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Gender equality starts with Scandinavian fathers

Brilliant Minds’ CEO Natalia Brzezinski: In Sweden, Men — Too — Can Have It All.

Photography Agaton Ström

New York Times headline in 2011 conveying the above grabbed my incredulous gaze. I had been wading through a thick white binder, full of academic, statistical analyses, World Bank assessments and demographic data collected by the un as part of my research on the Nordic model.

Swedish men, or ”Latte Pappas” (caffè latte drinking fathers) as the article called them, can have it all?! In the vibrant dialogue in America over whether women could have it all, I was intrigued that a counter-thesis was offered across the Atlantic, not antagonistic to women ”having it all” but instead emphasising celebration of each chapter of life, of living more slowly and mindfully to absorb those momentous chapters, especially the chapter of family, not just for mothers but for fathers as well. That was my first taste of Swedish ”Lagom” — moderation and balance — a concept that extends to the way Swedes approach gender equality and it absolutely shaped the next four years of my life.

You see, I was leaving Washington, D.C. for Sweden. In Washington I spent so much time being ashamed of not working ”hard enough,” of achieving ”too little”, hiding my lattes behind a Wall Street Journal, feigning a professional ”seriousness” while my body and mind could only focus on nourishing a new life. I felt so much pressure to prove I was more than ”just a mom”, as if mothering were not a full-time arduous job and fulfilling identity.

My mind raced with excited machinations of a female utopia as my husband and I sat in a grey, stolid room at the U.S. State Department’s Foreign Service Institute with a group of eager, accomplished ambassadorial couples designated to nations ranging from South Korea to Cuba to Argentina.

We were preparing to move our family to Sweden where we would serve as a U.S. Ambassadorial couple under President Obama. It was the honour and responsibility of a lifetime. We were determined to redefine modern diplomacy and represent our historic president with dynamism, creativity and integrity.

President Obama made it clear to outgoing ambassadors that they were sent abroad to relate to, understand and learn from their host nation’s culture. Not to didactically lecture them about the way America does it. I was determined to do so in my usual intense and ambitious style.

I was also a 25-year-old tackling motherhood in an ambitious and zealous manner. As all parents know, perfectionism dies with diaper duty. I was a professionally-driven woman resigned to having it all. Yet I was struggling to potty train our toddler, let alone balance work and life. The structural and societal challenges in America for mothers were steep, and for fathers not even discussed.

In America, we are not ”lagom” about life. There is no safety net to support struggling new parents, no parental leave, and no subsidised childcare. Many mothers, like my own did, go back to work a few days after giving birth or don’t ever go back at all.

My husband Mark made history as the first man in his law firm to take four weeks of paternity leave. Even though it was available, no fathers ever took it in fear of being passed up in the corporate rat race. Either way, Mark’s law firm was seen as very generous and progressive since only 10 to 15 per cent of U.S. employers offer paid paternity leave. Despite this, our daughter was still screaming through the night. We were bemoaning our lack of time and we had to adjust to our new family and to our new sleepless condition.

”Sleep deprivation is a form of torture! If I knew how hard this was, I would’ve fought for all my female associates at the firm to have at least six months of maternity leave,” Mark proclaimed after one of our countless sleepless nights.
Society is a reflection of the family. America does not prioritise a family in balance. In Sweden, a family in lagom is seen as important as the sunrise.

Living in Sweden for four years brought my family into our own form of beautiful lagom. I’m forever thankful for our time in Stockholm and I’m determined to scale Swedish values to make the world more balanced and fair in work, in life and especially in gender equality. I believe gender equality was born in the Swedish home, and it starts with Swedish fathers.

In 1974, Sweden became the first country in the world to replace maternity leave with parental leave, and today an astonishing 85 percent of Swedish fathers take parental leave. In the U.S. it’s taboo to take leave, in Sweden it’s taboo not to.

A new definition of masculinity is emerging — men don’t want to be identified just by their jobs anymore, and women don’t want to be identified just by their kids. There’s a misperception of the Scandinavian man in the popular American mindset. It’s a distorted image of a guy sitting at home holding a baby and cooking meatballs. In fact, that image is partially true. But that same guy is also trekking through thick forests; he’s a hunter, a fearless explorer and the essence of ”masculinity” in the macho sense.

The Scandinavian man has all the elements of being traditionally male but also being symbolic of the future man — one who will transcend old norms and identities to create a hybrid, ”lagom” model of masculinity.

In Sweden, manhood is less defined by external norms and more by each individual man, and each family. This more sophisticated expression of gender allows us as parents to teach boys and girls the same emotional intelligence skills at a young age, and to help our sons and daughters learn how to develop relationships and manage emotions without the baggage of ”gender” stereotypes.

The Swedish man’s sometimes harrowing revelation of how exhausting it is to look after a baby can augment not only parental harmony but harmony and compassionate understanding amongst colleagues and work teams.

I’m convinced that giving all fathers a several month doses of parenting on their own would crush the arrogant, aggressive, insensitive male boss for good. If you’re closely attached to a child, you can’t be self-centred and hard.

Simply put, engaging in family life makes better, softer leaders. All sectors could use more leadership with heart, but especially the break-neck, lightning speed tech sector, which is experiencing a ”quarter-life crisis”, especially in Silicon Valley. Stockholm is widely seen as a tech hub, and I believe one of the reasons is the gender equality and family values that Swedes bring into the workplace. The creativity of the Swedish ”pappa” is unparalleled.

I recently emailed with an American executive at Spotify and received an automatic email in return which made me smile: ”Thanks to Spotify’s stellar parental leave policy, I’ll be spending the summer with my newly enlarged family.”

He included a link to the announcement that Spotify was extending the generous parental leave offered to its Swedish employees to Americans as well. This was a policy applauded by the Obama White House, and launched with President Obama’s closest senior advisor, Valerie Jarrett, presiding over it in New York City.

Like Spotify, Mark and I hope to share and scale Sweden’s values around family and gender to the world.

Today, my husband chaperones school field trips and organises my daughter’s dentist appointments. We do not look at family tasks anymore with a ”gender lens” but with a pragmatic one. We both work and travel, and we get things done for our family, with no ego and certainly no questions of whether he is ”man enough” or I am ”mommy enough”.

Real men (and women) stand for something larger than themselves. That’s the Scandinavian way and that’s the Brzezinski way, man, woman, and child included.