Equality through work

The Swedish Minister for Finance Anders Borg has just left the stage after the Winnet seminar Labour Market on Equal Terms. Judging by the audience reaction, there could be no doubt about people’s awareness of, engagement in and frustration regarding the segregated labour market. But before the audience had its turn, Borg did what he does best – flicking enthusiastically through his PowerPoint slides showing surplus goals, tax revenues and active stabilisation policies.

We have heard this before. Sweden is a small, open, and extremely export-dependent economy. The economy with its political compass needle to the right of centre converts the equality issue to secured tax revenues and the importance of strong finances. Why? Women are increasingly working in the public sector, so a budget deficit and cuts hit them hardest. The welfare system (i.e. public sector) requires nothing other than a surplus budget goal with no compromises to secure women’s jobs. And, suddenly, strong public finances are fundamental for gender equality!

In Sweden, 77.2 percent of women work, a high figure compared with the crisis countries in Europe, Italy (49.9 percent and Greece (43.3 percent). The reasons for this, explains a high-spirited Borg, are reforms such as individual taxation, generous parental insurance, extensive child care, earned income tax credits, and large investments in education.

To increase the number of women in employment, the finance minister proposes changed norms, strong public finances, more equal distribution of unpaid home and care work, stronger incentives to work, better opportunities for enterprise in the service sector, a more even utilisation of parental benefits, and more women in executive positions.

So… nothing new on inequality in other words. Anders Borg links gender equality to power over money, to participation on the labour market. Using that argument, it is obvious that the earned income tax credit becomes an equality issue because it has increased women’s participation on the labour market.

From the audience, Agneta Stark, associate professor in business studies with a gender profile, asked the first question. “Can you name any of the government’s reforms that benefit men?”. Borg had no answer, and rarely thinks of equality in relation to men. Improvements for the subordinates – yes, but no measures that have specifically benefitted men as far as he could see.

Another question concerned the age discrimination that middle-aged women experience on the labour market. Borg was aware of the problem, but feels that progress is being made because the 50-plus group has actually increased its working time.

In response to the question of when a fourth paternal month of leave would be introduced: “Unfortunately, the issue was rejected at the last Moderate Party meeting. It was even the most discussed issue,” was his reply. Borg, who sees the equality trap in its current form, was forced to back down when the party whip was raised. “Young women have strong views about it being their individual choice. Parent insurance promotes a lack of equality and pay gaps, but her the freedom of the individual must be brought into the equation.”

Solution? As things are now, it is just opinion-shaping and lobbying that we have at our disposal. “I’m conservative, and feel that equality is important as a tool to attain the goal of holding the family together. Couples that are equal stay together more than couples where unpaid work is the lot of the woman.”

Many questions remain unanswered, and the big picture must be painted, but Borg is told by his team it is time to move on. With a smile, our finance minister leaves the stage and the room. What he lacks in gender points, he compensates with charm. To a certain extent. At least if you believe the two elegant women in the back row..

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