Sweden isn’t all equal

Even in one of the great egalitarian nations, inequality still exists.

The glass ceiling may look as if it has been smashed in Sweden, but the real equality between men and women is little more than a crack in the pane. As women continue to be primary carers of children, a proper balance between men and women in the work and social spheres has still not been struck. 

In fairness, Sweden deserves its recently unchanged fourth position in the World Economic Forum's most gender-equal countries (the United Kingdom ranked 15th). Unsurprisingly, with equal childcare provision for men and women, and a progressive tax system that provides universal access to higher education and free care for the elderly, women in Sweden appear to have fewer hurdles in the labour market and in social life than men.

Yet annual comprehensive research conducted by the Swedish state department for equality highlights the inequality that still exists in one of the great egalitarian nations. In paid and unpaid work, women are still unequal – despite the extensive legislation and services in place. Male and female parents are given an equal amount of state-paid parental leave that they must take before their child reaches their eighth birthday. Last year, 78 per cent of all parental leave was taken by women. 

Women spend equal amounts of their time on domestic and on paid work; men spend double the amount of time on paid work. Old notions of childrearing clearly cannot be solved with this encouraging piece of legislation – the man is still the main breadwinner, even though 81 per cent of women in Sweden work. 

The gender balance in vocational and academic higher-level courses frames the one of the worst occupationally segregated labour markets in Europe. Within education, nearly all of those graduating in health care and related sciences, childcare and teaching are women. In work, over 85 per cent of those working in nursing and the personal care industries are women. But, despite this, it is men working in the sector who earn the most. Although the gender pay gap in Sweden is lower than it is here in the United Kingdom, pay disparity still exists within and between job sectors.

Last year, more than three times as many women worked less than a 35-hour week as men (34 per cent compared to 11 per cent, respectively) – one of the highest figures in Europe. Part-time work continues to attract lower pay – entrenching the unequal amount of pay and disposable income between men and women.

On average, a single woman without children in Sweden has 28,000 SEK (£2,600) less disposable income than a man each year, the research shows. Women are also much less likely to achieve the highest-paid jobs – only 45,000 women earn over 600,000 SEK (£57,000) a year, compared to 181,000 men. Women remain unable to break through the glass ceiling into high-earning roles.

Social democrats and our Conservative Party counterparts continue to refer to Swedish ideas in the quest for equality. In theory, the Swedish free-school model offers education on a first-come-first-served basis. In practice, free schools are little more than institutions for those who make it to the front of the queue the quickest.

We need more of a reason to implement ideas than "they do it in Sweden".

Getty Images.
Show Hide image

Brexit is teaching the UK that it needs immigrants

Finally forced to confront the economic consequences of low migration, ministers are abandoning the easy rhetoric of the past.

Why did the UK vote to leave the EU? For conservatives, Brexit was about regaining parliamentary sovereignty. For socialists it was about escaping the single market. For still more it was a chance to punish David Cameron and George Osborne. But supreme among the causes was the desire to reduce immigration.

For years, as the government repeatedly missed its target to limit net migration to "tens of thousands", the EU provided a convenient scapegoat. The free movement of people allegedly made this ambition unachievable (even as non-European migration oustripped that from the continent). When Cameron, the author of the target, was later forced to argue that the price of leaving the EU was nevertheless too great, voters were unsurprisingly unconvinced.

But though the Leave campaign vowed to gain "control" of immigration, it was careful never to set a formal target. As many of its senior figures knew, reducing net migration to "tens of thousands" a year would come at an economic price (immigrants make a net fiscal contribution of £7bn a year). An OBR study found that with zero net migration, public sector debt would rise to 145 per cent of GDP by 2062-63, while with high net migration it would fall to 73 per cent. For the UK, with its poor productivity and sub-par infrastructure, immigration has long been an economic boon. 

When Theresa May became Prime Minister, some cabinet members hoped that she would abolish the net migration target in a "Nixon goes to China" moment. But rather than retreating, the former Home Secretary doubled down. She regards the target as essential on both political and policy grounds (and has rejected pleas to exempt foreign students). But though the same goal endures, Brexit is forcing ministers to reveal a rarely spoken truth: Britain needs immigrants.

Those who boasted during the referendum of their desire to reduce the number of newcomers have been forced to qualify their remarks. On last night's Question Time, Brexit secretary David Davis conceded that immigration woud not invariably fall following Brexit. "I cannot imagine that the policy will be anything other than that which is in the national interest, which means that from time to time we’ll need more, from time to time we’ll need less migrants."

Though Davis insisted that the government would eventually meet its "tens of thousands" target (while sounding rather unconvinced), he added: "The simple truth is that we have to manage this problem. You’ve got industry dependent on migrants. You’ve got social welfare, the national health service. You have to make sure they continue to work."

As my colleague Julia Rampen has charted, Davis's colleagues have inserted similar caveats. Andrea Leadsom, the Environment Secretary, who warned during the referendum that EU immigration could “overwhelm” Britain, has told farmers that she recognises “how important seasonal labour from the EU is to the everyday running of your businesses”. Others, such as the Health Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, the Business Secretary, Greg Clark, and the Communities Secretary, Sajid Javid, have issued similar guarantees to employers. Brexit is fuelling immigration nimbyism: “Fewer migrants, please, but not in my sector.”

The UK’s vote to leave the EU – and May’s decision to pursue a "hard Brexit" – has deprived the government of a convenient alibi for high immigration. Finally forced to confront the economic consequences of low migration, ministers are abandoning the easy rhetoric of the past. Brexit may have been caused by the supposed costs of immigration but it is becoming an education in its benefits.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.