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Published: 24 Feb, 2022

Who benefits from gender equality?

PROFILE What underlying norms shape and permeate policy reforms? In her research, Maria Carbin, Professor of Gender Studies at Umeå University, examines Swedish gender equality policy. She argues that the policies pursued must also be critically examined.

Text: Elin Andersson

A policy of gender equality must, of course, aim to create a more equal society, but what does gender equality mean?

When Maria Carbin began her doctoral studies in political science at Stockholm University in beginning of the 00s, feminism was a fashionable concept. Gender equality issues permeated both culture and politics, and even the then Prime Minister Göran Persson called himself a feminist. As someone who was herself interested and involved in both politics and feminism, Maria Carbin began to reflect on the gender equality promoted by those in power.

– A policy of gender equality must, of course, aim to create a more equal society, but what does gender equality mean? I wanted to know more about the norms and values that permeated Swedish gender equality policy and what kind of equality the policy created. This interest has been a common thread in my research up to the present day: to twist and turn different aspects of Swedish gender equality policy. For example, what image of Sweden is passed on by the idea of "the world's most equal country?" What nationalist currents of thought feed this image? I think it's important to critically examine the values around which there is a consensus, what is within the norm.

Maria Carbin is now a professor of gender studies at Umeå University. For her, there is an obvious link between political science and gender studies.

– In Sweden today, for example, there are major differences between men and women when it comes to political stances, with men voting more for the SD party and women voting more to the left. To really understand this, you need to do a deeper analysis and then you need to include aspects such as class, gender, ethnicity, age and so on.

To keep up with full-time work, the RUT deduction has then been introduced as a gender equality policy solution. Does this really create a more equal society? I find it hard to see, you can't turn a blind eye to the increased class differences between those who can afford it and those who can't.

Critically examine political reforms

– In my PhD thesis I studied so-called honour violence. It is a phenomenon that captures many political conflicts such as gender equality, integration and violence. Through the debate on so-called honour violence, a clear picture emerged of the Swedish equal society, and that this violence was seen as something new that was not a "Swedish" phenomenon, but something that lay outside "our" culture. "They" were the perpetrators of violence, not "we" who are part of the Swedish culture. The issue was very infected at the time, even in academia. It was difficult to even talk about. But I still think it's important to dare to look at political issues with a critical eye. The risk of talking about honour violence as culturally deviant is that it stigmatises.

In her research, Maria Carbin constantly returns to the issue: What do we mean by gender equality? What political meaning do we give to the concept? In this spirit, she has also questioned the norm of full-time work.

– There is an obvious idea that women are emancipated and that we create a more equal society if women work full time (i.e. 8 hours a day) in paid employment. In order to keep up with full-time work, the RUT deduction has then been introduced as a gender equality policy solution. Does this really create a more equal society? I find it hard to see, you can't turn a blind eye to the increased class differences between those who can afford it and those who can't. And as society stands today there are major problems with the full-time norm, with rising sickness absence rates, stress and burnout.

I think that a common misconception is that gender studies and gender equality policy are confused, something that is particularly paradoxical for me as someone who works on critically examining Swedish gender equality policy.

Misconceptions about gender studies

Gender studies is a subject that can stir up emotions, especially outside the university world. However, Maria Carbin believes that there are both misconceptions about the subject, and that old beliefs persist.

– I imagine there is a perception, at least outside academia, that gender studies is a more ideological and activist subject than others. I don't think that's true. After all, there are many different specialisations within gender studies, and gender studies scholars do not always agree with each other. Moreover, it is actually the case that a large part of both humanities and social science research can be considered political - if you think political in a broader sense. After all, most researchers have a reason and a motivation for doing research on certain issues. I also think that a common misconception is that gender studies and gender equality policy are confused, something that is particularly paradoxical for me as someone who works on critically examining Swedish gender equality policy. I don't always agree that the very reforms that are proposed will necessarily lead to an equal society, even though as a gender scientist I am expected to support the proposals.

In the 1990s, there was also criticism of gender research within the scientific community, for example in connection with the so-called Tham professorships. These were a gender equality initiative in academia with 30 professorships set up by the then Minister of Education Carl Tham, where affirmative action was to be used in appointments. If two applicants had the same merit, the one of the under-represented gender would be chosen (Sweden's professorial corps then consisted of 93% men).

– For a research project I am working on now, I have interviewed gender researchers about what it is like to be a gender studies scholar. The picture I got is that the intra-scientific conflict surrounding gender research has largely disappeared. Within academia, gender studies is now relatively established. It is in politics and the public debate that gender studies, or this confused image with gender equality policy, is seen as problematic in some quarters.

I want to work for a collegial context where we do things together as researchers, where we can support each other and share both heavy and fun tasks. I think that would create a more sustainable working environment.

Creativity and collegiality

As a professor at Umeå Centre for Gender Studies, Maria Carbin hopes to help create an environment where researchers support each other and where the research process is given its due.

– I hope to be able to contribute to creating a research environment where creativity is in focus. Research should be fun and must be allowed to take time, research cannot be efficient, fast and focused on productivity. The way the system is now, you are encouraged to be an individualist, to run your own race, to be your own entrepreneur. It forces you to compete with your colleagues, and I think that creates stress, a bad climate for collaboration and a bad seminar culture. Quality and creativity have to come first, not publication and application urgency. I would also like to make a case for an old academic watchword: collegiality. I want to work for a collegial context where we do things together as researchers, where we can support each other and share both heavy and fun tasks. I think that would create a more sustainable working environment.

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