What I Learnt Living in Sweden

When I asked my Swedish boyfriend, Ludvig, what makes gender equality in Sweden so different to that in Australia, he said, “Because growing up you see no difference between men and women whereas here you see it. You see it in schools, you see it in pubs. For example, there’d be no such thing as a stay-at-home mum. I’ve never seen a stay-at-home mum in Sweden. I didn’t even know it was a thing until I moved away.”

A few weeks ago I was introduced to the cultural theory of a man named Professor Geert Hofstede. Hofstede is a Dutch social psychologist and has examined cross-cultural communication. In understanding a culture, Hofstede suggests there are six different dimensions. I spent a morning on the Hofstede website and found a country comparison tool where you can see how your country rates in relation to the dimensions. My fascination for Sweden has become more intense since I’ve returned to Australia. I compared the two countries and there was one dimension that differed greatly; masculinity versus femininity. Australia receives a score of 61, making it a strongly masculine society whereas Sweden receives 5 and is a largely feminine society.

As explained, “The Masculinity side of this dimension represents a preference in society for achievement, heroism, assertiveness, and material rewards for success. Society at large is more competitive. Its opposite, Femininity, stands for a preference for cooperation, modesty, caring for the weak and quality of life. Society at large is more consensus-oriented.”

(Hofstede Insights, 2018)

A masculine-dominated society like Australia is similar to the United States where a focus on being the best, succeeding against everyone else and competition underpin the culture. It is no surprise Donald Trump become president within such a culture. A feminine society like Sweden and much of Scandinavia prioritises individuals working together to become a united and supportive collective. Rather than focussing on being the best, it’s more important to help those struggling to ensure everyone enjoys the best life possible.

When I spoke to Ludvig’s twin sisters about Sweden’s culture, they emphasised they had felt equal to men growing up. At no point during their schooling had they felt undermined or of lesser value.

My conversation with them reminded me of a time I’d been playing school sport. The boys dominated the game so our male teacher introduced a rule. The ball had to be passed to a girl at least once before scoring a goal. At the time, I felt pitied, unhelpful and an afterthought. The girls weren’t being relied on for their sporting abilities but rather, had to be included thanks to the guy’s good faith. Attending boys sports on Saturday was compulsory but supporting girls was optional. I remember boys would speak about girls as though they had ownership over them. If a guy in our class decided a girl was ‘slutty’ or ‘sloppy seconds’, the standard was set and the general consensus was in favour of his opinion. Whilst guys would encourage one another for their sexual ‘achievements’, girls were criticised, condemned and insulted if their sex life became public. It was never a matter of fairness. A guy could have sex with every girl in the class, boast about it and expect congratulatory responses. A girl could have sex with one guy and she immediately became ‘dirty’. Double standards were common-place and no one seemed to explicitly question them. Where this assumed power came from, I still am not sure of but what’s clear is that Hofstede’s findings aren’t inaccurate.

Australia is largely influenced by traditional masculine values where bravado and the public boasting and claiming of sexual ‘achievements’ is considered normal.

The article published by the Australian Men’s Health magazine ‘6 Signs She’s Thinking of Cheating’ writes “Revenge affairs are common. Women have them in an attempt to restore self-esteem and feel desirable again” (L, Ongaro. 2015).

Ongaro’s suggestion women have ‘revenge affairs’ due to low-self esteem and the need to feel desired is an undermining and oversimplified generalisation. Ongaro also suggests a woman’s being promoted is another reason she may be cheating because “Women like to have projects and goals. When she reaches a milestone-say, in her career—she may start to think, Now what?” (2015). Ongaro states, “women with fat salaries are more likely to cheat” (L, Ongaro. 2015). Despite the article being written by a woman, the language used, the sweeping statements and the suggestion women who make money cheat speaks to a backward mindset in relation to genders. Articles like this that make up the popular culture Australians consume only furthers the gender divide. Rather than empowering both sexes, messages like these can leave women feeling sexually objectified and ultimately disempowered.

Being boastful and focussing on individual success is not something Swedes encourage. A word that sums up a Swedish attitude to life is ‘lagom’; not too much, not too little, just enough. As Anna Brones explains in ‘Live Lagom’, “what’s moderate is good for us all. When everyone is treated as an equal, society thrives…” The notion of lagom and the benefits of the balance it encourages is something I experienced first hand whilst living in Sweden. Women and men are seen as equally important genders that make up the whole of society. Where the relation between men and women in Australia can be frequently a sexual one, it seems Swedish men and women interact in a more respectful and sexually-neutral way.

I remember the first time I met Ludvig’s friends. They were a group of tall, long-haired guys with chiseled jaws and modest natures. I was immediately struck by how overwhelmingly polite they were. In no way did they treat me or any of my girlfriends sexually. We were equals and no one seemed to be sexualised, objectified or treated differently due to their being a girl. The Swedes were non-judgmental, always respectful and at times incredibly shy. There were never conversations talking about girls in derogatory ways which I’d grown used to in Australia.

His friends, his father, his friend’s friends and the many other Swedish men and women I met seemed to treat one another in a balanced and fair way. I admired this new culture. For the first time in my life I had developed non-sexual, neutral friendships with persons of the opposite sex. Ludvig’s father had made all his meals growing up. Ludvig, like all Swedish children, took ‘home knowledge’ in school where he learnt domestic skills including to cook and to clean. Although my father and mother have always had an equal and balanced relationship, I can’t say the same for all Australian families. I have long known there is such a thing as a stay-at-home Mum. In saying this, it’s important to recognise Sweden is of course not a golden utopia. It, like all other countries, comes with its cultural challenges and social limitations but in relation to this issue, it’s one to learn from.

In reflecting on these cultural differences, it is clear the cultures we are raised in, to some extent, influence us and how we see the world around us. But, what’s also clear, is we don’t have to accept or become the cultural norms we’re surrounded by. We can ask, ‘does our culture operate to the benefit of the individuals living within it?’ We can learn from Hofstede’s findings and look to other cultures to see how they’re potentially doing life in better and more effective ways. This is particularly so in relation to gender equality.

It could be said we all belong to the collective that is human kind and in belonging to this, we are able to move between, adapt to and embrace new cultures that might introduce us to alternate ways of living life.

We can explore different parts of the globe and expose ourselves to other ways of seeing the world. In relation to Sweden, I saw, learnt and experienced how a feminine culture can affect the everyday lives of women. It can result in the equal treatment of females, the respectful nature with which females and males interact and ultimately a more united and effectively functioning society. As Sweden shows us, life is simply better when men and women work together rather than against one another. In realising this, doesn’t it make sense to learn as much as we can from Sweden? With its feminine, fair and collectively functioning society, we can improve our society with a little more ‘lagom’ so we can achieve the ‘perfect equilibrium’ for both Australian males and females.

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