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.
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.
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."
Summing up the situation, Borgström concluded the key challenges that Sweden faces are the poor female representation in the boardrooms and the salary gap, although adding that the most important issue is the unequal responsibility for children.
Child Care Biggest Issue Dividing the Sexes
"Without the sexes taking equal responsibility for child care, we are never going to see full equality," he said matter-of-factly.
In Sweden, fathers and mothers receive a joint parents' allowance of paid leave for 480 days to stay home with their newly born child, but only about 20 percent of fathers make use of the benefit. Therefore, Borgström wanted a new law that prescribed that both parents do it as it would be beneficial, not only for the child and the parents, but for society, he said.
"As long as employers know women are going to be away more, they are going to invest more in men. That is understandable," Borgström said.
But as long as that remained unchanged, women will keep getting lower wages, lower pensions, less interesting tasks and fewer chances to compete, he continued.
"Men have a special responsibility. If you belong to the privileged group in society, which has been superior to the other and you see that, you have a special responsibility to contribute to change," he said, blaming the slow progress on passivity.
"I suggest men assess the situation, decide if they think it is fair, and then ask themselves what they could do," he said, adding that the way forward was to "talk, talk, talk about it."
"Ultimately, it is about what kind of society we want," he said, "or if we want to have one at all."