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Labour Force Gender Gap: Sweden and the UK

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Employment
Wordcount: 5376 words Published: 22nd Mar 2019

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The growth of female labour force participation and the subsequent consolidation of their position at work has been the most striking change in the labour market over the past 50 years and this increase in labour force participation is occurring in both developing and industrialised societies. It will appear that women have nonetheless emerged in a stronger labour market position, vis-à-vis men, than ever before.

Women represent more than half of the world’s population and their representation is swiftly increasing. At the same time the experiences of women in organizations are very different from those of men.

 The labour market is undergoing considerable change. The advancement of new technology, the enterprise culture and the development of positive action training for women, policies that have been enacted and other vices have all begun to change the pattern of gender segregation in the workplace.

However, much of the examination of the advancement of women in the labour market has been couched in terms of their progress relative to males, largely because their experience at work has been at a disadvantage. This reality has been manifested in such outcomes as occupational segregation into lower paying jobs and unequal access within organizations.

Throughout their working lives, women continue to face significant obstacles in gaining access to decent work. Women still earn a lot less than men despite decades of equal-pay laws. Even in many of those countries where gaps in labour force participation and employment have narrowed and where women are shifting away from contributing family work and moving to the services sector, the quality of women’s jobs remains a matter of concern.

Looking at how women have fared so far in work representation, I’ll be critically assessing the women in the UK and Sweden and look at factors that have generally affected women’s work representation such as; the gender pay gap, shared parental leave, policies, women’s segregated jobs, child care and how it affects women’s career in terms of progression.

Women in UK and Sweden

Looking at the UK over the past 40years, there has been a rise in the percentage of women aged 16 to 64 in employment and a fall in the percentage of men. In April to June 2013 around 67percent of women aged 16-64 were in work, an increase from 53percent in 1971. For men the percentage fell to 76percent in 2013 from 92percent in 1971. (office for National statistics 2013)

Women’s labour market participation has increased, although not as yet to equal men. The overall gender pay gap has narrowed but remains substantive and above the OECD average notwithstanding a relatively high rate of women employment in the UK. Women predominate among the low paid whose ranks have increased markedly since the 1980s. (Lansley and Reed, 2013)

Sweden has been described as one of the most equal countries in the world and one of the most gender segregated labour markets. It is true that Sweden has the highest rate of women’s participation in the work force. However, men and women end up in different sectors and jobs. Sweden is in many ways a country where there is gender equality. About 80percent of all women in Sweden aged 20 to 64 works outside of the home, which is a high proportion compared to many other countries. However, gender inequality still exists in its labour market. Women who work in the same professions as men usually have lower wages, despite doing the same job as men. There are fewer women than men in the senior management of companies. Research also shows that there are differences between the opportunities men and women have to combine work with family life. Women do the majority of housework, even if they work just as much as men. More women than men take parental leave for longer periods (informationsverige.se 2017).

However, they are a lot of key factors among women’s employment some of which includes:

Gender pay Gap in UK and Sweden

In the UK, Gender pay gap takes a centre stage in women’s work representation. In this day and age, it seems shocking that women are still paid relatively less than men. Inequality starts at a young age. A UK survey by Halifax shows that boys get 13percent more pocket money than girls. Today the average working woman in the OECD still earns 16percent less than her male counterpart despite becoming better qualified. Job segregation between men and women both across industries and occupations is a major factor explaining the UK pay gap and regional variations in the pay gap. The gender pay gap in the UK remains significant with female workers earning on average 17percent less than men. Evidence suggest that the two key factors that explains the gender pay gap in the UK are differences in work life patterns between men and women. Many women spend more time out of the workforce than men to have children or care for their family either via career breaks or by working part time or fewer hours. Spending time out of work means that they miss out on pay progression (Connolly and Gregory, 2008). A study by the IFS (2016) shows that the gender pay gap tends to widen after the arrival of children, which coincides with career breaks. Olsen and Walby (2006) showed that differences in work life patterns explain more than a third of the gender pay gap. The need to work part time or flexibly means that women are often forced into lower paying sectors or occupations that can accommodate these preferences. Even those who are willing to return to work on a full-time basis face the challenge of overcoming biases against the ‘’CV gap’’ which makes it difficult for them to return to highly competitive senior roles. (PwC, 2017)

