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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.

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But many proponents of gender neutrality believe that freeing children from expectations tied to gender roles, at least in school, gives them more choices. "Children ought to be allowed to be children, but we should not cement them in roles that we carry with us from the past," says Lotta Rajalin, director of Egalia, a Stockholm preschool which opened in 2010. 
 
Egalia received widespread attention for banishing gendered pronouns and applying for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transexual (LGBT) certification from the Swedish Federation for LGBT Rights. At Egalia, everything from the books the children read to the toys they play with has been carefully selected to avoid stereotypical depictions of gender and relationships. When Egalia students, who are between one and six years old, play house, they are as likely to act out the roles of "mommy, daddy, child" as "daddy, daddy, adopted child." A key policy at the school is to avoid words like boy and girl. Instead, teachers address the children by their first names or as friends.
 
Egalia has both been hailed as a milestone in the fight for equality and slammed as a cult-like institution that is brainwashing children and promoting a radical feminist agenda.

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Society catching up with the state

Though it may sound eccentric, Egalia's approach is not really a fringe one. Ms. Rajalin, who is also a director of six other preschools, says that she is only following directives set out by the government. The Swedish national curriculum for preschools, published in 1998, states: "Preschools should counteract traditional gender patterns and gender roles. In preschools, girls and boys should have the same opportunities to test and develop abilities and interests without being limited by stereotypical gender roles."

Ingrid Lindskog of the Swedish National Agency for Education says that striving for equality should be integral to schooling. "Equality issues should be weaved into the lessons. It should inform how teachers plan their classes, put together groups, and how they react to pupils treating each other badly – if a boy oppresses a girl, for instance, or the other way around," she says. And it is not just preschools who are obliged to integrate gender awareness into their pedagogy. "All Swedish schools have a responsibility to counteract traditional gender patterns," says Ms. Lindskog.

Last fall, nearly 200 teachers gathered in Stockholm to discuss how to avoid "traditional gender patterns" in schools. The conference was part of a research project run by the National Agency for Education and supported by the Delegation for Equality in Schools. This approach is now being emulated abroad.

"I work with these issues in Finland and Norway and it is clear to me that they have been inspired by the Swedish preschool – and school curricula," says Ms. Henkel, the gender expert. "In the United States, something called anti-oppressive pedagogy, which aims for inclusiveness, has been practiced since the 1980s. So these kinds of ideas exist in many countries, but here the state has worked hard to promote Sweden as a role model nation."

But Henkel also insists that gender equality is a rights issue that cannot simply be left to the state to handle. Instead, she says, it requires the active involvement of citizens. "Rights are not something we receive and then don't have to fight for. This is about a redistribution of power, and for that initiative and action are needed, not just fancy legislation." 

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