Episode 95: Better in Scandinavia

Show transcript:

Welcome to The Broad Experience, the show about women, the workplace, and success.  I’m Ashley Milne-Tyte.

 This time, America may not have elected a female head of state. But most Scandinavian countries have. And these countries have excellent reputations for gender equality. 

“This is something that’s talked about in the government and then it’s talked about down to the pre-school or school level – and then amongst parents.”

But despite that, the number of women in senior roles isn’t that different from the US.

 “Actually more women do have a good education but still we see the problem that it’s men who are getting the highest salaries.”

Coming up – we take a look at life for working women in the Nordic countries.

I live in the workaholic US. Hours are long, parental leave is often non-existent, and good, affordable childcare can be hard to find. And during the years I’ve been doing the show I’ve often thought enviously about women in Scandinavia. They seem to have it so good – there’s the state-funded childcare, the shorter working week, what seems like a huge number of men who take an active part at home. It sounds great. These countries usually top lists of best places to be a working woman.

But here’s the paradox: despite this wonderful approach to work/life balance, few women in Scandinavia are in positions of power, especially in the private sector.

You could say that doesn’t matter – after all these societies are so much more equal than many others. Working class women are far better off in the Nordic countries than they are in America. Still, I wanted to probe a bit more.  So I got in touch with three professional women in Sweden, Norway and Denmark.

Bronwyn Griffith is a curator at a contemporary art museum in Stockholm – it’s called Magasin III (three). She’s American by birth but she’s lived abroad for years. First she was in France, and for the last 11 years she’s been in Sweden. Her husband is Swedish and they have two kids, a 13–year-old boy and a 10-year old girl. Her husband is a musician. She says they live in one of those former working class neighborhoods that’s now full of artists and writers.

We began our conversation on Skype. She can’t imagine working and bringing up kids in the US, after living in Sweden…

“Childcare is heavily subsidized for example, healthcare is heavily subsidized, so some of these things stress out my friends in the US aren’t there. A lot of women are working fulltime.”

Including her. And this is largely because they need to – Sweden and its neighbors have generous welfare states but they are funded by high taxes. Governments want as many people as possible to work and pay into the system. Most families need two incomes to keep up their households.

Bronwyn says equality is in the air here. There’s a real attempt to erase gender bias. She says her kids’ school holds meetings where the parents all discuss attitudes to gender in the classroom. They talk about how the school can prevent boys and girls getting siphoned off into different groups with different activities.

Sweden has introduced a new gender-free pronoun so people can avoid using ‘he’ or ‘she’.

So that’s what’s going on in public. But when it comes to men and women, old attitudes and expectations linger in private…

“It’s common for both people in the couple to cook, both do laundry, those things are evenly divided, but there are certain things that still default to the mothers consistently: buying birthday presents, booking doctors’ appointments, setting up playdates is often still on the mother, and those all take time and organization and energy away from other things – it’s outside of the workplace but it still relates because it’s what you do during the evenings when you come home after a long day’s work or on the weekend…”

AM-T: “When you say mothers, are you including yourself in this? Are you saying YOU do the doctors’ appointments, and…”

“Yup! [laughs] We’re working on it, it’s an ongoing discussion – and you know, it’s clothes that the children have outgrown, and giving away those things, sometimes it’s just not on my husband’s radar, he’s wonderful about sharing other tasks but it’s an ongoing conversation. I feel like I’ve had a minor victory today. He sent out the birthday invitation to our daughter’s birthday party. So he’s gonna be, you know, he had to look for all the email addresses and he’ll be sorting through all the RSVPs, and that for me was a small liberation.”

Still, she admits some of who does what – that comes down to her being able to let her husband take it on. To delegate. To give up control.

She’s working on that as well. She says her husband sometimes tells her he wishes he could slow her brain down. He says she can’t relax, she’s always planning the next thing they have to do, or making some kind of list.

“And that it’s’ important to be able to wind down and have those empty moments and not feel you have to constantly fill it. That’s something that you see here, they call it, there’s something, they called it in Swedish - to hit the wall, when people are getting burned out. It’s actually a medical diagnosis here, and it’s mostly women I know who have got this diagnosis, where they’re so stressed the doctor thinks they’re showing medical signs of being too stressed and so then they get put on sick leave to have time to rest up and re-coup. But most doctors think it’s because women are going on all fronts. They’re working really hard and fulltime, and then they’re trying to be the perfect mother and have the perfect home. There’s a lot of pressure here to have very tidy, very stylishly decorated homes, and all of that takes energy. There’s also a phrase here called to be a good girl – you’re a perfectionist, you’re trying the very hardest to be the best at everything you’re involved in.”