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 Also, the second factor is the incidence of occupational segregation. labour market rigidities such as occupational segregation is an important driver of the pay gap. Olsen and Walby (2006) show that this factor explains 18percent of the pay gap in the UK. Segregation occurs when women cluster in sectors that tend to be lower paying, for example in social care or education. Even within sectors women are more likely to take up roles such as administrative roles rather than senior or managerial roles. The reasons for this are complex. Part of this is due to social and cultural factors that children adopt from a young age which influence their perspective on suitable occupations for women. These perceptions are changing as more women enter traditionally male dominated sectors. However, this has yet to translate fully into labour market outcomes.

As part of a push to narrow Britain’s persistent pay gap, legislation now requires public and private companies with more than 250 employees to publish the average hourly pay difference between male and female. The regulations, which were introduced in the Equality Act 2010, offer an opportunity for businesses to benchmark their pay structures against others and to analyse them in detail, perhaps for the first time. Equal pay law in the UK already demands that employers pay men and women the same for the same job. (PwC, 2017)

While in Sweden, men’s wages are still higher than women in Sweden. But the gender wage gap is decreasing, and over the past decade the gap has decreased by 3.1 percentage points, reaching a record low of 13.2 percent. Around one third of the decrease is due to rises in pay and the rest to the altered composition of the workforce. When weighing in factors such as education, age, profession, sector and hours of work, the pay gap between men and women is 5percent (2015). Work in sectors dominated by women is generally valued less and these sectors have lower wage levels than ones dominated by men. (Gustafsson, 2015)

In 2011, Swedish women earned 14% less than men, a pay gap just below the OECD average (15%). Lower pay not only deprives women of higher earnings in the short term but it also exposes them to high poverty risk after retirement.

Women’s average monthly salaries in Sweden are less than 87% of men’s 95% when differences in choice of profession and sector are taken into account. Pay differences are most obvious in the country councils, and the smallest difference is found among blue-collar workers. The pay gap between men and women can partly be explained by differences in profession, sector, position, work experience and age. (Sverige, 2017)

One reason for Sweden’s gender pay gap being relatively high is the segregated nature of the labour market. A large proportion of women work in the public sector, where pay is low. However, with new Swedish policies in place, businesses with 25 or more employees have to establish an equality action plan. And companies with big pay gaps face fines if they fail to take steps to close them. The Swedish gender pay gap has become smaller since this system was introduced, but it is still 15percent.

Child care and their careers

McQuaid and Lindsey (2005) observed that the organisation of work and the practicalities of combining career and motherhood are significant contributory factors to women’s relative poor performance. Although they were unable to establish the degree of impact, they did note that motherhood directly affected the type of roles women can take, prefer or are offered. Waldfogel (2007) described this as detrimental and termed it the “the penalties of motherhood” in terms of their career progression. She noted the difference in men’s career which suffers no disadvantage because family and marriage produce limited or no career interruptions for them. She argued that this penalty may last after the woman has ceased to have childcare responsibility, indeed for their entire career, due to the negative career effects of break forming a “negative shadow” on their future careers. McQuaid et al. (2009) observed that flexible employment, in terms of hours or part-time work were appealing due to the relatively straightforward entry/exit/re-entry procedures as they enabled women to combine work and family responsibilities more easily, but at a cost to their long-term career. They argued that these constraints frequently forced women to take less “attractive” employments which accommodate personal circumstances on reduced salaries and hours of work or both. (Bryan McIntosh, 2012)

There is a tension between motherhood and employment. The impact of motherhood in relations to women’s career is still underestimated. Motherhood directly affects career progression. It results in the devaluation of women’s abilities, a denial of opportunity and a penalisation in in respect to careers. Women’s career progression is defined by motherhood, dependent children, working hours, and career breaks. Career break define career progression Davey et al. (2005) view that women who take a career break are disadvantaged in terms of progression. However, the axis of this disadvantage is the cumulative length of the break. Women who take a career break of greater than two years see their careers detrimentally restricted. Also, there is a tangible career penalty for women which does not exist for men. This penalty is pronounced within women with dependent children.  As dependent children are still primarily cared for and nurtured by women the exchange between this and careers ultimately makes this issue a matter of motherhood. (Bryan McIntosh R. M., 2012)

