16 April 2012, 19:29

Sweden leaps from gender-equality to gender-neutrality

Sweden leaps from gender-equality to gender-neutrality

The Swedes, long time the world champions in bridging the gender gap, have made yet another leap towards turning gender-equality into gender-neutrality. Recently the online version of the National Encyclopedia officially added a new personal pronoun "hen" to its current edition.

The Swedes, long time the world champions in bridging the gender gap, have made yet another leap towards turning gender-equality into gender-neutrality. Recently the online version of the National Encyclopedia officially added a new personal pronoun "hen" to its current edition. It is as gender-neutral as it can possibly get and stands right in between “han” (he) and “hon” (she). The alternative pronoun, as one might gather from Encyclopedia’s own explanation, is clearly designed to break down gender roles in Swedish society, which some believe still give boys an unfair edge. The National Encyclopedia defines the word as a "proposed gender-neutral personal pronoun instead of he (“han” in Swedish) and she (“hon)".

“Hen” is not altogether a new invention and was first mentioned by Swedish linguists in the mid-1960s, and then in 1994, when  the late prominent linguist Hans Karlgren suggested adding “hen” as a new personal pronoun, mostly for practical reasons, to improve the Swedish language, make it more nuanced and avoid the awkward he/she that gums up writing.  But the proposal did not get very far, that is, until now. Now, however, it has clearly outgrown its linguistic domain and entered the shaky political and gender dimensions.

It came officially alive amid the already heated debate in Swedish newspapers, on TV, and on parenting blogs and feminist websites, which was sparked by the publication last month of Sweden's first ever gender-neutral children's book, “Kivi och Monsterhund” (“Kivi and Monster Dog”). The book’s main character named Kivi wants a dog for "hen's" birthday. Jesper Lundqvist, the author,  introduced some other innovative gender-neutral words like “mappor”and pammor” instead of  familiar “mammor” and “pappor”(moms and dads).  

The activists who vigorously campaign for obliterating gender roles in the Nordic country have already made deep inroads into some social sectors. The leading Swedish toy chain Leklust published pictures in its 2012 catalogue of a pram-pushing Spiderman, a girl riding a toy racing car, and a boy standing in front of a toy stove cooking a make-believe meal. "Gender roles are an outdated thing,” said  Kaj Wiberg, the CEO of Leklust, in the  Swedish newspaper “Metro”.

Meanwhile the Swedish Bowling Association has announced plans to merge male and female bowling tournaments in order to make the sport gender-neutral. National preschools are hiring "gender pedagogues" to help staff identify language and behavior that risk reinforcing stereotypes. In one well known Stockholm preschool, the taxpayer-funded Egalia, staff avoid using words such as "him" or "her" and address the children either by name or as "friends" rather than girls and boys. There are currently 170 legally recognized unisex names in Sweden - a record number for an EU country.

Not everybody is happy with this sort of push to ensure “absolute equality” between the sexes in the country that by most people’s standards is already considered a paradise for liberated women. Jan Guillou, one of Sweden's most well-known authors and a critic of the new word, said in a recent interview that proponents of "hen" were "feminist activists who want to destroy our language". A good part of the Swedish blogosphere argues that testosterone is not a social norm and it could be psychologically (and, in the long run, socially) damaging for children. The problem with that kind of approach, some say, is that it interprets the difference between the sexes as inferiority and tries to eradicate it, whereas in reality, as one blogger put it, “it is much more hard-wired and is just biology”. Some people are already wondering just how far the gender-neutral lobby can push Sweden.

The World Economic Forum and UN Women, and the Inter-Parliamentary Union, the oldest multilateral political organization in the World, for a number of years have designated Sweden as the most gender-equal country in the world together with the rest of her Nordic sisters.

According to the Global Gender Gap Report 2011 by the World Economic Forum, Nordic countries closed over 80% of their gender gaps, while countries at the bottom of the rankings still need to close as much as 50%. The first five are: Iceland (85,3%), Norway (84%), Finland  (83%), Sweden (80,4%) and Ireland (78%), followed by New Zealand, Denmark, the Philippines,  Lesotho and Switzerland.  From 135 countries surveyed, the UK holds 16th place (up from 15th the previous year) and the USА is in 17th place.

Russia is only 43rd after Poland and ahead of the Kyrgyz Republiс. Yemen holds the last 135th position.

On the political gender landscape, Scandinavian neighbors also feature quite well. The “Women in Politics 2012”, a new piece of research by the Inter-Parliamentary Union and UN Women, says the world average for women in parliaments stands at 19.5%, a 0.5 percentage point increase from the previous year. The European average (including Nordic countries) was 22,3%, although the Nordic countries led the way internationally with an average of 42%,  with Sweden and Finland in the top ten of the rankings.

Rwanda, with 56,3% of women parliamentarians in its lower house is the world’s record holder in gender representation and holds the first place, followed by  Andorra (50%), Cuba (45,2%), Sweden (44,7%), the Seychelles (43,8%) Finland (42,5%), South Africa (42,3%), the Netherlands (40,2%) and  Iceland (39,7).

The UK stands in 53rd place (22,3%) after Malawi and before Singapore.  The USA is in 78th (16,8%) after Turkmenistan and before Saint Lucia.

Russia, with 13,6% of women in its lower house, the Duma, is squeezed  in 91st position between Djibouti and Swaziland.

There are currently 17 countries with women as heads of government, heads of state or both, which according to IPU and UN Women has more than doubled since 2005.

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