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Gender Inequality in the Workplace - perceptions, realities and the future of the Swedish system

Gender Inequality in the Workplace - perceptions, realities and the future of the Swedish system

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An essay for the 2011 Undergraduate Awards Competition by Leah Tierney. Originally submitted for Economic Sociology of Europe at Trinity College, Dublin, with lecturer Peter Muhlau in the category of Social Studies
An essay for the 2011 Undergraduate Awards Competition by Leah Tierney. Originally submitted for Economic Sociology of Europe at Trinity College, Dublin, with lecturer Peter Muhlau in the category of Social Studies

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Published by: Undergraduate Awards on Aug 29, 2012
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Gender Inequality in the Workplace – perceptions,realities and the future of the Swedish system
Substantial progress has been made in many countries inencouraging gender equality in the workplace but no country hasactually managed to achieve it. In all cases, significant difficultiesand disparities still remain.Sweden in particular seems to have made significant stridestowards achieving gender equality and is often regarded as one of the best places to be a woman, but is this myth or reality? This essay introduces the concept of gender equality and, as a casestudy, examines how this relates to the Swedish workplace, in termsof opportunity and participation. The essay examines the factorsthat have contributed to Sweden achieving the highest level of female labour force participation in Europe (Bernhardt & Olah,2008). Then, making reference to recent research and data, itidentifies the primary factors, e.g. women-friendly policies, thathave significantly contributed to the progress made in thisimportant aspect of gender equality. The essay continues byadopting a critical stance and identifying important gaps andshortfalls in the developments made in Sweden, including relativelylow levels of gender equality in terms of segregation in job type andposition. It concludes by considering how progress towards greatergender equality might be informed by approaches in an alternativepolitical culture and by developments to Sweden’s current system.
Progress towards gender equality in the Swedish workplace
Gender equality is an important issue, both broadly and specificallyin relation to the workplace. If any country fails to treat women andmen equally, then it simply does not benefit in full from half of its
society. ‘Gender equality refers to that stage of human socialdevelopment at which “the rights, responsibilities and opportunitiesof individuals will not be determined by the fact of being born maleor female,” in other words, a stage when both men and womenrealize their full potential’ (Lopez-Claros & Zahidi, 2005; 1).No country has yet managed to close the gender gap, but Swedenhas nonetheless gained a reputation as a country that has achieveda high level of gender equality. It appears that the most significantfactor underlying this positive view is that Sweden has achieved thehighest level of female labour force participation in Europe(Bernhardt et al., 2008).Historically, since the Second World War, Sweden has experienced alabour shortage and open unemployment has generally remainedunder 3 per cent. In the 1960s and 70’s, with a rapid growth of theservice sector, women were encouraged into the labour force andmaternity was no longer promoted as the most important social rolefor women. This marked the beginning of what has been referred toas the Swedish “dual-earner model”, where most households werebased on two wage-earing adults (Earles, 2010).During the 1960’s, women’s labour force participation rose to morethan 50%, increasing futher to 80% in 1980 (Gustafsson & Jacobsson, 1985, in Hoem, 1995). By the 1990’s, at 48% Swedenhad the highest level of female labour force participation in theworld. Even today, in the midst of a financial crisis, women appearto be fairing better than men in Sweden, with their unemploymentlevels slightly lower than men’s (Statistics Sweden 2009, 2010).Sweden’s women’s labour force participation has remained higherthan in other Organisation for Economic Co-operation andDevelopment (OECD) countries since the 1960’s (see Appendix,Figure 1). Therefore, women with children began entering the labourmarket prior to the development of ‘women-friendly’ policies and it
was these women, as well as the trade unions that representedthem, who pushed for the implementation of such policies (Earles,2010).Nowadays, Sweden has one of the highest levels of female labourforce participation in Europe - women and employment ratio in the25-64 years age group = 78.1% (just behind Iceland and Norway atapproximately 79%) (OECD, 2010).Gosta Esping-Anderson (1990) wrote that Sweden’s maximumfemale labour force participation is a principle of social policies,introduced in the 1960’s and 1970’s with the aim of enablingwomen, and especially mothers, to enter the labour market andremain there after having children (Nimeus, 2003, and Jaumotte,2003). These policies (discussed) include favourable taxation treatment forsecond earners, child benefits, the availability of childcare, parentalleave, the availability of flexible work, movement away fromtraditional gender roles and more enlightened education.Looking at
tax policy 
first, O’Donoghue and Sutherland (1999) arguethat there has been a gradual shift in its focus. While in the 1970’sthe emphasis was on the equal treatment of families, there is now atrend towards the equal treatment of the individual, which hasbenefitted married women in particular. Having said that, in generalthe tax rate on second earners remains higher than on singleindividuals. In Sweden (and other countries), second earners andindividual earners are taxed equally, while separate taxation wasimplemented in 1971 (Gonas and Spandt 1997 p.1, cited in Korpi &Stern 2006). This is in contrast to countries such as Iceland, Irelandand the Czech Republic, which, relative to Sweden, haveconsiderably higher tax burdens for second earners. Smith et al(2003) argue that the tax system of a country, combined with thelevel of tax rates, is a significant determinant on the labour supply

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