Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Sweden and the "New" Masculinity?

The New York Times ran a story last week about the "new" masculinity that is emerging - a masculinity, where In Sweden, Men Can Have It All. One woman said, "she found her husband most attractive 'when he is in the forest with his rifle over his shoulder and the baby on his back.'" That's cool, but is that what really is happening on the whole?

Let's start with the Masculinity Index, created by Geert Hofstede - it offers the following distinctions for determining whether a culture/society is masculine or feminine:

Characteristics of a masculine culture:

  • priorities are achievement, wealth, expansion, and war
  • in politics, conflicts are resolved by aggression
  • women's liberation means that women begin to participate in male-dominated areas
  • a low number of women represented in politics
  • manufacturing and business are seen as more important than arts and healing
  • the ideal icon is the soldier/warrior or successful entrepreneur
  • professionals often "live to work" (i.e. - long work hours and little use of vacation time)
  • cultural origins are in warmer and relatively mild climates where there was little need to concentrate on environmental survival, hence a low use of cooperation

Characteristics of a feminine culture:

  • priorities are relationships, nurturance, environmental protection, and quality of life
  • conflicts solved by negotiation, with aggression as a last resort
  • women's liberation means that men and women should share equal roles
  • a high number of women in politics
  • arts and healing are more important than manufacturing and business
  • the ideal icon is someone who helps and nurtures the community
  • professionals "work to live" (i.e. - short work hours and high use of vacation time)
  • cultural origins are usually from cold and/or environmentally harsh conditions where cooperation was necessary in order to survive (tundras, deserts, etc)
Looking at the list might raise some questions - the Middle East as feminine?
Despite the name, this cultural characteristic has little to do with gender roles (Germany is a "masculine" culture, but gender empowerment is high, while most Muslim nations are "feminine" cultures, but gender empowerment is low). Rather, it relates to nurturing (feminine) versus assertive (masculine) behaviors and ideals; like all of Hofstede's ratings, masculinity/femininity is believed to be ingrained in the cultural mindset.
With that background, the New York Times ran an article last week about the men of Sweden having a much better balance between their traditional roles and being able to more present fathers. Sounds good, right?

In Sweden, the Men Can Have It All

Ludde Omholt with his son, Love, in Södermalm, a bohemian and culturally rich district in Stockholm. From Swedish capital to the villages south of the Arctic Circle, 85 percent of Swedish fathers now take parental leave. More Photos »

Published: June 9, 2010

SPOLAND, SWEDEN — Mikael Karlsson owns a snowmobile, two hunting dogs and five guns. In his spare time, this soldier-turned-game warden shoots moose and trades potty-training tips with other fathers. Cradling 2-month-old Siri in his arms, he can’t imagine not taking baby leave. “Everyone does.”

From trendy central Stockholm to this village in the rugged forest south of the Arctic Circle, 85 percent of Swedish fathers take parental leave. Those who don’t face questions from family, friends and colleagues. As other countries still tinker with maternity leave and women’s rights, Sweden may be a glimpse of the future.

In this land of Viking lore, men are at the heart of the gender-equality debate. The ponytailed center-right finance minister calls himself a feminist, ads for cleaning products rarely feature women as homemakers, and preschools vet books for gender stereotypes in animal characters. For nearly four decades, governments of all political hues have legislated to give women equal rights at work — and men equal rights at home.

Swedish mothers still take more time off with children — almost four times as much. And some who thought they wanted their men to help raise baby now find themselves coveting more time at home.

But laws reserving at least two months of the generously paid, 13-month parental leave exclusively for fathers — a quota that could well double after the September election — have set off profound social change.

Companies have come to expect employees to take leave irrespective of gender, and not to penalize fathers at promotion time. Women’s paychecks are benefiting and the shift in fathers’ roles is perceived as playing a part in lower divorce rates and increasing joint custody of children.

In perhaps the most striking example of social engineering, a new definition of masculinity is emerging.

