Thursday, June 9, 2005

Beyond the Superwoman...

(Article first published in Currents No. 2 2005)


You’ve heard it before: In Sweden, almost all adult women work and new parents get 480 days of paid parental leave, plus subsidies from the government. In America, soccer moms, with Ph.D.’s but no career, shuttle their children between after school-programs, while childless yuppies race for the top. Stereotypes about Sweden and America are not hard to come by, but the messy reality of contemporary life and work is harder to grasp.

“There are so many paradoxes,” says Lillemor Westergren, associate professor at the School of Business at Stockholm University. She and many other Swedish researchers are critical of Sweden’s achivements when it comes to gender equality in the private business sector. “Our massmedia are still making a big deal about the appointment of a female CEO,” she says, but adds that “the appointment of Annika Falkengren as CEO in a such conservative sector as banking, and in particular of SEB, could indicate that something big is happening in Sweden.” But on the other hand, she warns that it may be premature to talk about a new trend. Only a handful of women have reached the pinnacles of power in the private sector, and very few women have taken place in the overwhelmingly male boards of publicly traded companies.

It is true both in Sweden and in the U.S. that there are very few women at the very top of the business world, but over half of all managers in the U.S. are women, and women run many large companies. Here the numbers are not all that flattering for Sweden. Female managers at mid- to higher level in the private sector grew from 9 percent in 1990 to 26 percent in 2002, and 31 percent in 2004. In publicly traded companies, the proportion reached 31 percent in 2002, and 34.5 percent in may of 2004 (according to Micromediabanken’s 2004 survey.) In the Swedish banking sector, the percentage of female managers rose from 10 percent in 1990 to 28 percent in 2004.

“There was a large jump in the number of women board members in private industry,” says Anne D. Boschini, a research associate at the Department of Economics at Stockholm University, and author of a gender study for the Center for Business and Policy Studies (SNS). The jump occurred in 2003 in response to a government threat of legal action in order increase the number of women board members. This had been done already in Norway, where companies above a certain size must have at least 40 percent female board members. In Sweden, only ten percent of board members are women, and 42 percent of all corporate boards are exclusively male. The social democratic government is not happy with this state of affairs and still talks about quotas.

Sweden is about ten years behind the U.S., when it comes to women and management, according to Boschini. She adds that one of the more surprising results of recent research is that while the corporate glass ceiling has been shattered in the U.S., it remains in place in Sweden. And it is getting worse. “The differences in pay between men and women are increasing as you reach higher pay scales, which is not the case in the U.S.,” she says.

One possible explanation could be that the Swedish model is based on what Marianne Sundström, associate professor at Swedish Institute for Social Research (SOFI) calls a ”working class” perspective. ”Women are expected to work, but not really to have a career,” she says. The pay after tax – even for a mid-level manager – doesn’t allow her to hire help to deal with the household work, or a private nanny, which might be a necessity if you have to take an afternoon flight to Berlin or New York, and your husband is also working fulltime. Even if you have the money, the private service sector is very limited, and besides, many Swedes frown upon such ”private” solutions. In the U.S. the service sector is much more developed, from take-out food to gardening and housecleaning.

”I remember how few women there used to be at the platform at the train station in Greenwhich back in 1983. Today there must be 30-40 percent women,” says Renee Lundblom, a veteran of SACC New York, and its first female president. She runs the largest and oldest of SACC-USA’s 19 member chambers, and is also the founder of the Executive Women’s Conference, which alternates between Sweden and the U.S. ”We want to build bridges between Swedish and American female executives,” she says and adds that networking is often hard for women, as they do more of the housework and have less time and energy for mingling. But networking is important, and the conference is one way to help women share their experiences and get ahead.

There have been large changes in both Sweden and the U.S. over the past 30-40 years. In the U.S. the civil rights movement and its aftermath led to a much tougher stand against discrimination, which over time made it risky for companies not only to engage in discrimination, but to ignore it. The threat of class action lawsuits made it a necessity to be proactive and institute policies that insulate a company from accusations of discrimination, and unequal treatment of women and minorities.

