The Gender Gap: Moms Not Wanted; Sweden Bends over Backward to Help Women Work, but in Ways That Often Keep Them out of the Best Jobs

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Byline: Rana Foroohar

Europeans and Americans alike have certain romantic notions about Sweden. We imagine it as a land of liberal-minded people living in a bastion of equality--which, in many ways, it is. Sweden has the second highest number of female parliamentarians in the world. Half its government ministers are women. Its wage gap is narrow, and females are well represented in the labor force. Both the United Nations and the World Economic Forum have rated it tops in the world for equality.

But no paradise is without its paradoxes. In Sweden, the biggest one is this: while the government has done much to improve the lives of women, it has also created a glass ceiling for them that is thicker than that in many other European countries, as well as in the United States. While state-funded child care and extremely long and cushy maternity benefits (480 days with up to 80 percent of pay) make it easy to be a working mother in Sweden, such benefits also have the effect of dampening female employment in the most lucrative and powerful jobs. In Sweden, more than 50 percent of women who work do so in the public sector--most as teachers, nurses, civil servants, home health aides or child minders, according to the OECD. Compare this to about 30 percent in the U.K. and 19.5 percent in America. "Private-sector employers are less willing to deal with the disruption caused by very long maternity leaves," says Manuela Tomei, a labor sociologist with the International Labor Organization in Geneva. "Gender discrimination in Sweden may be more subtle, but it is very much there."

The link between family-friendly policies and female employment are a hot topic all over the developed world, as birthrates fall and a shortage of skilled labor looms. Europeans have looked to the Nordic countries as a model--longer maternity leaves and state-funded child care must make it easier for women to have careers, or so the conventional wisdom goes. And indeed the system does make it easier for women to hold lower- to midlevel jobs and have children (Sweden has managed to keep its birthrate relatively high). But as London School of Economics fellow Catherine Hakim notes, policies that raise the birthrate "don't necessarily translate into complete gender equality, particularly in the private sector. …