Swedish Women Win in Parliament but Not in Boardrooms

But Karin Karlsbro, a special advisor to Sabuni on gender issues at the ministry of Integration and Equality, proudly pointed to the government's strategy that aims to counteract traditional gender roles, which still dominate the Swedish labor market, and to promote equal conditions for entrepreneurship, participation and working conditions.

While not wanting to enforce a boardroom quota, the government has launched a board education program for women, she said. In addition, it has introduced a tax deduction on household services, maintenance and repairs, and a 2008 "equality bonus" to encourage fathers to use a parent's insurance.

"We are also hosting the first-ever principle discussion on E.U. ministerial level about how women's participation affects growth," she said enthusiastically, referring to an initiative during Sweden's rotating E.U. presidency.

But Borgström, who recently wrote a report assessing gender equality in Sweden, was not impressed.

He criticized the government for being unfocused and for being too lax with companies that broke the law in failing to keep a gender-equality plan, or a register tracking the salary gaps. A 2007 study from the Office of the Equality Opportunities Ombudsman showed only one employer in 17 did so. The result was stalled or backsliding equality, he said.

Gender-Based Sanctions Needed in Sweden?

Olofsson's and Sabuni's letter was another example of the government's tame and extenuated attempts, he continued. The government has said it was going to follow-up with the companies that did not reply, but so far little has happened.

"That's just not going to lead anywhere. Sometimes sanctions are needed," Borgström said, referring to neighboring Norway.

Norway introduced a law in 2006 that stipulates 40 percent of both sexes must be represented on the corporate boards. Companies that fail to comply face liquidation.

"Before they did it, there was great concern people might feel discriminated," Borgström said. "Today, there is no great opposition against it."

Borgström also wanted to impose sanctions on employers who didn't follow the law regulating gender equality, but so far had suffered no repercussions.

But many who work people with gender issues say the greatest resistance, or disinterest, in the board issue was coming from specific interest groups such as the unions and the Confederation of Swedish Enterprise, which represents about 50 member associations.

"It is the business associations that offer the toughest resistance," Karlsbro, the adviser to the minister for Integration and Equality, said. "The entrepreneurs themselves tend to be very open about having more women on the boards. After all, it's all about competence."

Carina Lindfelt, manager for labor market issues at the Confederation of Swedish Enterprise, defended her organization's position against a quota.

"You can never abolish an injustice by replacing it with another. That is what quotas are all about," she said, referring to what has become the most popular argument against quotas.

Jenny Nygren, ombudswoman for equality at LO, an affiliation of 14 unions for the private and public sectors, dismissed the claims that the unions were disengaged.

"It is an issue of priority," she said. "We are for equality. We are for higher and fair salaries, but the boardroom issue is not something we have as big an impact on."

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