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19 October 2010updated 27 Sep 2015 2:11am

Sweden isn’t all equal

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

By Claire French

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. 

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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.

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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”.