long-term effects if further institutionalization is not promoted.

The Nature of Civil Society: Women’s Mobilization and Civil Society

Scholars disagree on the impact of women’s mobilization in Sweden, especially the impact of the second-wave women’s movement. Some scholars have characterized the “new” and second-wave women’s movement in Sweden as weak or ineffectual (Eduards 1981; Gelb 1989Elman 1995). According to Sainsbury (2004), three features support this thesis. First, radical feminism was not the main ideological inspiration of the Swedish movement. Rather, varieties of socialist feminism based on the New Left, in particular reformist feminism, dominated. Reformist feminism is based on the liberal feminist focus on equal rights as well as equal status of the sexes and its strategy of institutionalized reforms. However, reformist feminism also endorses substantial equality and equality of results, thus moving beyond the ideal of formal equality and equal opportunity. It also sanctions certain reforms, such as positive actions and state intervention, reforms that are in conflict with core liberal principles. In Sweden, there was consequently a combination of three ideological currents. If one only takes radical and social feminism into account, many of the characteristics of the Swedish women’s movement cannot be analyzed.

The second feature concerning the weakness of Sweden’s “new” women’s movement refers to the paucity of newly formed organizations in the 1970s. The strongest of these was Group 8. Some organizations were short-lived, but others survived to the present and new feminist organizations continuously emerge (Gustafsson et al. 1997). The new women’s movement also stirred new life into the established women’s organizations of the political parties and the Fredrika Bremer Association. Thus, if one only considers the organizational strength of women’s movements by looking at those that emerged in the 1970s, much of the specific nature of the Swedish movement’s organizational stance is defined away.

The third feature concerning the weakness of Sweden’s “new” women’s movement relates to the embeddedness of feminists in institutions, which make them difficult to spot. According to Sainsbury (2004), there is an often neglected link in research between institutionalized participation through mobilization on the one side and institutional presence as a recourse for future mobilization on the other side. Following this line of interpretation, the first wave of the women’s movement produced organizations such as the Fredrika Bremer Association, and the second wave produced organizations such as the women’s sections within the political parties. Thus, the founding of these second-wave organizations in parallel with the suffrage struggle resulted in an institutionalized presence and influence of women.

Some scholars have thus highlighted the interplay between women’s organizations from below and women’s policy agents from above. According to the Norwegian political scientist Helga Hernes (1987), women’s demand for a “women-friendly” society in Nordic politics should be interpreted in light of the relationship between the autonomous women’s movement and state feminism. This embeddedness can also be noted in the renaissance of the women’s movement in the 1990s. For instance, the leading team of the Support Stockings was included in government work after the 1994 election. Ebba Witt Brattström was appointed chair of a commission on gender and power at the universities and Agneta Stark was recruited by the gender-equality minister as a gender expert with a special focus on gender mainstreaming (Bergqvist, Blandy, and Sainsbury 2007). They entered their offices as movement activists, femocrats, and academics.

The development of Swedish gender-equality politics has not resulted in a weakened women’s movement. Rather, since the 1990s the women’s movement can be characterized as being increasingly diverse in terms of organization (Gustafsson et al. 1997). The parties’ claims to be feminist had spurred a renewed debate on male-dominated structures in society and a questioning of what gender equality actually means if everyone favors it. If all parties ranging from left to right are “for” gender equality, do they really mean the same thing? Eva Magnusson’s (2000) analysis of party-political rhetoric on gender equality in Sweden shows 13 different discourses on gender equality, yet they share a striking commonality with regard to the silence on diversity. “Gender equality the Swedish way” mainly revolves around the “heterosexual white ‘Swedish’ nuclear family” (Magnusson 2000, 90).

When it comes to the nature of civil society in general and participatory activities such as party activity, protests and demonstrations, and contacts with decision makers in particular, the difference between women and men is marginal. Somewhat more men than women participate in protests, but in other regards, no differences can be found. Political participation is in general more gender equal in Scandinavian welfare states than in liberal and conservative welfare states. Scholars have explained this by referring to the Scandinavian welfare state model, in which many questions of female concern have been politicized (Togeby 1994; Oskarsson 1999). The private has become public and questions concerning such things as the care of children are seen as public questions, not as private questions or women’s issues. Women’s entry to the labor market, as well as the individual earner and carer model, has contributed to women’s capacity building. With increased political resources, such as positions in networks, self-confidence, and increased motivation, increased political participation is expected of women. Scholars have also pointed to the importance of women’s mobilization in women’s organizations, women’s sections within the political parties, and the high number of women politicians. They have put gender equality on the political agenda and have involved many women in their organizations and networks.


The principle of gender equality in all aspects of life and of women’s and men’s equal access to political decision-making bodies seems to have achieved acceptance in Swedish society. At least most people pay lip service to it. However, as discussed, the stepwise process toward a more gender-equal society is far from completed, and the reforms that have been introduced so far cannot be seen as a guarantee for future progress. Different interpretations of gender equality and a lack of clarity regarding to what extent and in what way the strategy of gender mainstreaming has been implemented further support this picture. The development of new management reforms as well as the deregulation and decentralization of state institutions and policies in tandem with cutbacks in the public sector raise questions as to who is responsible for social service and care, who should pay, and what consequences these reforms will have in terms of gender, ethnicity, and class. There is therefore reason to believe women will have to do more when the state does less.

It is also important to distinguish between time and space. In a historical and global perspective, women’s access to political power in Sweden can be seen as a success story. However, it is also important to bear in mind that this process took 80 years. Are women in the rest of the world willing to wait that long?