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Hailed as Champion of Gender Equality, Sweden Learns It Still Has Some Catching Up to Do

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a5.sweden.olofsdotter.story#MeToo and Time’s Up have become global rallying cries for women to speak out against abuse and harassment and demand equal treatment. The avalanche of accusations associated with the movements — which run the gamut from lewd remarks to vicious assaults — have ensnared high-profile men such as Harvey Weinstein, Matt Lauer, Al Franken, Charlie Rose, Mario Batali and even our own president, Donald Trump. 

The fact that the accused come from all walks of life — Hollywood, Congress, newsrooms, restaurants, Wall Street and Silicon Valley — shows that no one is immune to the systematic disenfranchisement of half the world’s population. 

That includes, apparently, Swedes. 

Long hailed as a beacon of progressive politics and gender equality, Sweden has found itself in the midst of the #MeToo maelstrom. 

The Nordic nation of nearly 10 million developed the world’s first (and only) “feminist” foreign policy. It also boasts a long tradition of government policies such as generous parental leave that have made it a trailblazer in promoting women’s rights. Yet #MeToo has highlighted not only the country’s successes, but also its shortcomings — including the misperception that women in Sweden somehow have it made compared to other countries. 

Swedish journalist Jenny Nordberg, writing in a Dec. 15 New York Times article, said that despite “reams of pro-gender equality rules and regulations,” Sweden is still plagued by traditional patriarchal attitudes and a culture of silence. “We find ourselves incredulous that such things could happen here, despite all of our (very expensive) efforts at becoming the world’s best place to live,” Nordberg wrote. 

But that reckoning is a good thing, says Karin Olofsdotter, Sweden’s ambassador to the U.S., who is one of roughly two dozen female ambassadors in Washington. 

In fact, Olofsdotter, a mother of two, says she can’t comprehend how anyone would be opposed to the ideas behind #MeToo. 

“How can you not think that women should be included, that we should not have exactly the same rights as men, that there should be any difference at all? Why shouldn’t women be able to hold the same positions, take part in political life, decide over their own bodies like men do? How can you not think like that?” she wondered as she spoke to us inside Sweden’s contemporary glass-enclosed embassy overlooking the Georgetown Waterfront. 

And considering that everyone has a mother and many have daughters, “I’m more astounded by anyone who doesn’t share this agenda actually.” 

From #WithWhatRight to #LetThereBeLight

Tens of thousands of Swedes agree. #MeToo has spawned a similar wave of viral campaigns in Sweden detailing stories of rape and harassment in virtually all sectors of society. The film industry has taken up the manifesto #silenceaction signed by top-tier actresses such as Alicia Vikander and Noomi Rapace. Other hastags focus on the fields of law (#withwhatright), music (#whenthemusicends), politics (#inthecorridorsofpower), the clergy (#lettherebelight), medicine (#noconfidentiality), military (#standtoattention), sports (#timeout), unions (#nonnegotiable) and archaeology (#diggingisunderway). Even the country’s vaunted Swedish Academy, which hands out the Nobel Prize for Literature, was rocked by a sex scandal. 

The stories that have proliferated on social media are often graphic and disturbing. In one testimony described in the Svenska Dagbladet daily newspaper, a signatory recalled a meeting with a music label that had signed a children’s group of 9- to 12-year-olds. “When we had a meeting about the band, me and four men in executive positions, one of these men played an upcoming video with the children when he suddenly says: ‘they don’t have hair on their p*****s yet, they have nice shaved p*****s.’” 

Another woman revealed that she was raped by an actor colleague. “When I told a director I was working with about the assault, he jokingly replied, ‘Now I’m worried you’ll report me for sexual harassment.’” Yet another woman recalled an actor suggesting to suck the milk from her breasts. 

A journalist writing under the hashtag #Deadline recounted some of the humiliations she routinely endured on set: “When a TV anchor colleague told me I was so hot that if he wasn’t already sexually satisfied, he had gone straight to the bathroom to jerk off. When another TV anchor colleague sneaked up behind me and put his whole arm between my legs, grabbing my vagina. When a third TV anchor colleague established that I looked great with my hair up, and slutty with it down.” 

Meanwhile, hundreds of female students — some as young as 6 — have reported teachers assaulting them or propositioning them to receive better grades and even being urinated on during swim lessons. 

a5.sweden.flags.storyOlofsdotter said the allegations have exposed how pervasive — and universal — the problem is. “In some areas, we have come further than other countries, and in some, we are just on the same level,” she said, speculating on some of the reasons why #MeToo has ignited such a firestorm in her homeland. 