“Many men no longer want to be identified just by their jobs,” said Bengt Westerberg, who long opposed quotas but as deputy prime minister phased in a first month of paternity leave in 1995. “Many women now expect their husbands to take at least some time off with the children.”

Birgitta Ohlsson, European affairs minister, put it this way: “Machos with dinosaur values don’t make the top-10 lists of attractive men in women’s magazines anymore.” Ms. Ohlsson, who has lobbied European Union governments to pay more attention to fathers, is eight months pregnant, and her husband, a law professor, will take the leave when their child is born.

“Now men can have it all — a successful career and being a responsible daddy,” she added. “It’s a new kind of manly. It’s more wholesome.”

Back in Spoland, Sofia Karlsson, a police officer and the wife of Mikael Karlsson, said she found her husband most attractive “when he is in the forest with his rifle over his shoulder and the baby on his back.”

In this new world of the sexes, some women complain that Swedish men are too politically correct even to flirt in a bar. And some men admit to occasional pangs of insecurity. “I know my wife expects me to take parental leave,” said a prominent radio journalist who recently took six months off with his third child and who preferred to remain anonymous. “But if I was on a lonely island with her and Tarzan, I hope she would still pick me.”

In 1974, when Sweden became the first country to replace maternity leave with parental leave, the few men who took it were nicknamed “velvet dads.”

Despite government campaigns — one featuring a champion weightlifter with a baby perched on his bare biceps — the share of fathers on leave was stalled at 6 percent when Mr. Westerberg entered government in 1991.

Sweden had already gone further than many countries have now in relieving working mothers: Children had access to highly subsidized preschools from 12 months and grandparents were offered state-sponsored elderly care. The parent on leave got almost a full salary for a year before returning to a guaranteed job, and both could work six-hour days until children entered school. Female employment rates and birth rates had surged to be among the highest in the developed world.

“I always thought if we made it easier for women to work, families would eventually choose a more equal division of parental leave by themselves,” said Mr. Westerberg, 67. “But I gradually became convinced that there wasn’t all that much choice.”

Sweden, he said, faced a vicious circle. Women continued to take parental leave not just for tradition’s sake but because their pay was often lower, thus perpetuating pay differences. Companies, meanwhile, made clear to men that staying home with baby was not compatible with a career.

“Society is a mirror of the family,” Mr. Westerberg said. “The only way to achieve equality in society is to achieve equality in the home. Getting fathers to share the parental leave is an essential part of that.”

Introducing “daddy leave” in 1995 had an immediate impact. No father was forced to stay home, but the family lost one month of subsidies if he did not. Soon more than eight in 10 men took leave. The addition of a second nontransferable father month in 2002 only marginally increased the number of men taking leave, but it more than doubled the amount of time they take.

Clearly, state money proved an incentive — and a strong argument with reluctant bosses.

Among the self-employed, and in rural and immigrant communities, men are far less likely to take leave, said Nalin Pekgul, chairwoman of the Social Democratic Party’s women’s federation. In her Stockholm suburb, with a large immigrant population, traditional gender roles remain conspicuously intact.

But the daddy months have left their mark. A study published by the Swedish Institute of Labor Market Policy Evaluation in March showed, for instance, that a mother’s future earnings increase on average 7 percent for every month the father takes leave.

Read the rest.

Here is what the article doesn't mention - and what seems to be the problem with this little northern utopia. This comes from an older article - a couple of years ago - Enlighten Next.

What Ever Happened to the Vikings?

A quizzical look at the Scandinavian experiment to create a
gender-neutral society

by Elizabeth Debold

I’ve never wanted to be a man. Despite the obvious inequality between men and women when I was growing up, it never seemed to me that men’s roles were that much of a bargain. My dad and the other men I knew as a child didn’t seem happier than my mom or the other women in my neighborhood. Sure, they earned real money, and often controlled it, but it was in return for doing a lot of things that were dull, dirty, and sometimes downright dangerous—not in the sense of being exciting but rather flat-out life-threatening. Yet there is one thing I have always envied about men: they can pee standing up. It may seem silly, or even trivial, but I can’t count how many times in how many places it would have been such a relief to stand and deliver.