Sweden relied instead on a combination of legal and social reform to encourage women to work, and to promote gender equality at work and in society at large. The 1980 ”Act on Equality Between Men and Women in the Workplace” created an Ombudsman for Gender Equality (Jämställdhetsombudsman) to monitor and punish discrimination. This act, which in 1992 was replaced by the ”Equal Opportunity Act” demands of employers that they actively promote equality in the workplace. There is also a government Council on Equality Issues, which is led by the Minister for Gender Equality Affairs. Women have had the right to vote since 1921. 45 percent of the 349 members of the parliament are women, and eleven of twenty-two members of Göran Persson’s cabinet are women.

However, in the private business sector, change has been slow. And it seems that - one of many paradoxes in this field - the very same system that was built to support parents and women in particular, is holding back those women who want to pursue a career in the corporate world. The Swedish model is generous for working parents, as long as they stick to the model, which prefers uniform solutions. In addition, the egalitarian wage structure, plus the high and progressive income taxation makes it hard to afford help. “Pushing ahead in a career could mean that you have to work 60 hours a week, but it is expensive to pay your way out of household work in Sweden,” Marianne Sundström says. And even if Swedish men are picking up more of the household work these days, most of it still falls on the women, working or not.
Besides, a corporate executive may be less interested in parental leave, than having a nanny for their kids. “In Sweden, you are supposed to do everything yourself, taking care of the children, the household, the summer cottage. And as you are not supposed to hire help, it is very hard to strike a balance between work and life,” says Renee Lundholm.

Viveca Wahlstedt, who is manager for the consulting and executive search firm Carnegie Worldwide in Orlando, Florida, faced this negative attidude to hiring domestic help when she had applied for adoption back in the 1980’s before she moved to the U.S. The caseworker wrote in her case file that she intended to use a nanny, which was clearly a negative signal. (What kind of mother would do that?)

“I never took parental leave,” says Wahlstedt, whose father was an entrepreneur and had that “can do” attitude that led her to view things as possible rather than its opposite. “My first job was at a chemical company that faced an upsurge in international orders. They faced a crisis, because they couldn’t recruit more men and those they had already worked overtime. Why don’t hire women? There are many female chemist right out of school that can’t find jobs,” she suggested. It was an outrageous thought back then, but it worked and she made her way into management, and eventually to the U.S. “You need to build up your inner strength, so that you feel secure and don’t hesitate to try out things, or blame others for not achieving your goals,” says Wahlstedt, who is also a member of SACC-USA’s board.

Anna Stern worked in Sweden’s design world 1996-1998, and in the U.S. from 1999 to August of 2001. She says that men dominate the design business in the U.S., but that you can move ahead fast if you are willing to take responsibility and solve problems. And your pay moves too. Stern doubled her salary in two years time, but decided in the end to return to Sweden for sake of the lifestyle. She is a studio manager at the design firm Propeller, which was recently acquired by the larger firm Semcon. “Sweden has good design schools, and people are very open and creative,” she says.

Barbro Ehnbom came to the U.S. some 30 years ago on a scholarship fresh out of Sweden’s leading business school, the Stockholm School of Business (Svenska Handelshögskolan). She has worked in the pharmaceutical sector, in mergers and acquisitions, and runs her own investment advisory company, the DuHahn Group. She is also a longtime board member of SACC New York.

Her own experience – she was often the only woman around – has made her skeptical when it comes to women’s career chances whether it is in the U.S. or Sweden. This is why she has spent a considerable energy in building networks for young women entering the business world. Last year she launched a new scholarship for students at Svenska Handelshögskolan called “Female Economist of the Year.” She wants to put a spotlight on bright young women. It is not only about money and an internship, but access to a network of hundreds of experienced managers that stand ready to help and give advice. “You get a lead into the old boys network,” she says.