The gender gap in incomes has narrowed in recent years but it has not disappeared and one of the possible reasons the gap has not closed is that women’s responsibility to care for children continues to hinder their employment. According to Ghazalat Azmat (march 2015) the presence of young children has a major effect in reducing female participation in work. Women with children are also likely to work in part time jobs, which suffer a pay penalty. (Azmat, 2015)

According to a survey by Mumsnet (2013), it showed that three quarters of British mothers feel that having children made it more difficult to progress in their career, and nearly two in threes said that they felt less employable after having children. However, I think the main problem is that a lot of people have strong assumptions around women, raising a family and traditional role models. These assumptions are strongly influenced by society, organisational culture and individual experience and they shape behaviour. Women will only be competitive in the workplace if they have good quality reliable child care in place and if employers and colleagues recognise the need to set predictable working hours that allow for school runs. More than 60% of survey respondents said they felt their boss had a negative perception of working mothers, which meant they were mistreated when they returned to work, and overlooked for career opportunities. Women often found themselves being offered less senior roles (18%), overlooked for promotion or opportunities (27%), and even demoted (8%) on returning to the workforce. (lewis, 2014)

According to Victoria Northbrooke (August 2015) Flexible childcare that matches parents increasingly unpredictable schedule is still a distant for the UK government. Many parents have taken extreme measures to find childcare during school holidays. While some parents are being forced to send their children to grandparents hundreds of miles away while others have borrowed money just to cover the rising costs of care. A study from the Family and childcare trust carried out in (2014) found that a fifth of parents resort to calling in sick over the summer holidays in order to care for their children and 12 percent give up work entirely because they simply can’t find suitable childcare in the holidays.

 In Sweden, which is renowned for its flexible and progressive childcare programmes, most public nurseries offer care from 6am to 6pm with recently increased provision to include overnight and weekend childcare services. While in the UK only 53percent of schools have ‘before and after’ school clubs during term time and only 20 percent offer holiday childcare (family and childcare Trust report 2015). With private provision of holiday childcare places costing from £150 per week per child, many parents are really feeling the financial strain. Neither do the number and quality of local childminders meet demand.

Affordable childcare is crucial to Britain’s economy but it is also the lack of flexible care that is a primary barrier to women returning to the workplace and their career. Britain has one of the most expensive childcare in the world. A report by Family and Childcare Trust showed that British parents are handing over more than £7,500 a year for childcare for two children, around 4.7 percent more than the average mortgage bill. One in three mothers say they have been put off having another child by the cost of childcare, while 77 percent of parents say they would chose to work less and spend more time with their children if the childcare in the UK was more affordable.

Sweden has the most generous childcare benefits in the world. They have long had a glowing reputation for its generous childcare facilities and is regularly ranked as one of the best places to raise a family. In Sweden each child is guaranteed a place at a public preschool and no parent is charged more than three percent of their salary SEK 1260(£132) a month for the country’s highest earners. All other costs are covered by the state. Most public nurseries offer care from around 06:00 to 18:00 but with the numbers of parents working flexible or unconventional hours going up, local councils are increasingly providing overnight and weekend services. Just over 78percent of mothers with children under seven went out to work in 2012, according to Statistics-Sweden’s labour force survey (2012). (Savage, 2013).

