Flipping through a local newspaper the other day, two short articles really stood out. These two articles confirm how we feel about inequality in Sweden; that it is often assumed an issue that has already successfully been dealt with. Many Swedes appear to think that as a country, we have reached equality or even passed to the point in which men are now considered the “second sex”. It is often reiterated that Sweden is one of the most equal countries in the world, if not the most equal country. To us, this overconfidence is very troubling because it leads to the denial of male privilege and the persistent influence and power of patriarchy.
The first article that seriously annoyed us discussed the historical origin of Mother’s Day, explaining that from 1920 and on, Mother’s Day was celebrated with breakfast in bed and a day off from cleaning the house and doing chores. The article stated that it was probably a more important day in the past when most women were responsible for taking care of the household. Say what? But most women are responsible for taking care of the household! They are also responsible for taking care of the children while often working on top of that. Are Swedish women really so lucky as to be free from household chores? Research on the topic says no.
Even in the more gender equal countries, household chores are not equally shared. For example, research has found that more egalitarian men appear to perform more housework and childcare than men with more traditional beliefs. The difference, however, is almost exclusively found to be the result of a decrease in the amount of housework that women do (Mather Saul, 2003). Moreover, men who believe in gender equality do not seem to perform more housework than those men who do not, but instead tend to overestimate the amount of housework that they do (Kimmel, 2000). Even when men’s share of work outside the house decreases, they do not appear to perform more housework (Maushart, 2002).
Further research on the area states that even though the Scandinavian countries are involved with progressive laws, women still spend more time caring for children and performing household chores (Haavind & Magnusson, 2005) while men are generally less active in regards to child rearing and housework (Lacroix, 2009). Women have increased their participation in the labor force (while still holding primary care responsibilities) while men have only slightly increased their commitment to housework and childcare (Maume, Sebastian & Bardo 2010).
The other article that we reacted to was titled “Fewer hours at work – even for men” and discussed an initiative which proposed that all parents with small children work 35 hours a week. Any lost wage would be partly subsidized by the state. A researcher who wanted to combat the stressfulness of family life that included small children proposed the initiative. The researcher suggested that the partly subsidized wage be paid out to both men and women as to encourage equality. That sounded like a good initiative. Reading on, however, the news paper went on to point out that 28 percent of mothers with small children work 30-36 hours a week while only 2 percent of men work 30-36 hours. What the article implied was that this initiative would be good for men’s equality since men are unequally and negatively treated when it comes to family, childcare and work; that men work more than women. Does that mean that every statistic we have read about women, family life and the work place have been wrong? Hardly.
It is true that men usually work more hours than women when it comes to their career (regarded as work outside the house). When it comes to total hours worked, however, women tend to average many more hours than men. The most common reason for why women work fewer hours outside the house is due to the fact that they are more responsible for childcare and housework. Women are also the ones who avail of the majority of parental leave. Around 80 percent of fathers in Sweden use parental leave but the leave taken only amounts to approximately 20 percent of the leave designated to the family (Klinth, 2008). Fathers also said that work opposition was a reason why they did not utilize more parental leave (Bekkengen, 2002).
As stated above, women’s lives (generally speaking) tend to be characterized by multiple responsibilities that include care work, household responsibilities as well as work (Lynch, 1989). Due to these multiple responsibilities, women’s work tends to include flexible arrangements and lower earnings (Ostertag & MacNamara, 1991; Barry & Vasquez del Aguila, 2009; Irvine & Vermilya, 2010). Interestingly, men’s employment often remains stable and unaffected by the arrival of a child while women’s work suffers (Barry & Vasquez del Aguila, 2009).
It is not unusual to hear people claim that men are now becoming the “second sex” and that feminism is not promoting equality but is only concerned with women having more societal power than men. By overestimating how equal a society really is we are in real danger of overlooking the inequalities that truly exists.
Barry, U. and E. Vasquez del Aguila. 2009. Gender and Flexibility of Working Time. European Commission.
Bekkengen, L. 2002. Man Får Välja [One can choose]. Malmö, Sweden: Liber.
Haavind, H. and E. Magusson. 2005. The Nordic Countries – Welfare Paradises for Women and Children? Feminism & Psychology 15(2): 227-235.
Irvine, L. and J. Vermilya. 2010. “Gender Work in a Feminized Profession: The Case of Veterinary Medicine”. Gender & Society 24(1): 56-82.
Kimmel, M. 2000. The Gendered Society. New York: Oxford University Press.
Klinth, R. 2008. The best of both worlds? Fatherhood and gender equality in Swedish paternity leave campaigns, 1976-2006. Fathering 6(1): 20-38.
Lacroix, C. 2006. Freedom, desire and power: Gender processes and presumptions of shared care and responsibility after parental separation. Women’s Studies International Forum 29: 184–196.
Lynch, K. 1989. “Solidarity Labour: its nature and marginalisation”. The Sociological Review 37(1): 1-14.
Mather Saul, J. 2003. Feminism: Issues & Arguments. New York: Oxford University Press.
Maume, D, J., R. A. Sebastian, and A. R. Bardo. 2010. Gender, Work-Family Responsibilities, And Sleep. Gender & Society 24(6): 746-768.
Maushart, S. 2002. Wifework: What Marriage Really Means For Women. London: Bloomsbury.
Ostertag, P. A and R. J. McNamara. 1991. “Feminization of Psychology”. Psychology of Women Quarterly 15: 349-369.