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Women’s pay increases, men win at lifetime earnings

Women’s pay increases, men win at lifetime earnings

| Text: Gunhild Wallin, photo: private

Swedish women's income averages 77.7% of that of men’s over a lifetime of work. This has not changed since 1995 and represents 3.2 million kronor (€319,000) on average. And government agencies contribute to this development concludes the Commission for gender-equal lifetime earnings in its first report.

“When we were given this task we thought ‘this is probably important'. Now we see that it is very important to analyse how government agencies’ actions and support influences men's and women’s lifetime earnings,” says Lise Bergh, Chair of the Commission for gender-equal lifetime earnings, which published its first progress report on 25 January. 

In early March 2020, the government appointed a commission tasked with coming up with proposals that could increase economic equality between women and men in the long term. As part of this, it would study government agencies’ role in the distribution of public benefits and its consequences. 

The pay gap between men and women in Sweden has narrowed to 9.9%, according to the Swedish National Mediation Office. But if you take a step back and include more than just income from work, such as public transfers and capital income, the story changes. Men and women’s disposable income differs considerably – a gap that has remained the same for 25 years. 

Gender income graph

“We wanted to look behind the gilded image of narrowing pay gaps and look at the entire earnings over a lifetime. The gap can be explained in various ways. Women work more part-time, voluntarily or involuntarily. They take more parental leave and end up trailing behind at work both in terms of pay and career prospects. The Swedish labour market is also gender-segregated and female-dominated occupations are generally less well paid than male-dominated ones. The economic power between men and women is not equal,” says Lise Bergh.

Differences in benefits 

The commission also points out how economic support benefits men and women in different ways. 

“Women get a larger proportion of public benefits in order to replace a loss of income, for instance during parental leave or sick leave, compared to men. However, since this does not cover the entire loss of income, and often also applies to part-time work, it has a negative effect on lifetime income. Men often benefit from support that brings them closer to the labour market. They also benefit from the tax system because they have a larger capital income. State support is unequally distributed,” says Lise Bergh.

The commission’s first report has looked at six government agencies and their use of public support measures. They are the Public Employment Service, the Social Insurance Agency, the Tax Agency, the National Board of Student Aid, the Pensions Agency and the Migration Agency. There is also a separate study of the Public Employment Service’s work with newly arrived women and women with reduced mobility. 

One finding is that government agencies do not always publish gender-specific statistics, despite being obliged to do so. This is a serious breach, according to Lise Bergh.

“Gender-specific statistics are important in order to document reality. If the effect of various measures and support programmes is not documented in a gender-specific way, it is impossible to see whether unexplained or unnecessary differences between women and men exist. This impacts on the analysis of gender equality and government agencies’ opportunity to identify faults in their own actions,” she says.

Insurance agency

The Social Insurance Agency gets praise for its gender-specific statistics.

In cases where government agencies function well from a gender equality perspective, you often find a clear mission and good governance. One example is the Social Insurance Agency’s work with parental allowance. Here you will find clear information and guidance for how different approaches to parental allowance influences the economy.   

Many perspectives fight for attention

Lise Bergh wants proper governance which would allow agencies to produce gender-specific statistics and to analyse their work across all areas. This would show the effects from a gender equality perspective and improve the work.

“Creating equal opportunities for men and women is a question of equal rights, and it is not enough for an authority to just have one person who is responsible for gender equality. This is not a side issue – the gender equality perspective should be integrated across the board. You could end up with a fight for space when agencies must follow up other perspectives, like sustainability, diversity and more. It is important then to include gender equality issues across all the perspectives,” says Lise Bergh.  

More opportunities for unemployed men

The commission also shows how the type of support being offered can be influenced by the gender of the recipient. It highlights one example from the Public Employment Service. In its progress report, the commission concludes that newly arrived men are considered to be easier to match with jobs than newly arrived women, despite having the same education levels, work experience etc. This means men are offered more labour market measures than women.  

While women often are guided towards preparatory measures, men are offered courses and measures that make it easier for them to find a job. Women with reduced mobility also benefit less from labour market measures than men with reduced mobility, which could reduce the women’s chance of finding work. 

“There is also a difference at the Public Employment Service in how men and women are met, which stem from traditional stereotypical ideas of men’s and women’s motivation and chances of entering into the labour market,” says Lise Bergh. 

She points out that it is important to keep all this in mind when developing artificial intelligence in various companies. If not, you risk baking stereotypical presumptions into the system.

What have been the government agencies’ reactions to the commission’s work?

“Many think we are doing a good job. These are not evil agencies that produce sub-standard statistics or discriminate against women knowingly. Most of them understand the importance of transparency, which allows them to become better – and you will not improve an agency before it is gender-equal,” she says.  

Government agencies have a lot of influence

The commission will continue its work until 21 December this year. It is expected to produce a range of proposal for how the government agencies can improve their work from a gender equality perspective, and thus contribute to increased economic equality between women and men.

Summing up the commission’s work so far, Lise Bergh is not surprised by the differences in economic power between men and women. That was not news to her.

“I am, however, surprised about the level of power held by government agencies. If their work was excellent in this area, together they would have great influence over gender equality.”

Lise Bergh

has been Deputy Equal Opportunities Ombudsman and a State Secretary for gender equality and human rights among other things. She is now the Chair for the Commission for gender-equal lifetime earnings.


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