“But the real challenge is not right in the beginning of women’s career, which usually goes well until you are 37,38, 39. That’s when women tend to fall behind, because now you are suddenly a mother and have to deal with your husband’s ambition. At that point, it is not cute anymore to be successful. Your ambition is suddenly seen as a threat,” she says.

“It’s not enough for women to take the same role that men have had, and to find men who can run the household. All we’ve then done is to swap roles. The most important thing is to have those who put together the criteria for a board or the job description, to write them so that they can fit a woman. If you don’t do that, it will always be easy to say that there was no qualified woman available. Guess what, the criteria was written by three likeminded guys in their fifties,” she says.

Like many other female experts managers Currents spoke to, Ehnbom feels that the U.S. is ahead. “America is such an enormously diversified country. Of course, there are industries dominated by one type, i.e. white men. It was like that when I started out in the pharmaceutical industry, but other ways you do have a highly diversified nation, and that is true not only for women, but for blacks and Puerto Ricans and so on. If you have a good idea, you can make it here. You are not held back like in a more homogenous country like Sweden, where a few clans have been so dominant in the business world.”

“Many American companies understand the importance of diversity. This is true not only when it comes to gender discrimination, but also for ethnic discrimination. It is easier to be different in the U.S.,” says Agneta Rosenberg, who would have been the first female systems engineer in Sweden if she had taken an offer from IBM back in the 1980’s. She decided instead to take an offer from IBM in the U.S., and worked many years for them before starting her own consulting company Interim Ventures, which help Swedish companies to enter the U.S. market.

“It is easier to be a woman and a manager in the U.S. It is true that you have parental leave in Sweden and you get to keep you job even if you stay home with your children, but is it the same job that you return to? Many salespeople work with specific accounts, and maybe the client will prefer the person who took over while you were out. There is also the risk that you are loosing touch while you are home with the children. Other people may bypass you,” says Katarina G. Bonde, who has worked as a manager, venture capitalist and consultant in the IT-business for over twenty years. She is CEO of Kubi Corporation and a member of SACC-USA’s board.

Some American companies are trying to make it easier for women to combine parenthood with career, Bonde says while adding that many American women managers abstain from having children – yet another paradox. “It is hard to combine the two,” she says. Competition is so hard and many companies have a rigid attitude to parents need to stay home when a child is sick.

This dark side of the paradox was underscored in the March issue of Harvard Business Review. Too many women managers choose to “opt-out” from the career track according to its authors, Sylvia Ann Hewlett, director of the Gender and Public Policy Program at Columbia University, and Carolyn Buck Luce, a senior leader in the Global Accounts Group at Ernst & Young.

“Women want to work, and corporations must find alternative pathways to power. Our study, based on a sample of nearly 2,500 highly qualified women, examines the realities of women’s challenges and choices, probes their ambition, and traces the course of their careers. Our research shows beyond question that highly qualified women want to work. Not only have they invested heavily in their education and careers, but their professions give shape and meaning to their lives. Of the women who have taken an “off-ramp” from work, a full 93 percent want to come back. And many do take off-ramps. Nearly 60 percent of the women we surveyed take time out from their careers (37 percent) or follow what we call a “scenic route.” They decline a promotion, transfer from line to staff roles, take a job with less responsibility or work part-time, all in order to be able to manage the other responsibilities in their lives from time to time, be they children (45 percent), elder care (24 percent) or other outside interests. Put another way, the majority of highly qualified women have non-linear careers,” Carolyn Buck Luce wrote in a column for the Los Angeles Business Journal on April 4.

It looks like we are back where we started. But maybe not… While many Swedish experts and career women seem to yearn for more of the American dynamism, individualism and meritocracy, many American experts and career women seem to yearn for some of Sweden’s flexibility when it comes to giving parents more security, flexible work hours and maybe even a chance to smell baby powder now and then.

Could there be a middle way between the Scylla of the Swedish welfare uniformity and Charybdis of the American rat race?

Hans Sandberg

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