So when I read recently that in Sweden for a man to point his plumbing at the pissoir is increasingly considered, as one writer explained, “the height of vulgarity and possibly suggestive of violence,” I couldn’t believe it. These guys once were Vikings. How did they become persuaded to take a seat? Sleuthing a bit, I discovered that in 2000, a feminist group at Stockholm University demanded that all urinals be removed because they were discriminatory to women. Talk about penis envy! I had no idea that this was how culture was evolving in Sweden, Holland, and all the Scandinavian countries that are leading the gender-equality revolution. In 2005, the World Economic Forum deemed Sweden as the “most advanced country” for women in regard to economic and political empowerment, educational attainment, and health and well-being. Sweden and the other small homogeneous nations of Northern Europe have generous maternal and paternal leave policies, free access to higher education, affordable child care, and more. They have legislated a smorgasbord of policies designed to level the playing field between women and men that make my feminist heart beat faster. But it never occurred to me that as women took to their feet, men would sit down—on the john, no less!

Thinking about this dislodged an odd tidbit of information from my memory. Ten years or so ago, I read a news story about how the Swedes were bored in the bedroom—their interest in sex had actually declined since the late sixties. The article suggested that women were finding it difficult to maintain sexual interest in their partners. In the effort to create a truly gender-equal society, Swedish men had become so, shall we say, similar in temperament to women that the spark that keeps an intimate relationship alive was getting snuffed out. Could it be that in Sweden, to put it a bit crudely, women were women, and the men were too?

Now, to be fair, and not just blinkered by my own biases, our sense of what is appropriately male or female is profoundly influenced by cultural norms. For example, women in the United States began shaving their body hair in the early twentieth century in order to look more “feminine.” While this custom has morphed and spread, some other cultures do still see it as bizarre. But I had never thought much about how men would change if cultural values shifted to support the traditionally female domestic sphere. My assumption has always been that doing so would be positive for all of us—allowing women and men to express the full range of human qualities that historically had been divided by gender. And that it would free us to be more committed and creative in our relationships. But what if it wasn’t so simple? I became very curious about men in progressive Scandinavia—Sweden, Denmark, and Norway—the land where Vikings once plotted their fearless and fearsome raids. Popular progressive and spiritual thought tells us that making a shift in Western culture toward the feminine is the path to peace and a positive future. Many would say that we need to look no further than to Northern Europe to see a preview of our own future. What, I wanted to know, was happening to men in those most egalitarian countries? Researching this, however, proved to be quite difficult. Progressive sources describe this terrain just south of the Arctic Circle as nothing short of paradise—Scandinavians, particularly the Danes, get high marks for being among the happiest people in the world. Conservatives insist that something is rotten in the State of Denmark (and Sweden and Norway), but their responses are laced with antifeminist misogyny, gender fundamentalism, and xenophobia. I needed to find out for myself. So, at the first hint of spring earlier this year, I set out for Denmark, the oldest ongoing kingdom in the world, on a quest to discover what’s happened to the Vikings …