One could be that there’s less stigma in talking about sexual abuse. For instance, Sweden has among the highest incidence of rape in the world, but that could stem from the fact that women are likelier to report a rape in Sweden than in other countries. Also, the ambassador noted that Sweden has the highest employment rate of women in the European Union (about 80 percent). That translates to more women in the workforce and therefore more women potentially subject to sexual harassment on the job. The country is also highly connected via social media. 

“So I think it’s a combination of those three factors. It’s not easy to talk about that you have been assaulted or harassed, but when it started, I guess women just decided that this is it. This is our chance. We will not tolerate this. So it became an enormous movement, and I don’t think it means we have more or less harassment than anywhere else — it’s probably the same — but it was really a moment where Swedish women just cried out in maybe a broader way than other countries,” she told us. 

Personal Resonance

Olofsdotter, who served as director-general for trade in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and ambassador to Hungary before taking up her current post last September, said she herself has not encountered much discrimination in her 23-year career. That could be in part because her government adopted a policy in the 1970s to recruit more women in an effort to evenly split the diplomatic corps between men and women. Today, she said female ambassadors comprise over 40 percent of Sweden’s Foreign Service. 

She admits that other nations don’t have the same high ratio of women ambassadors, but “personally for me it’s always been an advantage because, especially on the international scene, it is a male-dominated career, so you stick out.” 

But her boss approaches the issue of women’s empowerment from a far more personal perspective. Swedish Foreign Minister Margot Wallström was in her early 20s when her boyfriend beat her. When she tried to break the relationship off, he held a knife to her throat, leaving behind a small scar on her chin. 

The psychological wounds also left an indelible mark on Wallström, who throughout her career has tackled women’s issues head-on, ranging from pornography and prostitution to the rape of women in armed conflicts. 

“I think it’s very important that politicians can use their own stories because it makes people believe them more and not question where they’re coming from,” said Olofsdotter. “Luckily and hopefully most people have not been through what our foreign minister has been through. But that you can relate to personal experiences is a driving force in politics.” 

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A Feminist Government

In 2014, years before #MeToo took off, Wallström spearheaded Sweden’s feminist foreign policy that incorporates women’s rights into its international agenda. This means promoting the role of women in peacekeeping, human rights, health, the environment, trade and other areas. 

For example, when Olofsdotter visited Tanzania as director-general for trade, she saw gender-focused development projects firsthand, including one that taught women how to use smartphones for banking. This allowed women to work from home and better manage the family’s finances. “That strengthens the woman’s role in many societies and also increases the economy of the country,” she said. “And which politician doesn’t want to grow its country’s economy?” 

Likewise, Sweden has adopted policies that prioritize gender equality at home. This includes “gender-responsive budgeting” to support programs that, among other things, aim to narrow the pay gap between men and women; increase assistance to single parents; fund nonprofits that help women refugees; invest in women’s health; and push businesses to raise the number of women in top managerial positions. 

In the wake of the #MeToo outcry, the government is considering other initiatives as well, including the creation of a new department to specifically deal with gender issues by year’s end. Women have also called for measures such as strengthening protections for whistleblowers, increasing the statutes of limitations for sex crimes, improving education in schools and expanding the legal definition of rape to cover all forms of nonconsensual sex. 

 

Olofsdotter predicts that the #MeToo movement will be a historic milestone, not a passing fad. “I don’t think that sexual harassment will disappear, but I hope that the awareness means that the perpetrators will be more aware that this is not acceptable and that women or men who are harassed will be much more prone to report it. Yes, I think it is a long-term change.”

Wallström’s outspoken tenure, however, has sparked a backlash — not so much against her feminist views, but against what critics say is an activist foreign policy that puts idealism ahead of realism. Her first controversial move as foreign minister was to recognize Palestine as a state. She also lashed out at Saudi Arabia’s human rights record, drawing the ire of businesses, particularly Sweden’s lucrative weapons industry.

Olofsdotter did not address the criticism, but pointed out that Wallström and her Social Democratic party — along with its center-left policies — won the last election. “Politics is by nature ideological,” she said. “And you can compare that to this administration recognizing Jerusalem. It’s an ideological and political statement, so all governments usually act in a way with the policies that they have been elected on. So I don’t think it’s strange…. We have elections every four years, so if the policies of the government are not liked by the public, which includes business people, it will change.”

