Swedish media monitor gender balance

10. February, 2005


Ami Lönnroth

Foto: G. Diezins

[Genuine gender equality] will be on the day I see as many silly women in boardrooms as we see silly men today. Marianne Nivert, during her time as President and CEO of Telia.

Hardly had Sweden’s new equality minister Jens Orback entered his office in November 2004 when the accusations began. “Appointing Orback is a blow to feminism. He has fought against feminism and gives the priorities to men’s rights,” said sixteen feminist academics in an op-ed article in the leading Stockholm newspaper Dagens Nyheter (Oct 30th 2004).

Reading these accusations made me quite astonished. I had worked with Jens Orback in the beginning of the 1990’s and to me he came through as a very sensitive and democratically minded person, and now he was depicted as a male chauvinist and a homophobe.

Why is it that he meets with such resistance? Could it be the simple fact that a man has been appointed minister of equality between men and women? When he was asked about this in an interview for Svenska Dagbladet (Nov 30th 2004), he answered: “Maybe it’s a provocative thing that a man is appointed to this office. After all, men as a group have long held the power in public life and generally taken very little responsibility for their children and the daily household chores. And suddenly a man is asked to deal with this unequal balance.”

The reason why I talk about Jens Orback is that I want to give an example of the general discussion climate in the Swedish media, so different from what it was like in 1962 when I myself started my career as a journalist at a very young age. If feminism and homosexuality are today two phenomena that are absolutely accepted political realities, this was not at all the case in the early sixties. Gay people were not treated with respect until the early 90’s, at least not in the media, but the first signs of a discussion on sex roles did actually start the very year, 1962, that I began my media career. It took however at least ten years for the sex role debate to really permeate the mainstream media and change the perception of women’s role in society.
“One of the boys”
Journalism in the 60’s was a very male profession. As a young woman, entering this profession, I had to adapt and become “one of the boys”. At one point I was asked to attend a political meeting visited by the then only woman minister in the government, Camilla Odhnoff. Her career had been in the natural sciences in the academic world but the fact that she was a mother of four made the prime minister, who knew her father in law, think that she would be a suitable family minister. I was asked to report from the political meeting but I understood from my male colleagues that I was expected to give a very negative picture of this person. Not only was she a social democrat (my newspaper was liberal), she was above all such a rare thing as a woman in public office and such creatures were not to be met with respect. I’m sorry to say that I internalised the contempt that this woman minister was met with and gave a very negative report. Not until I got a personal letter from Camilla Odhnoff herself where she asked me what grounds I had to write about her in such negative terms, did I realise what I had done. I had simply been a vehicle for the general prejudice against this woman that I had met among my male colleagues in the newsroom. That certainly made me reflect about my role as a journalist and the power that implies.

Now, what happened in the media during the more than forty years that passed between my sexist (as it would now be called) way of describing this woman minister and the accusations that are now directed at our present equality minister? If you want to simplify, you might argue that we still see the same phenomenon at work but now the prejudice is directed against men. In a way it’s true – men in public office can’t any more get away with expressed sexist attitudes. Given the fact that the prime minister himself, Göran Persson, has declared himself a feminist as well as most of the other party leaders in Swedish politics, there will be an immediate reaction in the media if somebody says anything even vaguely negative about women’s capacities or abilities or if he says something to the effect that men are treated badly in the public debate. That is what happened to Jens Orback when he claimed that it is unfair to charge men as a group with the collective guilt of mistreating and abusing women. In an interview he reflects on this:

Reversed roles
“A hundred years ago it was publicly said that women were irrational creatures, not fit for taking public responsibilities. Today a similar rhetoric can be heard about men: ‘Men are not to be trusted. They are all potential rapists.’ I can’t see that these accusations will bring us any closer to real equality between men and women. Instead of talking about collective guilt I prefer the term collective responsibility.”

Jens Orback’s way of taking responsibility has been both to live up to his ideals in his role as husband and father and also to politically stress the importance of men as role models, not least for their sons.

To say that the power balance between men and women should have totally reversed in a hundred years would, however, be to oversimplifying things. This became clear at an international conference in December of 2004 organised by Equality Ministry and Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The focus of this conference was patriarchal violence against women and so called “honorary violence”, a hotly debated phenomenon in Sweden during the last few years in the aftermath of two spectacular murders when men in two immigrant families killed their daughters to “save the honour of the family” since the daughters had fallen in love with young Swedish men.

Trafficking is also a phenomenon that belongs in this category – women being used as goods to sell and dispose of by cynical men. The discussion about trafficking intensified after the Swedish stage director Lukas Moodysson launched his film “Lilja 4-ever” in 2002. It’s about a young Russian girl living in Estonia, abandoned by her mother. She falls in love with a guy who promises to take her with him to Sweden where they’ll have a decent life together. She ends up in an apartment in southern Sweden where she is sold as prostitute by an unscrupulous Swedish man. At the end she commits suicide.

When I conducted a seminar for women journalists in Lithuania in the spring of 2004 and asked them if they had seen the film, I was struck by the negative reaction it had apparently inspired. “So this is the picture you Swedes get of the Baltic countries?” said one of the journalists. I didn’t reply then, but thought about it later, that also Sweden is presented in a very negative way – people might easily draw the conclusion that my country is populated by pimps and male oppressors. That is also a reflection that I find in some of the numerous interviews made with the author of the film, Lukas Moodysson, who says: “To some people the world is just as ugly as that. There seems to be no hope. I wanted to show the reality for the most vulnerable and exposed in society”.