Gender Equality, Then and Now

Of course, I’m being more than a little facetious about the Viking question. To ask what happened to the Vikings is like asking where all of the knights from the Crusades have gone. Nonetheless, a thousand years ago, the Scandinavians had a death-defying, off-the-edge-of-the-world boldness. They sailed to four continents in wooden boats—“discovering” North America more than seven hundred years before the other Europeans. Norse mythology always seemed to me to be more fierce than that of the Greeks and Romans. Jove just wanted to get it on with every woman he saw; Thor literally hammered his numerous enemies—giants, dwarves, and Old Age itself. The Vikings as a people had a reputation for being as ferocious as their gods. The “Viking Age” started around 793 CE when they came calling at a famous early Christian religious site, the church of Lindisfarne, in England. As Alcuin, an English monk, described it at the time, “The heathens poured out the blood of saints around the altar, and trampled on the bodies of saints in the temple of God, like dung in the streets.” While our perception may be distorted by the Christian view of Norse paganism, their indomitable spirit and appetite for pillage led them all the way in one direction to Russia and in the other to what is now New York City. Pillaging was an equal opportunity affair—Leif the Lucky’s sister Freydis led her own expedition down the coast of North America, and Broka Aubur wore pants and attacked her unfaithful husband with a sword, to name two legendary female Vikings. While we associate dominance with masculinity and therefore with men, they are not the same thing. In warrior cultures like the Vikings, dominance matters more than gender. If you can decimate your enemies, it doesn’t matter who you are.

Scandinavian couple

The goal in contemporary Scandinavia is also to make gender not matter—but in a completely different way. “Gender is losing meaning,” explains Jørgen Lorentzen, postdoctoral research fellow at the Centre for Women’s Studies and Gender Research at the University of Oslo. Jørgen studies men’s changing roles and is a member of the prestigious Norwegian Men’s Commission. The Commission was established to advise the government on how men can make the transition into a gender-neutral society. “In some very recent studies that we have conducted, we see that gender means less and less. Gender doesn’t mean anything for employment, politics, or sharing work and family. Gender has nothing to do with who cooks or takes care of children. Men and women are equally able to do these things.”

Throughout our conversation, Jørgen makes it clear that Norway, and by extension the other countries in Northern Europe, is still in a transition. “What is your vision of a fully gender-neutral society? What will it look like?” I ask him.

“I hope that gender will lose its meaning even more,” he replies. “A gender-free society will have less sexual harassment, less rape, less violence, and more sex. And sex will not be a taboo.”

Not a taboo? The Northern European countries, especially Scandinavia, have had an international reputation for being leaders in the sexual revolution since the 1950s. Sex isn’t kept in the closet or even the bedroom—it’s all right out there on display. Believe it or not, in 2006 the Danish Road Safety Council created a television ad filled with women jiggling their bare breasts and holding speed limit signs. (The idea was to catch the attention of Danish men who are inveterate speeders.) But that’s not the half of it. Hard-core pornography is available on television. Women sunbathe wearing only G-strings in city parks. There is great tolerance for same-sex unions and for liberating any sexual preference from the shadows of shame. It’s gone so far that, at the extreme end, in Holland, a group tried to create a political party to support pedophilia. (Fortunately, it caused an uproar.) Sex—in any and all forms—is far from being taboo in these countries. In fact, it seems to be one of the main priorities. This prompts me to ask Jørgen: “Would you say that having a good sex life is one of the deepest values in Norwegian society?”

“Having a good sex life is an important part of being a human being,” he replies. “There is a lot of focus on it, especially on women having sexual pleasure. Gender equality gives women a much higher degree of pleasure.”

Perhaps the information I had on relationships fizzling out was wrong. These countries may be the closest thing to a feminist paradise that we have ever had.

Boys Will Be Girls

Twelve hundred years after the Vikings tromped on English soil, the Scandinavians now like to emphasize that most Vikings were farmers. While it’s probably statistically true that more people were tilling than pillaging, I wonder if this reframing of the past may be related to the revolution in values that’s happening there. Being a Viking, or a warrior of any kind, is not in vogue—particularly not for boys. In early childhood education in Sweden, little boys are given dolls to play with and girls are given toy tractors. It’s all part of the Anti-Sexism Awareness Training that begins in kindergarten, through which the schools, supported by the government, are deliberately trying to switch the accepted gender roles. While programs of this kind were tried in many U.S. schools in the seventies, they were a dismal failure. Perhaps the United States is too diverse a culture to experiment in this way without raising the ire of parents who want their children to assume traditional roles. But as far as I am aware of in the United States, nine times out of ten, and much to our dismay as egalitarian idealists, girls would cradle the toy tractors in a blanket and boys would use the baby doll as a machine gun. The kids resisted taking up what they perceived as the wrong toys for their gender. Shifting this kind of preference is not easy, because boys and girls start with certain predispositions that are usually related to their role in reproduction; they also mimic what they see the men and women doing around them.