We asked the ambassador if there’s been any resistance to the pro-women policies pushed by the government, especially costly ones like free mammography screening and contraception.

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“No,” she said, arguing that such policies are not only morally sound, but fiscally smart.

“Preventive care saves a lot of money. It’s first of all good for people. That’s the most important thing. But then secondly it also saves a lot of money because you can treat people earlier and it doesn’t cost as much in the end.”

The same rationale goes into Sweden’s parental leave system, which is one of the world’s most generous. Parents are entitled to 480 days of paid parental leave when a child is born or adopted, with 90 days of paid leave reserved exclusively for fathers that cannot be transferred to the mother.

Olofsdotter pointed out that as a result of its child-friendly policies, Sweden has one of the highest birthrates in Europe, especially among highly educated women.

In stark contrast to Sweden’s expansive childcare approach, the United States has among the skimpiest maternal leave systems in the developed world. It was an uphill battle in the recent Republican tax reform bill just to increase the child tax credit from $1,000 per child to $2,000.

But the ambassador says that Sweden’s model of a strong social safety net can’t necessarily be replicated in the United States.

“Our systems are built completely differently,” she said, explaining that when you compare Sweden’s high taxes and high benefits to the larger paychecks that Americans take home in return for fewer benefits, “we usually have the same amount left. So it’s an ideologically different way of having a society set up, and one can’t say one is better than the other. It’s just very different,” she told us, although she did note that the “female employment level is quite lower in the United States.”

Relations Under Trump

Governing philosophies aside, the differences between Sweden and the United States have been laid bare by an unpredictable American president who hinted at a terrorist attack in Sweden on Twitter that never actually happened. Trump’s lack of foreign policy prowess is compounded by the allegations of sexism that have dogged his presidency. This is a man who bragged about being famous enough to grope women, still faces a litany of harassment lawsuits and reportedly paid a porn star hush money prior to his election to cover up an alleged affair.

Olofsdotter skirted around the topic of Trump’s less-then-stellar reputation with the opposite sex to focus more broadly on U.S.-Swedish relations, which she said are very good, though not perfect.

“We work very closely on a lot of issues. We see eye to eye on Russia, for instance. North Korea is another area we work closely together on…. We don’t see eye to eye on climate, and we don’t see eye to eye on trade. We truly believe in free and open markets, with an even playing field for all countries, and we don’t know yet what U.S. policies will be,” she said, lamenting the administration’s decision to pull out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade accord.

a5.sweden.glance.storyShe added that Swedes are worried about the U.S. withdrawing funding for women’s health organizations that perform abortions (Sweden has offered to replace the money).

While Olofsdotter did not comment directly on Trump, she did visit “Trump country” in a trip that was chronicled by Greg Jaffe of The Washington Post. Olofsdotter stopped by Pittsburgh “in search of some true-believing, climate-change-denying, anti-free-trade, ‘America first’ Trump voters,” as Jaffe put it. The ambassador spoke with editors at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, students at the University of Pittsburgh and voters in a local library, although she had trouble “finding some aggrieved Trump supporters who were willing to make time for a discussion,” according to the article.

Olofsdotter — who previously served in Washington from 2008 to 2011 as deputy chief of mission and also studied at UCLA as a graduate student — told us she was surprised by the attention the article received. “What I think is the most astonishing reaction I received is, ‘Oh you travel.’ Yes, diplomats travel,” she laughed. “It’s our job to get to know the country where we serve. It just happened that this trip was covered by a journalist.”

She was equally surprised by the crowd that showed up at the library to learn about her country and issues such as immigration. “I was extremely impressed that [120] people took the time to come out on a weeknight, and people were very interested and they knew a lot about my country,” she said. “It was fun.”

Also impressive was the city of Pittsburgh and its transformation from a rundown steel manufacturing town into a thriving hub for tech and health care companies.

Populist Parallels

Ironically, despite Pittsburgh’s low unemployment and rising wages, Pennsylvania voters elected Trump, fueled in large part by populist frustrations that Rust Belt states are being left behind. Those same frustrations have propelled the rise of far-right, anti-establishment, anti-immigrant parties in Europe.

Olofsdotter said she sees a lot of parallels with the discontent on both sides of the Atlantic. “The cities are growing, attracting a lot of people — that’s where all the jobs are. And you have areas where there are no jobs and people are stuck. So it’s the same kind of frustrations that we have in our societies.

