Can David Cameron really learn from Sweden?

10 Feb

You can’t be interested in family policy for more than ten seconds without looking at examples from Scandinavia, where societies have been so successful at creating mass work-life balance.  So Wonklifebalance should be delighted that David Cameron has gone to Sweden to talk about promoting women in business with the Northern Future Forum, a group composed of the Scandinavian and Baltic states and the UK.

However, Wonklifebalance is sceptical.  Cameron visiting Sweden whilst cutting public sector jobs, in-work benefits and childcare subsidies at home, brings to mind a gender version of Gil Scott Heron’s classic ‘Whitey’s on the Moon’.  In the fevered atmosphere of fractured race relations and the civil rights movement, Gil was unimpressed at the US elite’s travels into space.  With working women losing disproportionately from Coalition policies in Britain today, Cameron’s flight to Sweden, where gender equality is written into the constitution and where even single mothers have high employment rates, looks like a similar distraction from events on the ground.

Scepticism is justified on several fronts, apart from the distraction factor.  Cameron asserts that he wants to learn from countries that have been more successful in attracting women to positions of real power, but before his plane had even landed he had all but ruled out legislation as an option for change.  If there is any lesson to be learnt from the major Nordic countries, it is that enforcement of quotas by law has had a decisive impact on the shape of boardrooms:  Norway has been a runaway success in this regard through the imposition of a 40% quota for women on boards of major companies. David Cameron prefers an indicative approach, where the Government ‘encourages’ but business is left to itself – this is not a sufficient or effective policy stance.  If the gender-equal legislature of Scandinavia cannot achieve boardroom equity without State intervention, then any aspirations in Britain will be dead in the water without explicit and legally-binding directives. 

 A second cause for scepticism is that the arguments for enhancing women’s roles as powerful business executives and entrepreneurs is presented as a female-only issue in Britain.  A major reason why the Scandinavians have been comparatively good at creating work-life balance, is because they have recognised that men are also involved.  The presentation to the Northern Future Forum by the Icelandic representative (who speaks from the viewpoint of the historically macho mining industry)  explicitly and correctly states that a vital component of workplace equality is paternity leave. By designing post-birth leave so that it is available in three chunks, for mothers, for fathers and a third element to be distributed as couples choose, Icelanders have ensured that women remain attached to the workplace after birth and that men are fully involved as fathers from the outset: after that couples can negotiate themselves as to how they share the final tranche of leave.  Models in Finland, Sweden, Norway and Denmark are all effective, because in one way or another they oblige men to take time off work in the early days of parenthood – and they pay properly for it.  In Britain, progress on paternity leave has been slow in comparison: at the moment it is too short and too poorly paid for most men to bother with it, and the changes currently proposed to it mean that men only get additional entitlement if their partner transfers the later months of maternity leave to them.  We have got past the point where it is acceptable for women to gain entitlements to benefit via men.  Now, surely, it is right that men’s caring roles should be rewarded independently of the mothers of their children. Without this, the ‘mummy track’ of underachievement in part-time work will remain a major barrier to progress.

A final reason to be sceptical is that the Nordic solutions to gender equal work-life balance have themselves been a partial success.  Although women’s and mother’s participation in employment is comparatively high in these countries, the gender pay gap has not been completely resolved.  This is largely due to women working in different occupational sectors from men:  women choose roles in the public sector, whilst men remain dominant in the most highly paid jobs of the private sector.  Women therefore take advantage of the family-friendliness of the public sector, whilst losing out on the bigger rewards of the private sector.  And this is why entrepreneurial solutions to gender inequalities should be viewed critically: it is only at the top that these options really pay off.  Without job security, affordable childcare and flexibility, the entrepreneurial approach only rewards the luckiest and the most driven, who somehow accommodate very working hours alongside family life.  So making more mothers into entrepreneurs sounds to me like pissing in the wind – and this remains something that only men are really good at.


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