Interview: Charlotte Boström

With an ongoing press tour, a new podcast, and several big projects for Swedish news media, the journalist Charlotte Boström took the time to meet Swedish Chamber Insights to discuss her debut book Waarom Zweedse vrouwen niet gratis werken (Why Swedish women don’t work for free). In the book, she pins down why Dutch women are world-famous for working part-time, and how to bring about more gender equality in the Netherlands.

The day Swedish Chamber Insights met with Charlotte is an ‘oma day’, meaning that Charlotte’s mother-in-law travels hours to care for her two grandchildren. On the remaining weekdays, the children spend two days in daycare and one day each at home with one parent. Charlotte and her partner Thomas try to manage working from home and answering emails while attending to the needs of their newborn and three-year-old in Amsterdam. This type of arrangement is common in the everyday life of young families in the Netherlands, and it echoes a system where Dutch families struggle to practically and financially piece together their work-life balance.

Having spent the last eight years working as a journalist in the Netherlands, Charlotte often came across Dutch politicians referring to the Swedish welfare state and social security network as something desired – and costly. To learn more and add nuance to the debates on childcare, she dove into the effects of the different countries’ policies: “I wanted to explore what investments are worth doing with public funding, if the goal is to create both gender equality in the labour market and valuable and well-functioning institutions for our children.”

In the Netherlands, paid maternity leave extends for five and a half months, with partners having the right to three and a half months of leave as of last year. As Dutch childcare is the most expensive in the EU (expressed in purchasing power per capita), most families get help from their grandparents to make it work. Dutch women often reduce their working hours significantly once they have their firstborn, as it becomes financially unsustainable to pay high daycare fees. Only about a third of all Dutch women in the labour force work full-time, according to Eurostat. Because of this, the Netherlands stands out compared to its neighbouring countries regarding gender balance in the labour market.

In contrast, the Swedish childcare system is one of the most generous ones globally, and two-thirds of Swedish working women work full-time. Paid parental leave extends to thirteen months per child, and each family can individually divide the time between the parents, with a minimum of three months required to be taken by the partner.

How come these two Northern European countries have such different systems and norms when it comes to childcare and gender balance in the labour market? Charlotte explains that the national economic history plays a central role:

“In my research, I learned that the country’s history of economic prosperity has made the ideal of “the housewife” uniquely strong – much stronger than for example Belgium, or other countries close by. Basically, the Dutch could afford to have stay-at-home wives, and this started already in the early-modern era. This has resulted in an extreme normalization of breadwinning men and caring women who are not supposed to work for money. Those ingrained social norms are very hard to change”.

In the Netherlands, daycare is mainly seen as a labour market policy. In Sweden, on the other hand, daycare is understood as an important base for a child’s development. These differences show how current structures align with the fundamental expectations of what daycare should do for society, affecting how families plan their lives.

Charlotte emphasises that while the Swedish childcare system supports more gender equality in the labour market, her book is not an attempt to advocate for Sweden’s childcare as the perfect solution. She recognizes weaknesses in the Swedish system:

“Swedes tend to view the Swedish parental leave as the best system in the world – we basically consider it to be this holy part of our democracy. Still, 13 months is a very long time to be away from work, and it often creates a big empty space in women’s curricula. Maybe the five and half months that you are offered in the Netherlands is a more reasonable period to stay at home, but if that would be suggested in Sweden, I am sure people would find it completely outrageous”.

Moving beyond legislative changes, Charlotte addresses employers’ responsibility in forming equal conditions in the labour market. She explains that, despite improvements in parental leave policies, the organizational culture in the Netherlands often still inhibits men from taking their full paternity.

“Once men reach a certain hierarchical level in an organization, they are expected to prioritize their work, or they will be looked down on. Why would anyone with career ambitions ask for ‘time off’? Still, women who take their full maternity leave are not questioned. These tendencies disclose a view of female ambition as less expected, and less relevant. Also, I don’t think it is fair to call taking care of your own children unambitious – it can be much more demanding than working”, Charlotte laughingly says.

She argues that men in high positions need to lead by example to create change, by encouraging their male employees to take full paternity leave, to properly get to know and bond with their children. The fact is that a more equal division of parental leave has proven to decrease sick leave and stress for male employees and has a positive impact on their mental health, according to studies from the World Health Organization and Dutch sexual health centre Rutgers. In the long term, cultivating norms of paternity leave is therefore not only an investment inequality but also in the overall efficiency and well-being of an organization. Charlotte specifically expresses the importance of male managers being self-reflective on what norms they sustain with their actions:

“A female friend of mine was pregnant with her second at the same time as her male colleague was also expecting a number two. Their boss handled the two of them completely differently. To the female colleague, he asked if she was sure about her decision to keep working full time as soon as she returned from a short maternity leave and described how having two children can be very overwhelming. To the male colleague, the boss instead questioned his wish to work four days a week once the baby was born and said that it would be hard to remain a part of the core group at work if he decided to work less. This is a typical example. Women are not taken seriously in the workplace”.

Charlotte believes that leaders need to educate themselves in order to challenge gender stereotypes: “An eternal question which I examine in the book is whether women are better than men at taking care of children. The Dutch tend to justify this idea by saying that women love taking care of children, that they have this natural maternal instinct.”

Charlotte continues: “The truth is that there is no biological proof for this perception, and it is merely a social construction. However, these ideas can often be used to reinforce an unequal system. This is why changes in the workplace need to start from the top”.

Even if business leaders must contribute to change in their own organization, fair conditions must be initiated at the governmental level by politicians to address societal disparities:

“You are privileged if you have a desk job, which allows you to work from home and earn money while taking care of your children. In this country, it is very hard to make it work without this possibility. It also comes down to personal relations, as you basically need to make a good deal with your employer to be allowed this flexibility. Actual fair working conditions must be initiated on state-level to make it inclusive for everyone. That is, also for people that cannot work from home and people who don’t have a mother-in-law who volunteers as a babysitter.”

With the book Waarom Zweedse vrouwen niet gratis werken (en wat wij daarvan kunnen leren) finally being released, Charlotte hopes that it will provoke conversations in the workplace and that political actors will pay attention to the research presented in the book. She especially hopes it will reach male readers, and believes the book is the perfect gift to new fathers.

By Alexandra Gummesson for Swedish Chamber Insights

Photo Credits: Moa Karlberg

Want to learn more from Charlotte? Click here to listen to Walhalla, her and Sander Schimmelpenninck’s new podcast comparing Sweden and the Netherlands.