Today much of the political discussion regarding gender balance is focused on the theme of sexual exploitation of women. That is also reflected in the legislation. It took us 40 years to reach where we are now. Here are some of the important laws:

1964 Rape in the marriage is declared a crime (the same year the contraceptive pill is launched).
1975 Free abortion until the 18th week of pregnancy.
1982 Child pornography is criminalised.
1982 Violence against women is subject to legal prosecution.
1986 The law forbids sexual violence in films and video films.
1998 Law against female circumcision.
1999 Law that criminalises those who buy sex.

Impact of pornography
You might say that by focusing on sexual exploitation, we have come to the core of the oppression of women, a worldwide oppression that is probably also the toughest to fight. There is a serious discussion going on both in the political and in the academic world about the way media helps sexualise the public sphere. It happens in more or less obvious ways.

Media researcher Anja Hirdman says: “At the same time as mainstream pornography becomes more raw and brutal and focused on male domination, there is a softer type of pornography that also has an impact but is often overlooked. The soft pornography has at its aim to sexualise consumption, to create consumption needs. The eroticised female body of soft pornography is presented as an ideal for women. This image creates consumption needs at the same time as it becomes a role model for young girls.”

What Anja Hirdman talks about is a more sophisticated way of keeping women down, reducing them to young attractive bodies. The media play along with this trend more or less consciously and the big publicity industry certainly does. But there is also a discussion about these phenomena in the main stream media. One example is an interview (Dagens Nyheter December 2nd, 2004) with five young women in a Stockholm high school:

“I want to live up to the female ideal: You should be very slim and have big breasts”, says one of the girls, Jelena Kensborn. She and her classmates agree that there is a lot of pressure put on them through television and advertisements. A social worker who works as their student dean says that the fixation on sexy looks has become a much bigger problem in the school during the last ten years. And along with that, there are many more young girls diagnosed with anorexia, bulimia and other serious eating problems. In a study conducted by the school health authorities in 23 high schools, figures show that one out of five young schoolgirls dislike their bodies.”

What this shows is that Sweden, although it has a reputation of being one of the most gender equal countries in the world, has far from done away with the oppression of women. However, if we had not reached as far as we have in political life, the discussion about the sexual exploitation of women would probably not even have been put on the political agenda.

Crucial role of the media

In Swedish political life, women have certainly made an inroad since 1962. Half of the government today consists of women ministers, more than 45 percent of the MPs are women and the same thing is true for local governments throughout Sweden. Among well educated people – and they form the majority of the media elite – equality between men and women is taken for granted, at least in principle. In the academic world, women studies or gender studies are part of the main stream culture. The old type patriarchal professor is nowadays a rare creature. So you could say that there is a media elite and an academic elite monitoring the gender balance in political as well as in academic life.

Sometimes the media is even taking the lead in pressuring for gender balance. In a study The Media Image of Women Managers in the Swedish Business Sector, conducted on behalf of the Center for Business and Policy Studies and published in 2002, media researcher Maria Edström shows how the business pages of certain newspapers spotlight women managers and exert more or less explicit pressure on stock exchange-listed companies to increase female influence on their boards and top management teams.

As a result, the few existing female top executives are almost exploited by the media. One of them is Marianne Nivert, who during her period as President and CEO of the telecommunications company Telia was constantly being interviewed and featured in the media. Sometimes she was described as a real superwoman, as a torpedo or an armored tank. Her comment: I wouldn’t want to be the Marianne Nivert you find in the newspapers. Her definition of when we will have genuine gender equality has also become a classic: It will be on the day I see as many silly women in boardrooms as we see silly men today.

In other words, the way that the media focuses on women top executives is a mixed blessing. But a lot of serious opinion-molding aimed at bringing more women into top positions in business can also be noted, just as the media spent many years pressuring Sweden’s political parties to nominate women to higher slots on their election lists, where they had a chance of being elected. The More Women in Politics campaign, which was pursued for many years before each election, was initiated by Sweden’s oldest women’s organization, the Fredrika Bremer Association, which has promoted women’s rights since 1884. But this campaign would not have had any impact if the media had not followed up on its demands.

Middle class revolution

What we have achieved in the media is at least a climate where virtually every journalist pays lip service to gender equality. In addition to this, the public service radio and television have guidelines that prescribe promotion of equality between men and women. Looking back at the over four decades that I’ve been an active journalist, I must say that the general climate for women journalists as well as the possibilities of being promoted have improved considerably.

Why is it then that the demands for gender equality had such break through in the media?

“It was because the journalists joined forces with the middle class revolution that started already in the 1970’s”, says Göran Sidebäck, a feminist who thirty years ago fought politically for better conditions for families with small children. Gender equality and high quality communal childcare were the priorities of the political campaign he joined. Today we can see the result – 80% of all preschool children now have communal childcare. In 1972 communal care was provided for only 10% of the children. Today the priority of young parents is to fight to keep the high quality of the day care centers in a much tougher economic climate. The fight goes on, and the journalists report about it.

This publication has been produced with the assistance of the European Union. The contents of this publication is the sole responsibility of the author and can in no way be taken to reflect the views of the European Union. raksts

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