A family policy that supports working parents with the same rights and obligations for both men and women makes it easier for parents in Sweden to find a decent work life balance. Child care is guaranteed to all parents and the aim is that nursery school and pre-school should be affordable for all. Fees are proportional to the parent’s income and the more children you have the less you pay per child. For children between three and six, childcare is even free for up to 15 hours per week. The Swedish government also provides an additional monthly child allowance until the age of 16 of SEK 1,050 per month per child and if you have more than one child you get an extra family supplement. (source: Sweden and Gender Equality November 2017)

Shared parental leave in UK and Sweden

Women who return to work following a career break to take care for their families often face a motherhood penalty which is a systematic difference in pay for working mothers in comparison to women without children. One way of addressing this is by introducing policies which allows parents to share the burden of childcare. It has been a longstanding problem concerning discrimination in the labour market because of women childbearing responsibilities. Women have been looked upon as not reliable because of their potentials to off work for maternity leave or parental responsibilities. On the other hand, there has been a lot of criticisms on the fact that fathers are limited by legislation in terms of what they can do in a family situation. Furthermore, parental responsibility has always been looked upon as the duty of the woman from time immemorial while fathers were seen as breadwinners of the family. In an effort to give the mothers the opportunity to continue with their career without the child bearing stigma, the government made provision on shared parental leave which came into force on the 5th of April,2015. (Ndzi, 2017)

The UK government introduced Shared parental leave in April 2015 to try to improve gender equality in the workplace. The policy allows both new parents to share up to 50weeks of leave and 37weeks of statutory pay after their baby arrives.  Eligible employees with babies due or who plan to adopt a child or intended parents in surrogacy who meet certain criteria, will be able to take advantage of the new shared parental leave rights. They may also choose how they will share the statutory leave period and the statutory pay between themselves and their spouses/partners/civil partners. In birth cases, all mothers will still be required to take two weeks of compulsory maternity leave after their child’s birth and may request to start Shared Parental leave from the beginning of the third week after childbirth. Assuming a mother has not chosen to start her maternity leave early, she and the baby’s father (or her partner) will then be entitled to share the remaining 50 weeks of shared parental leave and 37 weeks of statutory pay. In all non-birth scenarios, eligible employees are able to share the full 52 weeks of shared parental leave and 39 weeks of statutory pay. Employees will be permitted to take SPL in either one continuous block or, provided their employer agrees, as a series of separate leave periods. Therefore, couples could decide to take their leaves at the same time and effectively split the SPL and statutory pay evenly between each partner. Alternatively, one of the employees could request a continuous block of leave, with the other employee requesting shorter blocks of leave throughout their partner’s block of leave. Employees may also request short blocks of leave and take these blocks separately, interchanging their childcare responsibilities. (Lewis, 2014)

However, it has had a slow start. A recent survey of 1,000 human resources workers by the CIPD, the professional body for HR, suggests that only about 5percent of new fathers have opted for shared leave since its introduction. It is being said that from April 2018, employers will also have to publish detailed information about gender pay imbalances in their workforce. They will have to release both their mean and median gender pay gap for salaries and bonuses, as well as the number of men and women in each salary quartile. (Sarah O’Connor, 2017).

It was the government’s intention that the introduction of shared parental leave and pay in 2015 would help encourage more working fathers to take more time off after the birth of a child and in turn encourage working mothers to return to work. However, the working families study showed that 25% of fathers are unaware that they can take shared parental leave and survey statistics from my family care and the women’s business council show that take up of shared parental leave is approximately 1% with 40% of companies reporting that not a single father has taken shared parental leave since the regime was introduced. (Smith, 2017)

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Sweden is really winning the equality race with its laws and attitude towards parenting. Currently in Sweden, parents are given 16 months when a new child is born to share as they choose (although 60 days are given to each parent, and cannot be transferred. This was raised to 90 days in 2016, which as a father, you either take fully or lose. This leave can be taken as hours, days, weeks or months over a period of eight years per child. And 390 of these days are paid at 80% of the parent’s average wage, with a cap for the highest earners. In Sweden there’s something they call ‘Latte papas’ they are vast dressed men who congregate in coffee bars with their babies on a weekday and it is becoming the most globally recognised symbol of Sweden’s generous paternity laws.

Childcare is subsidised by the state, and is capped at 3% of a family’s income. On average, for each child, families rarely pay more than £113 a month. Nurseries are open all day and night to allow for shift work. (Lucy foster, 2017). 

