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Who'll replace Sweden's powerful women?

Who'll replace Sweden's powerful women?

| Text and graphics: Björn Lindahl

Sweden is the only Nordic country which has never had a female prime minister or a female head of state in modern times. The Social Democrat Party leader Mona Sahlin could have become prime minister in the September 2010 elections, but her new red-green coalition lost.

Some months after loosing the election Mona Sahlin said she would step down as party leader after an extraordinary party congress on 25-27 March this year.

The hottest candidates to follow her are all men, and when the leader of Sweden's Confederation of Trade Unions, Wanja Lundby-Wedin, also retires in 2012, Sweden's women risk loosing their two main positions of power to men.

The battle for gender equality in Sweden has historically been fought within women's own institutions, according to the Nordic Council of Ministers survey 'Gender and power in the Nordic Region'.

Women's organisations play a central role

Like in Finland, Sweden's women's organisations have played a greater political role than in the other Nordic countries. Sweden's industry structure with many large companies has also meant they have enjoyed more power than Norwegian companies, which traditionally have been dominated by state ownership. 

Four of Sweden's political parties have their own women's organisations and  2005 saw the birth of a women's party - Feminist Initiative. It only took 0.4 percent of votes in the 2010 parliamentary elections, but in January this year Gudrun Schyman became party leader. She is one of Sweden's most high-profile politicians and was leader for the Left Party from 1993 to 2003.

Three of Sweden's largest political parties have still never had a female leader - the Moderates, the Christian Democrats and the Sweden Democrats, who did not enter parliament until 2010.

Yet you get a measure of how fast things have changed if you compare today's governments with Olof Palme's 1973 government. Until then Sweden had only had five female government ministers. Olof Palme appointed three female ministers and 17 men. But all three women, Gertrud Sigurdsen, Anna-Greta Leijon and Lena Hjelm-Wallén, were appointed to serve on consultative councils, which meant they were not heads of their own departments.

The first gender equal government

Ingvar Carlsson became the first prime minister to appoint a government with 50 percent women during his third term between October 1994 to March 1994. Eleven out of 22 government ministers were women.

Sweden has also seen a very fierce debate on boardroom quotas for women. But it has been more theoretical, and unlike the Norwegian debate it has centred on the state's right to intervene and limit listed companies' right to appoint their own boards.  

Wanted quotas but stepped down

Sweden's previous Minister of Labour, Sven Otto Littorin, last July said he wanted to introduce female boardroom quotas because it was taking too long to achieve gender equality there. 

"The way things are going we'll be waiting for 150 years," said Sven Otto Littorin.

But he hadn't cleared his comments with the rest of his four-party coalition government. His resignation two days later meant his move did not have the same effect as in Norway, where a male government minister, Ansgar Gabrielsen, finally got the proposal through parliament. This shows it is not always women who achieve results in gender equality politics, although the Norwegian quota idea had been worked on for many years by several female ministers before Gabrielsen pushed it through.

Wanja Lundby-Wedin, President of the Swedish Confederation of Trade Unions

Wanja Lundby-Wedin

Equality curve

Sweden portlet 2011 beskuren

Most important female victories
  • Wanja Lundby-Wedin, 2007

President of the Swedish Confederation of Trade Unions (LO)

A Nordic first
  • Foreign Minister Karin Söder, 1976-1978
  • Director at The Confederation of Swedish Enterprise, Ebba Lindsö, 2003-2005
  • Chairwoman of the Confederation of Swedish Enterprise, Signhild Arnegård Hansen 2007-2010
Sweden has never had
  • A female prime minister

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