What Bronwyn says about homes is worth dwelling on for a minute. Because women in the Nordic countries don’t outsource housework the way a lot of people do in America or Britain. Professional couples in those countries often have a cleaner or a nanny, or both. But in Scandinavia with its high taxes, help with the house is seen as one expense too many. Research on the Nordic countries shows women still take on the vast majority of housework. And that leaves less time for a career.

Bronwyn recently took a stand on a domestic matter – preparation for the school bake sale. An email goes out to all the parents saying, ‘Let’s do this – who’s in?’

“When the email thread starts it’s nearly always a mother who initiates it and it’s a conversation between the mothers. And recently when this happened I got really irritated about it because I noticed all the fathers were on the thread and not responding. And all the mothers were saying oh, I can bake this, I can stand between 2 and 4. And none of the fathers were bothering to respond at all. So at home with my husband we got into a heated conversation about it. I said you’re also on this thread, you haven’t answered. It doesn’t seem fair that if I haven’t answered I feel like a neglectful mother, but with men, you don’t seem like you need to deign it with a response…your partner’s taking care of it, and you know, you’re gonna bake and you’re gonna respond, and we’ll see what happens. I bet some fathers will respond. And so he did, he wrote and said I will be happy to contribute, I can bake, and within two minutes two other fathers answered.”

AM-T: “Wow, that’s telling.”

“It is, and so often we say you need to talk about girls standing up for themselves but you do also need to talk to the boys. It’s so much what you model at home. The kids also really pick up on the fact that, if dad’s making dinner a lot they know dad also makes dinner. Or if the dad is picking them up from school or whatever. So they see that becomes the norm – not the lip service that we’re equal but because they see us living according to those principles.”

My next guest would agree. She lives outside Oslo, the Norwegian capital.

“My name is Katrine Gjaerum – my last name is a bit challenging for Americans I guess.”

AMT: “That is true.”

 “Yar-um, you can say.”

Katrine is a videographer. She started her own business several years ago.

 “I do everything from shooting, or planning shooting, and publishing, and also I do the marketing for people afterwards.”

And it wasn’t easy, starting a business. Entrepreneurship isn’t common among Norwegian women. She didn’t qualify for any subsidies to get her started. And Katrine’s female friends were quite negative about her choice.  

“I didn’t get very much support I must say. I didn’t because we have here in Norway...a kind of law, the law of ‘you shall not think that you are something.’

In other words, you shall not think you’re anything special – you mustn’t show off. Which is a bit tricky if you’re going into business for yourself. And of course the total opposite of the American attitude to entrepreneurship.

“We’re taught up to be kind of humble and you know, don’t put yourself first. But I think it’s stepping forward here at least amongst entrepreneurs in Norway it is…they’re looking at American online courses – I’m doing that myself. And I think it’s stepping out of your comfort zone that really does get you forward.”

 She did that in a big way when she set out to create her business in 2012. Her career had been up and down before that. She and her husband have twin girls -- they’re 14 now. And when she had them she took advantage of the maximum parental leave on offer for two kids.

She was working in the public sector when she became a parent; it was mainly an administrative role with some IT support thrown in…

“I’m glad I got the chance to stay with them for such a long time. I had them with me till they were 3 years old…I still kept my job, I kept the position at that job in the public section then but I couldn’t choose when I came back after three years, I couldn’t choose my tasks, so they put me to work on the switchboard at that time.”

It wasn’t ideal. She had a degree in a computer-related field. Still she was struggling just to get herself and the twins into Oslo each day, find parking, put them into daycare and then do the whole thing in reverse. Ultimately she quit to pursue another degree in digital media. She landed another part-time job during that time. Quite a few women in Norway work part-time.

AM-T: “Norway has this great participation rate. Women’s participation rate in the workforce is 75% of women are in the workforce. Which again is much greater than many other western countries. I mean how does that feel? Are you proud of that? Are there any compromises that come with that, with having a lot of women in the workforce? Are these satisfying jobs? Were you satisfied?”

“Yes and no. I think it’s great to have such a large amount of women in work but of course it’s a paradox because you mentioned part-time work, and it’s like me, that wasn’t, in the long run it wouldn’t have been satisfying but of course would give more flexibility, and the other thing is that, in what kind of work do we find the women? It’s mostly in very women-oriented work, – like teachers, nurses. I think that should be balanced even better.”