“It’s a challenge for our society, both when it comes to new Swedes, to get them into working life, feeling that they are part of their new home and contributing to that, as well as people who live in areas where the jobs have moved or the factories have just closed.”

She added: “We have like 100,000 open jobs in Sweden and we have roughly 200,000 unemployed. But it doesn’t match. People don’t have the right skills for the new jobs, which is exactly the same here, so how do we gear our education systems to make people interested in where the jobs are and learning to do those kinds of jobs?”

a5.sweden.military.tank.storyAsked whether Sweden’s two mainstream political parties are capable of taking on such a challenge, she offered a wry smile. “I really hope so because otherwise we would be in a very serious situation.”

For many, that serious situation comes in the form of the Sweden Democrats, a far-right party that has emerged in a time of widespread fears over jobs, globalization and immigration, especially refugees from war-torn Muslim nations.

Olofsdotter said she could not comment on the Sweden Democrats or any other political party, although she cited a recent opinion poll showing support for the Sweden Democrats at 16 percent, down significantly from the popularity it enjoyed in 2015 at the height of Europe’s refugee crisis.

Still, politicians are keeping a close eye on the party ahead of Sweden’s elections this September.

“Sweden has been a key center of white nationalism for decades…. Nationalists have built this network in a country that immigration opponents worldwide have been closely watching with the belief that it will be the first Western nation to collapse beneath the weight of Muslim immigration,” wrote J. Lester Feder and Edgar Mannheimer in a May 3, 2017, report for Buzzfeed.

“With a population of just under 10 million, Sweden accepted around 240,000 asylum-seekers in 2014 and 2015, the largest number per capita of any nation in Europe. Sweden also has one of the fastest-growing nationalist parties, the Sweden Democrats, which grew out of skinhead and neo-Nazi circles in the 1990s and is now polling as Sweden’s second-largest party,” they wrote.

Integration, Not Immigration

The ambassador acknowledges that even though the influx of migrants has slowed down, the refugee crisis is far from resolved. But she says “the election this year will not be about immigration; it will be about integration.”

“Since 2015, when Sweden received some 163,000 asylum seekers, the Swedish Migration Agency has made decisions in more than 200,000 cases. Efforts to provide decisions to those who have been waiting for a long time continues, and the agency plans to make decisions on a minimum of 80,000 asylum cases this year,” Olofsdotter said.

“The priority for those who have received a decision to stay in Sweden is to provide them with access to the labor market and to education. As for the public sentiment, there is still strong support in Sweden for accepting refugees and asylum seekers,” she added, although she lamented that “EU solidarity and joint responsibility was lacking.”

Olofsdotter also disputed the notion that Swedes have turned on Muslim immigrants in the wake of a spate of terrorist attacks, including a string of bomb blasts last October that didn’t cause any injuries and an April truck hijacking that killed five people.

The ambassador said the attacks have unified swedes, including many immigrant communities. She also insisted it is important to differentiate between religions and terrorism, pointing out that many terrorists are homegrown. “It’s easy to blame immigrant communities,” she said.

To address the problem, the government is pursuing tougher punishments and increased surveillance, along with outreach to religious groups and families, “so there are various measures, but I don’t think anyone can be immune [to terrorism] in the end.”

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Russian Rumblings

Another top security concern is Russia, although at least on that front, Olofsdotter says the U.S. and Sweden are on the same page, despite Trump’s repeated praise of Vladimir Putin and denunciations of NATO.

“I am not concerned about a transatlantic rift over Russia policies. In fact, our policies and analysis on Russia are to a large extent overlapping and mutually reinforcing,” said the ambassador, who served in Sweden’s embassy in Moscow and its mission to NATO. “One example of our ongoing cooperation is the Aurora 17 military exercises last year in which Swedish and U.S. forces exercised together.”

While Sweden is technically “militarily nonaligned,” it does partner with NATO and participate in regional military drills. Still, it is not a member of the 28-member security bloc. Given Russia’s annexation of Crimea and ongoing provocations in the Baltics and Scandinavia, many Swedes are wondering whether they should abandon 200 years of de facto neutrality and join NATO. But fears of provoking Russia, a key trading partner, loom large.

The ambassador is circumspect on the issue. “Ongoing cooperation and strong relationships with NATO, the EU, the U.N. and other international bodies are critical for regional stability. Whether Sweden’s future includes NATO membership is to be determined, but it is not something that is on the table at the moment.”


About the Author

Anna Gawel (@diplomatnews) is the managing editor of The Washington Diplomat.

Last Edited on January 31, 2018