The Swedish word for “women” is “kvinnor”

The Swedish word for “women” is “kvinnor”

Yesterday, through work, I received an invitation to attend a European women’s networking event in Sweden and it reminded me of the last time I went to Stockholm on business.

Although many global companies are very creative in terms of how they both recognise and then tackle the gender issue in general, and the retention and promotion situations in particular, I was particularly keen to find out more about the Swedish model once I discovered that our firm in Sweden actually have targets for female participation at all levels: graduate recruitment, retention, and promotion at every grade.

Targets around female participation always seem to arouse great debate, cf in particular the recent hoo-ha caused by Harriet Harman’s comments, with some organisations viewing them as a mandatory way to both invoke and measure progress (“what gets measured gets done”) and others seeing the word as completely interchangeable with the word “quota”, which is in turn generally agreed to be A Bad Word and no way at all to increase the proportion of women in either politics or the workforce.

So, the discovery that my employer in Sweden has been an active participant in the EU sponsored Women To the Top programme since 2004 and has subsequently established their own targets, saw me flying to Stockholm on a very cold Sunday morning last November and preparing to spend 48 hours being offered reindeer, herring and rye bread. For breakfast.

My sense was that Sweden as a country is very advanced around working women, workplace flexibility, the provision of nurseries and so on – would this prove to be true? Has Sweden developed a model which would work elsewhere? What lessons can we learn and how can we deploy them elsewhere?

On Monday morning, I walked to the office and saw an image of a baby girl, wearing an obviously false moustache, on a billboard on my way in – here she is:

Swedish baby and tache

Further enquiry led me to the website of the company in question, which was of course in Swedish but which was kindly translated for me by my helpful colleague Lisa. The gist of the message was focussed on a survey by an insurance company which had discovered that, in order to be a leader in a top Swedish listed company, it was helpful (in statistical terms) to be a man named Goran (as in Sven-Goran Eriksson, football fans). They then turned these findings into a series of advertisements, all illustrated by images of baby girls disguised as the opposite gender, and captioned with wording around the theme of: “Is her name Ulrika? If you want her to succeed as an adult, you’d do better to rename her Bjorn or Anders.”

Quite aside from this being visually very eye catching, it was also thought provoking to me on two levels: one, I read from it that the current Swedish status quo is by no means as positive in terms of numbers as it may appear to be at first sight; and secondly, that this is both recognised within Sweden and challenged by way of these advertisements, which don’t resemble any campaigns that I’ve seen elsewhere.

My two days with my colleagues were both enjoyable and enlightening. I learned a lot about the annual flexible hours contract available to all staff, the recently launched mentoring scheme, their participation in Women To the Top and the establishment of the “Women on the Board” external networking group.

And I flew home (and yes, I’d eaten both reindeer AND herring) feeling very aware that a combination of employer led interventions, coupled with government support, can make a very real difference to the number and seniority of women in the workplace.

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