This is common across the Scandinavian countries – men work in typically male jobs, women in typically female ones – there’s less gender balance in professions than in many other countries. Women flock to the public sector with its generous benefits, but lower pay.

“And also it’s hard to get the top job, we can see more women have a good education, but still we see the problem that it’s men who are getting the highest salaries, and that’s kind of the struggle we have here, but how do you find the balance? I mean you want to spend time with your kids. What we are fighting a lot about here now is the fathers should also stay at home more with the kids.”

Fathers do have a quota of 10 weeks’ parental leave – if they don’t take it, it’s subtracted from the overall leave the couple can share. But what happens most often is they take the 10 weeks and go back to work. The mother takes many months more.

Still Katrine appreciates her country’s investment in early childcare and its parental leave policies – a lot. She says yes, it all helps keep women in work, and it keeps the fertility rate from plunging like it has in countries like Italy. But there’s more than that…

“Actually it has led to…the number of divorce has gone a little bit down in Norway – because if you take care of your family it is better for all the parts. I think it’s better for both men and women and keeping families together should be something that must be interesting for the countries because then it’s better stability.”

Norway’s childcare system seems to have long-term benefits as well. I was at a panel on universal childcare last week. We heard from an economist with Norway’s official statistics body…she said kids who have been through the Norwegian state-funded system pursue more education and earn more later in life. 

Bronwyn Griffith has only good things to say about Sweden’s childcare system. She says it’s fantastic care and it’s affordable. You’re charged based on your income and if you use your state child benefit as well, you can pay as little as $40 a month for daycare. That includes food and diapers.

As for parental leave, she did take most of it. A full year. Her husband took two and a half months.

“I know in some couples, there were some couples who have had long conversations about who gets to be at home with the child…because both parents really want to do it. And I have a number of colleagues, male colleagues who took 6 months to be at home with their child and they were very determined about that, there was absolutely no discussion that they were not going to have those 6 months off. And I think that it allows the father to have a really nice relationship with their child.”

But some outsiders don’t recognize that relationship when they see it. Bronwyn has a friend who works at another museum in Stockholm. And a group of Italian curators was in town, and she was showing them around to exhibitions…

“….one of the Italian curators leaned over to her and said, what is it with all these gay nannies? Because there were all of these men walking around with prams. And they thought these were gay nannies instead of the fathers of the children that were on parental leave. It was really funny.”

My next guest lives in Copenhagen. Lynn Roseberry qualified as a lawyer in the US. She met her Danish husband at Harvard Law School. 22 years ago she followed him to Denmark and she’s been there ever since. She’s just wrapping up a longtime job as a professor at Copenhagen Business School. She’s about to go into business for herself as a diversity consultant.

AM-T: “One of the things I think is so interesting about the Scandinavian countries, and I did want to ask you about this, is I know that the number of women in these top jobs…in these kinds of professions, like law and finance, aren’t any higher in Denmark, Sweden or Norway than they are in the states. And I wonder why you think that is?”

“That is so ironic. I think there are lots of reasons. The very general reason is that in Denmark it seems to me the conversation about gender and careers stopped in the 70s. And there’s an assumption we are all equal now and everyone has the same opportunities, and if women aren’t progressing into the upper reaches of the hierarchy that’s because of their own choice. Of course you have some of that in the States too but it’s my impression there is still quite a bit of conversation around it, and that there are women who find ways of progressing -- and it also seems to be especially in well paying positions, which is what all of these are, it’s quite acceptable to hire fulltime nannies, live-at-home nannies, and that’s not quite acceptable here.

It’s certainly more expensive to hire a nanny in Denmark. But the other thing is the social piece…

"It’s that there are some women who look down their noses at women who don’t pick up their kids early from daycare, and don’t bake, and don’t do all the kinds of things you’re supposed to do to show you’re involved with your kids, and this is a standard that applies to women.”

A standard many women strive to meet. And she says there’s another thing - corporate Denmark has blinders on. 

“Companies here have been very slow to take up diversity management and practices; they hardly want to talk about it…”

AMT: “Really?”

“Yeah, you raise hackles when you start talking about it. So you can ask me why am I doing this business with inclusion and diversity consulting. But I mean there are – the companies that are active in doing something with diversity and inclusion are the big multinationals that have headquarters in the States.”

Which is so interesting to me. That American women look at Denmark and its neighbors as beacons of equality…but Danish companies are actually lagging American ones on trying to pull more women up.  

