Swedish Women Win in Parliament but Not in Boardrooms

Sweden is the best country in the world when it comes to gender equality, according to the World Economic Forum, landing at 0.8146 on a gender gap index where 1.0 equals full equality. All Nordic countries, except Denmark, dominate the top of the list of the 128 countries surveyed. The United States is ranked at 31 and Japan at 91, while Yemen, Pakistan, Nepal and Bhutan linger at the bottom.

But some people say Sweden, which prides itself on its gender equality and a 47.3 percent female representation in Parliament, still has far to go and that it is moving too slowly.

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Sweden's minister for Enterprise and Energy, Maud Olofsson, and the minister for Integration and Equality, Nyamko Sabuni, sent an open letter in the spring to the country's 342 listed companies.

In it, they asked the companies to explain why their boards only had an average of 19 percent women on them, and what the companies were doing to raise that figure. In comparison, state-run companies have an average of 49 percent women on their boards.

The companies were also asked about what gender-equality programs they had in place for their staffs -- something they are required to keep by Swedish law.

The reaction was not what Olofsson and Sabuni had expected. About two-thirds of the companies did not reply.

Lawyer Claes Borgström, a spokesman for gender issues for the Social Democratic party and the former director of the Office of the Equality Opportunities Ombudsman, said the tepid response was not surprising.

"The business world has had plenty of time to do something about this," he said. "The reason why we aren't seeing much progress, if any, is the lack of will. If you want something, you can do it."

For years, Swedish politicians, business leaders and debaters have discussed a possible gender quota for the corporate boardrooms. Some people say it is an issue the companies should decide on themselves and that it is more effective to start at lower levels in the companies rather than at the top.

But others see the company board not only as a crucial symbol, but also as an instrumental factor, because the board appoints the chairman and the CEO -- roles with great influence over the company's culture and activity.

Gender Equality to Dominate Elections

With next year's parliamentary elections approaching, analysts predict the issue will heat up as the center-right coalition government and the center-left opposition wrestle for public support.

Another issue referred to in the debate -- and often linked to the poor representation on the boards -- is that women's work is still undervalued, compared to work performed by men.

For example, a July report by the Swedish parliament's investigation service shows the average difference in annual income between the genders has grown by about $1,827 per year since 2006, roughly the equivalent of a $143 discrepancy per month.

The center-left blames the increased wage gap on the government's tax cuts in unemployment insurance, health insurance and parents' insurance, claiming that women are more vulnerable to such changes.

As a group, they are more often part-time employed, part-time unemployed, on parental leave, home with a sick child, a single parent or on long-term sick leave.

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