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Workplace equality depends on early life choices

| Text: Gunhild Wallin

Sweden has one of the world’s most equal societies. Yet there are still major differences between men and women. A man’s lifetime earnings is on average two million Swedish kronor more than a woman’s.

Just over a year ago, in November 2011, the government appointed the Delegation for Gender Equality in Working Life, JA-delegationen. Its mandate is to compile and spread knowledge about the different conditions of women and men in working life and to create a debate on the issues. Before its task finishes in October 2014, the delegation should also propose ways to improve gender equality.

The JA-delegationen has 11 government appointed commissioners led by Mikael Sjöberg, Director General at the Swedish Work Environment Authority. The other delegates are high-level representatives from the social partners and representatives from the world of research and several major companies. The secretariat is tasked with providing the delegates with facts and material for the measures which the delegation should propose by the end of 2014.   

Obscure knowledge

“This is a fantastic assignment. We go deep, analyse and look for connections. What has really hit me is how much knowledge is out there even if it is obscure. We know what it looks like - the question is whether the will to change exists,” says Maria Hemström Hemmingsson, the delegation’s  chief secretary. 

So far much of the delegation’s work has been focused on the first part of the assignment - to compile knowledge and make it accessible. The four members of the secretariat have travelled around Sweden, meeting people in many different roles, sought help from researchers and collated information. But they have also organised a large and well attended conference. The next step is to commission a collection of texts which will highlight women’s conditions in working life. 

“What has struck me are the large differences which actually exist between men and women in working life. We think we have gender equality - and we have come far compared to how things were a hundred years ago. But that does not mean that your average woman enjoys the same quality of life as your average man,” says Maria Hemström Hemmingsson, the delegation’s  chief secretary.

Women more exposed

When Maria Hemström Hemmingsson looked for candidates for the delegation’s secretariat she consciously chose people with different backgrounds. Three are researchers from different disciplines - national economy, sociology and economic history. Each of the areas they are studying can therefore be looked at from different perspectives, which is somewhat unusual for equality research. 

“Women have a weaker position in working life on average. They are in part-time work, get paid less and - in the long run - have lower pensions, despite the fact that women do better at all levels of education,” says Maria Hemström Hemmingsson. 

During their work it became even clearer just how complex this picture is. The lack of equality does not have one single cause. The structures that keep women back are made up of many interconnecting elements. Women and men are equal in a legal sense, but other structures work against equality. One important issue is how their work is valued and paid. Maria Hemström Hemmingsson draws a diagram which clearly shows the statistics for how female dominated occupations pay less. It is simply better to become a construction or transport worker than to study for a job within the health sector or in schools. It is women who carry the welfare on their shoulders, says Maria Hemström Hemmingsson and her colleague Emilia Liljefrost.

The consequences of our life choices

Our life choices play a major role, in other words, not least when we choose our future occupations. At the same time this illustrates how complex the equality issue is. Choosing an occupation is about an individual’s free will, yet the consequences can be a difference in life-long earnings of two million Swedish Kronor (€241,000) in the male’s favour. Another critical period for gender equality is the birth of a first child. The woman often takes on the main responsibility, which has an impact on her future career prospects, her salary and her pension. This, as well as the parental allowance, is something which will be studied further. 

“The question of equality touches on the self, and if you start looking for measures you risk stepping on the individual’s free choice. We easily forget that people tend to think on the basis of gender about all kinds of things,” says Emilia Liljefrost.

They conclude that the freedom to choose does not come for free and that it is women who pay the price. The dilemma is that for changes to take place there needs to be adjustments which will have an impact both on people personally and on the balance of power in society.

“It is important to recognise the structure in your own life. To demand debate at home, with your employer, with the state and to also have that debate with yourself,” says Maria Hemström Hemmingsson.

When it starts to grind

Meanwhile, society faces major challenges when it comes to the future labour force.

“The gender-divided labour market is already having consequences in certain parts of the country. In Norrbotten, for instance, they are already struggling to recruit enough healthcare personnel. Municipalities and county councils are competing with the booming mining industry which happily hires trusted people with healthcare backgrounds,” says Emilia Liljefrost.

Over the next seven years Sweden’s municipalities and county councils need to recruit 420,000 people. Already it is so hard to get enough nursery teachers to the Stockholm region that the local monthly pay is 6,000 Kronor (€722) higher than in the rest of the country. Perhaps salaries in female dominated occupations need to rise in order to recruit enough workers? But who would pay for that? Do men have to not work in order for working life to  become more equal? What sacrifice must be made to create a more equal working life?

“It is when you get to this point that the debate starts to grind,” says Emilia Liljefrost.

Both Maria Hemström Hemmingsson and Emilia Liljefrost want to keep to the facts. The delegation’s mandate is to come up with suggestions for the future. At the same time you cannot but notice their commitment - they are working with a topic which touches them personally. 

“Equality in working life is a question which we need to take very seriously. Taking care of the competence which women represent is a question of justice, but it is also a question of social economy,” says Maria Hemström Hemmingsson.



The Delegation for Gender Equality in Working Life

The delegation is called the JA-delegationen and was established by the government in October 2011. It has 11 commissioners and three main points to its mission:

  • To compile and spread knowledge about the different conditions and opportunities of women and men in working life, as well as various causes for the existing differences.
  • To stimulate debate about how to promote gender equality in working life.
  • To propose ways to promote gender equality in working life.

The delegates represent the world of research, various companies and the social partners. 

The mission must conclude by October 2014.

Equality in Swedish working life

The pay gap between men and women stands at around 15 percent and has remained largely unchanged since the early 1980s. This represents a monthly gap of 4,400 Swedish Kronor (€530) or over 50,000 (€6,022) a year. The difference between men and women’s lifetime earnings, based on the average wage, is around two million Kronor (€241,000).

The pay gap covers all ages, but widens from the age of 30. This is because women take more responsibility for children and domestic work.


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