There Is a Different Way: Lessons from Abroad

Guest blogger Johanna Mollerstrom compares the status of women in the U.S. to that of her home country.

I am originally from Sweden but have now lived in the United States for almost four years. I originally came here to do research in economics and I just love this country! The people, the energetic society, and the countless opportunities all contribute to my fabulous experience here.

However, I would lie if I said that everything is great here. Because it isn’t. One thing that certainly isn’t so great is that it is much tougher to be a woman in the US than to be a man. Of course, this is true in most parts of the world, to some degree. But when I compare what I see in the United States with the situation in Sweden and in other Scandinavian countries, I realize that it is much harder to be a woman here than it would have to be.

I came to the United States in 2008, in the midst of the presidential election campaign. I was surprised at how little attention the candidates paid to issues regarding gender equality. I therefore decided to look into the American system and see what the status for women’s rights was like – maybe the reason that the presidential candidates didn’t talk about these issues was that all was already fixed?

It turned out to be the contrary. I was stunned when I learned that the US is one of only four countries in the world without a law mandating paid time off for new parents (the other three countries are Liberia, Papua New Guinea and Swaziland). I was equally shocked when I realized how much the parents (who cannot be at home with their babies because of the lack of parental leave) have to pay for childcare. Compared to Scandinavia, the pre-school tuition is about 12 times higher in the US.

These things did upset me as a women – but also as an economist. I am the first to admit that the United States has been doing many things right over the last decades in order to promote entrepreneurship, economic growth and prosperity. But I am at loss when it comes to women’s issues: why hasn’t the United States paved the way for women? In what way is it economically sound to make it hard, or even impossible, to combine family life and a successful, well-paying career? Better conditions for working mothers and fathers would not only benefit the parents and their children – but the whole economy.

Now it is 2012 and there is again a presidential election underway. This time I am less surprised when I see what a non-issue women’s rights in general, and parental leave and subsidized childcare in particular, is in the United States. But I cannot for my life understand why all you strong, smart and accomplished women who make up 51 percent of this country accept this. Why don’t you demand more?

When I discuss these issues with people here in the United States I am sometimes told that things are just “different” here. That parental leave and subsidized childcare may be a good idea in Scandinavia and Europe but that it just “wouldn’t work” here. However, no one has so far been able to explain to me why this is, and in what way the US is so different. After all, women give birth to children here in the same way as in the rest of the world, and as everywhere else these children have to be taken care of in one way of another. The Scandinavian countries all place in the top when it comes to women’s issues and they all have very generous conditions for working parents. At the same time, these very same countries are top performers in economic terms. In what way is the US so different that it wouldn’t be worth trying this out?

Johanna Mollerstrom is Ph.D. Candidate in Economics at Harvard University. She is a former Deputy Member of the Swedish Parliament and the author of “Freedom and Feminism” and “Mine Yours or No one’s