Birgitta Ohlsson is party director at the National Democratic Institute and former Swedish Minister for EU Affairs (2014-2018) and member of the European Parliament (2002-2018).
When I was in the Swedish government, my four-year-old daughter Stella used to say to me: “You are a minister, but you can never become prime minister because you are a mother.”
I had been appointed Sweden’s Minister for Europe and Democracy when I was pregnant with her – it caused quite a stir. Conservative politicians and savvy people declared that I was “irresponsible”, as if being a mother-to-be somehow disqualified me from serving in the government. By taking a play from the old patriarchal playbook, they signaled loud and clear that women should be neither too career-oriented nor too ambitious.
Despite the whining among the men in chattering classes, however, the Swedish public supported my appointment. And when I am faced with questions about how I could be a mother and have a career, joked, “I’m married to a modern man and not a dinosaur.”
Now, 11 years later – and 100 years after our Riksdag decided to introduce universal and equal suffrage – Sweden has finally elected its first female prime minister, Magdalena Andersson, the Harvard-educated leader of the Social Democratic Party and Minister of Finance since 2014. Less than eight hours after he was appointed on Wednesday, Andersson had to resign, when the Green Party decided to leave her coalition. But now she is back in power with the support of the parties that supported her for the first time, and ready to form a new government.
But how did it take so long for Sweden – a global champion of gender equality – to break this political glass ceiling? Why was Sweden the last country among the Nordic countries to give women the right to vote and lead the country?
On the other hand, Finland has already had three female prime ministers and one president, Denmark two, Norway also two, and Iceland has had two prime ministers and one president – Vigdís Finnbogadóttir is the world’s first democratically elected female president.
Sweden’s comparatively slow path to a female prime minister – despite its progressive social customs and a feminist government, where women constitute 47.5 percent of the Riksdag, 54.5 percent of the ministers in the government and about 43 percent of the municipal councils Highlights some of the obstacles that prevent and deter women from fully participating in politics around the world.
On the one hand, large political parties in Sweden have rarely been led by women. The Social Democratic Party and the Moderates, who have often occupied the post of Prime Minister through modern Swedish history, have rarely had female leaders. And that has only changed in the last decade – as in many other countries, women in Swedish politics have had to face double standards and curse if you do it, curse if you do not.
Often, the political parties themselves is a central part of the problem when it comes to meaningful representation, which creates barriers to entry. At the National Democratic Institute where I work, we promote full equality in politics through programs in over 70 countries around the world, and we often see common ground. barriers for women, whether or not they are institutional, which limits women’s opportunities to participate in politics; sociocultural, discriminatory based on gender-based social norms that underpin women’s inequality; or individual, shaped by one’s own confidence, capacity and connections – resources needed to participate effectively in the political sphere that women often lack.
Specifically in Sweden, there has also always been a social attitude of skepticism and ambivalence towards ambition and personal success. Especially for women, Nordic law on Jante dictates that one should not publicly aim too high or show one’s ambitions.
Women have been successful but only up to a certain level and rarely reached the highest positions. This is reflected not only in politics but also in business: Men hold 91 percent of the listed companies’ chairmanships and 74 percent of the board seats. Among Swedish listed companies, men own 99.3 percent and women only 0.7 percent.
In addition, it often ends up that Sweden’s women politicians engage in international politics rather than local politics. For decades, there has been a tradition of well-known Swedish women politicians taking the step to the global stage. Since joining the European Union in the mid-1990s, Sweden has only appointed women as EU commissioners – and the same pattern can also be seen in the UN.
Fortunately, Andersson is not alone. As of September 1, 2021, there are now 26 women serving as heads of state and / or government in 24 countries.
We still have a lot to do, it’s undeniable. With current course, equality in the highest positions of power will still not be achieved until 130 years from now. But at least today I can tell my daughter Stella, now 11 years old, that women and mothers can become prime ministers in Sweden as well.