In our first conversation, my two Danish hosts, Peter Bastian and Jon Bertelsen, tell me that Denmark has similarly enforced this shift in gender roles through the schools. Peter, a well-known Danish musician and bestselling author, was part of what they call the ’68 generation—the rebellious crew that has steered the country on the path toward gender equality. Jon is cofounding director of a small infotech business, and grew up in the brave new world that Peter’s generation was trying to create. I know both of them through the organization EnlightenNext, the publisher of What Is Enlightenment?

Read more.

It would be great to find a way to give men the right to be fathers, to own and express feelings, without emasculating us or forcing to pee sitting down.


Jewey Lama said...

I believe this was one of the first articles when "What Is Enlightenment" became "EnlighteNext".

I distinctly remember reading it, thinking, I knew I wasn't crazy for feeling like feminism destroyed some very important gender roles.

As a guy, I felt like it was "ok" for women to take on roles of women and men, while it wasn't "ok" for men to take on the roles of men and women. Much in the same way that as a whole, society was far more accepting of two women kissing in public than of men doing the same.

As Ken Wilber mentions in a Brief History, in the process of trying to erase the differences between gender, we have come dangerously close to trying to erase the difference between male and female, which is impossible.

On the one hand, open exploration of your gender is freedom. On the other hand, erasing gender differences is confusion.

Great article with two very different perspectives.

Anonymous said...

If men should do "girly stuff", women need to do manly work. At the Womens conference at the UN this week the theme centers around education for women, but preferably in science and technology. Walking around in New York I am fascinated by all these dirty men, working down in holes in the street, cleaning subway stations, on construction sites and last but not least, the garbage guys. Where are the women who wants to take on those male dominated fields?
I am a swedish woman dead tired of womens empowerment...

william harryman said...

Hi Anonymous,

As a man who did some of those jobs (bucking hay, cleaning out charred foundations after a fire, cleaning irrigation ditches, mucking horse stalls) I would have gladly traded any of those jobs to be a babysitter or a cashier in grocery store.

I do have to say, though, I have a female friend who is a firefighter - and a damn good one. Over the 20 years she has been doing it, she has fought sexism the whole time.

Men don't seem to want women in their "manly" jobs.

Although, I'm guessing if she had been a trash collector, they would not have cared as much.

Anders Mikael Rosenkrantz-Løvenskiold said...

I think your article is tripe and it shows how crass the non-Scandinavian perspective is at every step of the way. Whether or not it is our societies' prerogative to change our social roles in one way or another is none of you business. And if we go back to living like Viking raiders it still remains none of your business because you are not one of us and until you marry into a Scandinavian family you will not be in the position to say what is right or what is wrong for a Scandinavian to do or not do.

The Dutch buffoon Geert Hofstede makes money off of selling his poorly thought out sociological nonsense books. But, Geert and you and everyone else you referenced in this article has not considered this important fact. Academics do not decide and steer our societies' Zeitgeist. The Scandinavian majorities do. And so when you posit your American opinions in your blog in the sophomoric manner that you seem to think in you do not reach a real point of validity because you are a person who lives in a backwards country positing and pontificating his ideas about the most progressive countries in Europe.

We have our lifestyles covered in Scandinavia. Our countries are wealthier than any others in North America or Europe (outside of Luxembourg). Stop pretending you have some kind of position wherein you can convincingly teach the world what would be a better Nordic model of life.

It is our cultures' quality of life standards and manifestations that are the envy of the rest of the world. You should be asking our advice. Not giving out advice that is meant to make you look more learned or put together than us. That would be self-delusion if you believed it to be true.