TCS Daily

Vouching for Gender Equality in Sweden

By Tim Worstall - May 24, 2005 12:00 AM

The World Economic Forum in Geneva has decided that merely providing Eason Jordan with an opportunity to kill his career is no longer enough. On top of their task of organizing the annual Davos summits they are now releasing research and position papers on a variety of subjects, the latest titled "Women's Empowerment: Measuring the Global Gender Gap". It's the usual sort of thing, women earn less, there's too few in the power structures, we need more maternity leave, yadda, yadda, we've heard this all before.

You will not be surprised to find out that Sweden is the poster child for what we all should be doing, it coming in at Number 1 in the list of countries that have done most to reduce the gender gap. Before we simply groan and point to the extortionate tax rates, the relative decline in their growth rate, the majority of the economy run by the State, note these two little points.

As reported in The Guardian:

        Pointing to a clear correlation between countries' treatment of women and their relative 
        global competitiveness, the report warns: "Countries that do not capitalise on the full 
        potential of one half of their societies are misallocating their human resources and 
        undermining their competitive potential."

This is something that is quite clearly both obvious and true. We should indeed be attempting to organize society so that each and every member of it is able to realize their full potential, with the proviso that this is according to the desires of those doing the realizing. It's what being a free country means. This might lead us to the thought that politicians are overwhelmingly male because they enjoy strutting like peacocks while women have more interesting and important things to do, so measuring the freedom of a society by how many female politicians it has (as the report does) might not be exactly the best method. But rather than snarking at their assumptions and methodology (or, perhaps, as well as) the second point:

        Augusto Lopez-Claros, chief economist at the WEF, said the league was "not intended 
        as a tool for embarrassing nations, but as a benchmark for improvement".

        He said the priority for closing the gap should be improving education prospects 
        for women. Countries that do so benefit from falling adolescent pregnancy, greater 
        income generation and associated overall wealth generation.

        "The education of girls is probably the most important catalyst for change in society."

So now we know. If gender equality is the thing that you worry about, education is the way to get to your desired goal and Sweden is the best so far at achieving that goal.

Now I don't actually worry about these things very much. I'm interested in equality of opportunity and while I would most certainly not want to return to some of the practices of the past, where women were forced out of the workforce when they married, or where there were professions that would not admit the fairer sex, I don't obsess about how few women company directors there are. As long as the basics in access to opportunity are there, I don't actually worry about the fact that there is not equality of outcome, for I assume (perhaps wrongly, but I do assume it) that as different people make different choices about time, work, family, there will be different outcomes. I would almost go as far as to postulate (although not insist) that the existence of different outcomes means that there are indeed choices, and choice is good. Some can choose a lower income for more time, vice versa as well and the strutting peacocks can choose to leech on society.

That would, to me, be a sensible liberal view. I mean that, of course, in the Classical Liberal or Manchester such sense (which is how I describe myself), not the modern American usage of liberal. Yet why don't we follow this idea wearing our liberal hat, in that very modern American sense? Place beanie on head, fire up the propeller and consider:

Gender equality is good. Sweden is the best at this. Education is at the heart of gender equality. Therefore the Swedish education model is the one we must follow.

I think that's a clear enough chain of logic that any liberals who have stumbled upon these pages might be able to follow it.

So what actually is the Swedish education model? My thanks to Dennis Josefsson who sent me this research paper on the system. Sweden has a system whereby parents decide upon the school they wish their child to attend, the State paying the costs, whether that school be public or private, for profit or not. With a couple of minor limitations, parents are not even tied to the specific locality or municipality. It is also extremely easy for qualified teachers to set up a new school, teaching what they wish, how they wish, subject only to certain minimum standards. As the introduction reads:

        An important issue in the debate on voucher systems and school choice is what 
        effects competition from independent schools will have on public schools. Sweden 
        has made a radical reform of its system for financing schools. Independent and public 
        schools operate on close to equal terms under a voucher system covering all children. 
        Sample selection models are estimated, using a data set of about 28000 individuals.

        In addition, panel data models are estimated on 288 Swedish municipalities. The 
        findings support the hypothesis that school results in public schools improve due to 

Now isn't that an interesting finding? In the US and UK it is generally the liberals who insist that there should not be vouchers, no, it should be the State (with the assistance of the teachers' unions) who decide who gets educated where. This attitude is so entrenched that it was the Conservative Party which put forward vouchers as a policy at the recent UK election (I'm told from those on the inside that it was a straight copy of the Swedish system). Something of a topsy turvey world when it is those on the right who are advancing the cause of gender equality.

OK, beanies off, we can stop having to think like liberals now. We want vouchers because it means that we have some control over how our children are educated, can influence how some of the taxes extorted from us are spent. But I'm perfectly happy to point to the fact, as above, that vouchers also provide one of the left's cherished objectives, gender equality, just so long as that means we actually get a voucher system implemented.

The author is a TCS contributing writer living in Europe. Find more of his writing here.


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