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In Sweden, a debate over whether gender equality has gone too far

As gender-neutral policies are promoted more broadly in Sweden's schools – including the use of a neutral pronoun to refer to boys and girls – some Swedes are pushing back.

By Nathalie RothschildCorrespondent / April 7, 2012



Stockholm, Sweden; and New York

Sweden has a longstanding reputation as an egalitarian country with a narrow gender gap. But a national debate about gender equality – particularly as it plays out in schools – has revealed substantial dissatisfaction, with some Swedes feeling it has gone too far.

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Rousing controversy now is the issue of gender pedagogy, a concept that emerged in the early 2000s and typically involves challenging gender stereotypes in learning material and in avoiding treating male and female pupils in a stereotypical manner. Proponents believe such a perspective should infuse day-to-day work at schools rather than be taught as a separate subject. But what has sharpened the debate in Sweden has been the argument that schools should also be gender neutral, giving children the opportunity to define themselves as neither male nor female if they wish.

In 2008, the Swedish Department of Education appointed the Delegation for Equality in Schools, which  made the issue of gender equality central to the Swedish education system. The government spent 110 million Swedish crowns ($16.3 million) on promoting equality in schools along the lines of school laws that stipulate that teachers must actively counteract gender stereotypes and promote equality.

Yet when the Green Party recently proposed placing gender pedagogues at every preschool in Stockholm, the capital, they were accused of promoting an extremist feminist agenda and told they were not reflecting parents' interests. And when it emerged that some preschools have banished references to children's genders, it sparked a national furor, revealing that while most Swedes support gender equality, not all are on board with the idea of gender-neutral child-rearing.

Are gender studies an 'elite' concept?

Kristina Henkel, a gender expert specializing in equality in schools, disputes the argument that gender pedagogy and neutrality are being foisted on Swedes. "Sweden has a long tradition of working with equality and this has had strong support among politicians," she says, and adds that "the question of gender neutrality, or of everyone having equal rights despite their gender, has also been driven by activists at the grassroots level."
 
But Elise Claeson, a columnist and a former equality expert at the Swedish Confederation of Professions, disagrees. "I have long participated in debates with gender pedagogues and they act like an elite," she says. "They tend to be well-educated, live in big cities, and have contacts in the media, and they clearly despise traditional people – that is, the ... heterosexuals living in nuclear families."
 
Ms. Claeson has been a vocal critic of the word "hen," a new, gender-neutral pronoun that was recently included in the online version of the National Encyclopedia. Around the same time, Sweden's first gender-neutral children's book was published. The author, Jesper Lundqvist, uses hen throughout his book, completely avoiding han and hon, the Swedish words for him and her.
 
Claeson believes that the word hen can be harmful to young children because, she says, it can be confusing for them to receive contradicting messages about their genders in school, at home, and in society at large. "It is important to have your gender confirmed to you as a child. This does not limit children; it makes them confident about their identity…. Children ought to be allowed to mature slowly and naturally. As adults we can choose to expand and change our gender identities."

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