AMT: “Given so much of the discussion here in the US does revolves around the lack of affordable childcare, the fact the system in the US simply isn’t geared around people having families. Politicians give lots of lip service to family being the most important thing but America is all about work, work, work…now Britain is better but I still hear a lot of complaints and concerns about the cost of childcare in Britain and it’s still a more workaholic culture than many of its neighboring counties. Given that Denmark has taken care of this huge slice, which is the childcare part, what are some of the things you think are hampering the advance of women into these higher roles?”

“I think it’s our socialization. The anxiety that gets provoked when you deviate just a little bit from gender roles and gendered behavior. It triggers anxiety and criticism. So you tend to choose the path of least resistance. You have to be really goal-oriented and committed to put up with that. And just not care about it.”

AM-T: “And I think, is it worth saying because it’s something I’ve noted a little bit on my visits to Denmark and talking to a good friend of mine in Denmark…it is quite a conformist society isn’t it?”

“Yes, it is. I’ve lived in a small town in the US and I compare it to that. Denmark is a very small country. People don’t move around very much, so in the little town I came from people didn’t move around much either…I mean there were people who were born and raised there and couldn’t dream of leaving. And it’s the same thing here. There were very definite expectations of how you behave, and if you don’t, you feel it. You feel there is some kind of social sanction and there’s a tremendous pressure to confirm. And that’s how it is here.”

Now of course there are some high profile women executives in Denmark, including the head of Microsoft Denmark. Presumably they don’t bake much or make it to the school gates by 4.30. And for four years until 2015 the country had a female prime minister, Helle Thorning-Schmidt. She formed a coalition government with two other parties.

“They were all headed up by women. And then the PM chose several women to be ministers. And suddenly everyone was talking about how women were taking over and we didn’t have to worry about women in government any more because look, we have all these women at the top – and now it’s just flipped.”

She says the current government has far fewer women ministers.  

I wondered if the former prime minster championed women’s progress…

 AMT: “Did she ever speak about these kinds of things or was she one of the women who just wanted to shut up about the whole thing?”

“Well that was one of the big disappointments of that government. They went into government – one of their promises was they were going to introduce earmarked paternity leave, so right now it’s not earmarked for men. Moms and dads have to split it but that can split it however they want to or they don’t have to split it.  Women can take all the leave if they want, and that is what most of them do. They went into government with this promise and they completely dropped it. And the person she appointed to be the gender equality minister was so unknowledgeable about all of this, I heard him speak a number of times. He was probably one of the least impressive ministers in the government… on the gender thing he was completely without a clue. There was some survey at some point that women suffer more from stress than men…taking care of kids, house, job, they’re stressing out totally, and he came out and said publicly ‘well, it’s just a question of prioritizing – sometimes you just can’t go to Yoga.’ [Laughs]. This was our gender equality minister!”

AMT: “How did that go down?”

“Under Helle Thorning-Schmidt. She had nothing to say about this, she just let him say these things. The impression most of us who are interested in this got was that she didn’t want to get too far into this because it wasn’t a popular position. It’s not regarded as important, not regarded as strategically important. So that just got sacrificed for political reasons.”

Pop culture isn’t always that evolved either. A few years ago Danish public television aired a show where men studied and critiqued a naked woman’s body. The woman had to stand there silently while the guys offered comments. The show’s creator said Danish society needed this…

“He thought that we need to, sort of like Justin Timberlake’s song, we had to get sexy back. And for him sexy means men admiring women’s bodies and men being manly and this was part of being masculine.”

It sparked plenty of outrage. But Lynn says the fact it made it to air tells you the whole equality thing – it’s not quite as ingrained as you might think in Denmark.

“So, you know, we’re a progressive backward country…or a backward progressive country, I don’t know.”

Lynn Roseberry. She’s the co-author of a book called Bridging the Gender Gap. Thanks to Lynn, Katrine Gjaerum and Bronwyn Griffith for being my guests on this show. 

If you’re listening to this in one of the Nordic countries and you have something to add I’d love to hear from you. You can reach me via the show’s website or on Twitter at ashleymilnetyte – without the hyphen. Or you can leave a comment under this episode at The Broad Experience dot com.

That’s the Broad Experience for this time. Thanks to all those of you who have supported this one-woman show with one-off donations or monthly donations. If you’d like to join them go to The Broad Experience.com and hit the support tab on the homepage.

I’m Ashley Milne-Tyte. See you next time.