Something I like to do whenever I encounter a woman who implies Western women are subject to societal pressure not to fulfill their career potential, e.g. by not pursuing STEM subjects, is to sympathise with them heavily to the point of condescension.
“Oh, that’s awful!” I’ll say. “So you really wanted to be an engineer. Yes, I can see why you’d be pretty upset now doing…what are you, again? You’re a Welfare Officer at a third-rate university? That must be awful, how do you feel about not being aware of the options available to you back then?”
The response is always the same. “Oh no, I am happy in my career and am fully aware of what my options are or were. But there are other women out there who are too dim to know they can study engineering or too feeble-minded to resist the societal pressure that is exerted upon them. But me, oh no, I am happy with my choices.”
Oh, to be in Sweden, a feminist paradise on Earth! Gender equality is baked into the nation’s DNA. Swedish women have advantages we can only only dream of – free universal child care, for example. Mothers and fathers get 480 (!) days of parental leave. An extensive welfare system makes it easy to balance work and family life.
Sweden and the other Nordic nations always seem to lead the rankings of the world’s best countries for women. (Canada is lucky to crack the top 20.) So they’re an ideal laboratory for finding out what women really want. What choices will women make when the playing field is as level as social policy can make it?
The trouble is that the world’s most liberated women aren’t leaning in – in fact, many are leaning back. They work fewer hours and make less money than men, just as Canadian women do. In fact, Swedish women are much more likely to have part-time jobs and far less likely to hold top managerial positions or be CEOs. On top of that, Scandinavian labour markets are the most gender-segregated in the developed world.
Women do make up 25 per cent of Swedish corporate boards, but only because of quotas. The greatest concentration of senior managers, CEOs and other highly paid power women isn’t in Scandinavia. It’s here in North America, where working women’s lives are much tougher.
It turns out that all these family-friendly policies have an unintended impact on the gender gap, as Kay Hymowitz and many others have noted. By making it easy for women to drop out of the work force and work shorter hours, they make it harder for women to progress in their careers. Swedish men have these options too, but they don’t take them. So women don’t advance as far as men. And they are also considered less desirable by corporate employers who need people on the job 24/7.
In any event, only a small proportion of Nordic women choose to work as managers and professionals. Most choose lower-paid, highly gender-segregated work. As Alison Wolf has written in her excellent book The XX Factor, Scandinavian countries “hold the record for gender segregation because they have gone the furthest in outsourcing traditional female activities and turning unpaid home-based ‘caring’ into formal employment.”
Despite vigorous efforts to stamp out gender stereotyping, most Swedish girls would still rather be daycare workers and nurses when they grow up. And boys would rather be welders and truck drivers. And that’s not all. To the extreme chagrin of social engineers throughout Scandinavia, mothers still take the bulk of parental leave. Most men take parental leave only when a certain part of it is designated for fathers only.
So given the choice, women make decisions which result in the same situation that the Patriarchy is forcing on them in the first place. Or perhaps women are simply enlightened individuals exercising free will and there is no Patriarchy? A tricky one, that.