‘Gender equality in the labour market requires a social infrastructure’
A country’s prosperity depends on the proportion of the population engaged in paid work, and without public child- and eldercare, women tend to be kept away from the labour market. Economist Åsa Löfström, who will participate in a conference organised by the Swedish Secretariat for Gender Research for the EU’s gender equality ministers on 8 November, points out that a society must accept the costs in order for women to be able to engage in paid work.
In connection with the EU summit in Gothenburg, on 8 November the National Secretariat for Gender Research will arrange a conference on gender equality in the workplace together with the Swedish Ministry of Health and Social Affairs. Åsa Löfström, senior lecturer in economics at Umeå University, will participate at the conference under the heading Gender Equality – a Key to Growth. More exactly, she will talk about what happens when all people can participate in the labour market regardless of gender.
‘The Nordic countries are among the wealthiest nations in the world, and this achievement would not have been possible had half of the workforce been kept at home. But it hasn’t been a free ride. Sweden started early to build a social infrastructure in the form of universal access to education and child- and eldercare, which enabled women to enter the labour market. This is not the way it’s done in many other countries, and it would cost a lot of money to create a similar system.’
Åsa Löfström mentions the United States an example, where parents are only entitled to 10 weeks of unpaid parental leave from work. San Francisco recently became the first city to require employers to offer their workers six weeks of paid leave when they become parents.
‘If both parents want to start working again, they typically need private childcare or a nanny, but this is only realistic if they make a lot of money. In most cases, the woman in a family has to stay at home. When the childcare is tax funded, it becomes available to both low-paid nurses and well-paid doctors. Then it is suddenly possible to combine parenthood with paid work.’
The tax-funded social infrastructure is an investment with a positive return, says Åsa Löfström.
‘Let’s be honest and admit that it is very expensive for a country to provide high-quality childcare that everybody can afford. But in Sweden today, there is a widespread acceptance of the idea that everybody should work and pay taxes. This makes it possible to cover the costs of enabling women to work.’
A short period of housewives
For about 30 years around World War II, it was not unusual for married woman in developed countries such as Sweden to stay at home as housewives, meaning they were in charge of all the unpaid household chores while their husbands worked away from home to put bread on the table. The shrinking of the agricultural sector made more people move to the cities and gave rise to the modern small-family households, where the men were expected to work away from home and make money for the family while the women stayed home.
‘During this short period, there was a campaign pointing out that women really didn’t want to be housewives. The change was initiated by expanding the education system so that the children of those with limited schooling could be given access to more education. This made it necessary for the labour market to be able to fully utilize the increased labour resources. Anything else would be a waste.’
According to Åsa Löfström, that is what it looks like in other European countries.
‘Women with children must stay at home, unless they have a healthy and alert mother or mother-in-law who can help watch her kids and do household chores. The women have adapted to the situation they are in. Many countries struggle with too low birth rates, like 1.2 to 1.4 children per woman, while Sweden is doing better with a rate of almost 2. There may be many reasons for choosing not to have kids, but nobody should feel that they have no choice.’
Gender segregated labour market
Although a large share of women in Sweden and the Nordic countries participate in the labour market, there are large occupational groups that are strongly dominated by one gender. There is a gender-segregated labour market. This is sometimes described as a paradox, but is indeed easy to explain. Still, primarily women perform the unpaid household work, along with the tax-funded child- and eldercare work. The salaries are lower in female-dominated than in male-dominated occupations. According to Åsa Löfström, the gender segregation has to do with how the modern labour market has evolved.
It’s just crazy that gender is such a decisive factor. When individuals make choices, they do not do so in isolation. Instead, they are surrounded by family and other social institutions, and those are things that take a long time to change.
‘We have a labour market that’s a century old. It has started to loosen up in the last three or four decades, first in occupations that require higher education: teachers, journalists, doctors and so on. The gender segregation in other occupations is more pronounced. The question is whether it is the salaries or the norms that are keeping men away from female-dominated jobs. If it’s the salaries, the question is why women don’t leave. It’s just crazy that gender is such a decisive factor. When individuals make choices, they do not do so in isolation. Instead, they are surrounded by family and other social institutions, and those are things that take a long time to change.’
In her research, Åsa Löfström has focused a lot on the gender pay gap, and she has also studied differences in school grades between girls and boys. She has served as special investigator on behalf of the Swedish government, which resulted in a government report titled Den könsuppdelade arbetsmarknaden (the gender-segregated labour market; SOU 2004:43).
When Sweden chaired the EU, she wrote a report titled Gender Equality, Economic Growth and Employment (2009).