However, Albrecht et al. (2003) hypothesised that the generous parental leave was a major factor contributing to the glass ceiling in Sweden.  Employers understand that the Swedish parental leave system gives women a strong incentive to participate in the labour force but also encourages them to take long periods of parental leave and to be less flexible with respect to hours once they return to work. Extended absence and lack of flexibility are particularly costly for employers when employees hold top jobs. Employers therefore place relatively few women in fast track career positions. Women, even those who would otherwise be strongly career-oriented, understand that their promotion possibilities are limited by employer beliefs and respond rationally by opting for more family-friendly career paths and by fully utilizing their parental leave benefits. Women may choose family friendly jobs but choice reflects both preferences and constraints. The argument is that what is different about Sweden is the constraints that women face and that these constraints in the form of employer expectation are driven in part by the generosity of the parental leave system (James Albrecht, 2014)

Although Sweden is often seen as paragons of gender equality, many women and men are finding it increasingly difficult to strike a balance between their dual loyalties vis-à-vis work and family (Cousins and Tang, 2004; Kitterod and Pwtterson, 2006; Knudsen 2009). Since the 1970s the Swedish welfare state has promoted an agenda of double emancipation, encouraging a combination of female labour market participation and active fatherhood (Klinth, 2002) as a means of challenging gendered assumptions over role allocation. Despite this supportive regulatory environment, research shows parenthood generally affects women’s careers to a higher degree than men (Cahusac and Kanji, 2014; Holth el al., 2013). A job characterized by good wages, high status and opportunities for career-development is often shaped to suit the traditional male working model of someone who is always available for work. (Holith, 2017)

How policies have affected the work environment in relation to women

Policies merely creates the framework for individual action and for the decisions that must be taken by individuals. However, it does not dictate behaviour directly.

Women’s rights were a major priority of the 20th century for the UK, and this dramatically impacted their political policies. Over the years the UK government have set up several policies that has impacted the work environment in relation to women.

The Equal pay act was introduced which is supposed to give men and women same equal pay and benefits. However, there is nothing in the equality act to specifically tackle job segregation between men and women in the workplace other than perhaps the public-sector gender equality duty. Then in 1975 the sex discrimination act was introduced to prohibit direct or indirect gender discrimination against individuals in the areas of employment, education, the provision of goods, facilities and services. In 2015 the shared parental leave act was enacted with objectives of achieving a better work-family life balance for parents with incentives for fathers to take leave.

In Sweden policy is focused on equality between the sexes in relation to work and family life and on the welfare of children. The perception of the reconciliation of work and family is most positive in Sweden where the employment of mothers is a political objective and the raising of children is also considered a societal duty.

Gender equality and related policies have been a central concern in Sweden since at least the 1970s and their governments over the years have been committed to further development of these policies. The policies that the Swedish governments put up are said to pursue the following:

  1. Equal division of power and influence giving men and women the same equal rights and responsibilities to participate in society and to shape the conditions for decision making
  2. Economic equality, giving men and women the same rights and possibilities as regards education and remunerated work leading to lifelong economic independence.
  3. Equal distribution of unpaid house and care work, giving men and women equal responsibilities and rights in this area.

In Sweden, some of the most important reforms concerning gender equality took place in the labour market and in social policy in the 1970s. These reforms pushed gender equality and increased women’s prospects to have the same opportunities as men to enter the labour market, and to remain and develop there. Parts of the unpaid household and care work, often performed by women, became the responsibility of the public welfare system. Women thus gained access to employment and greater financial independence, which increased their well-being and bargaining power in the household. In addition, men were encouraged and enabled to participate in family life to a greater extent. These reforms also contributed to the development of a modern welfare state in Sweden. Some policies that where included is the Separate income taxation for wife and husband in 1971. This created an incentive for women to work as their income was no longer seen as part of the husband’s income. This was more advantageous for both partners to work. There was also a policy for Development of public child care in 1974 it was said to be a governments decision. Women were often faced with impossible daily schedules and frequently had to work unsocial hours when the children’s father were at home. The development of affordable public child care facilities available to all is a prerequisite to Sweden’s large proportion of women in gainful employment. Sweden was the first country to introduce gender-neutral paid parental leave benefit. And since then this parental leave reform has been revised several times. Today, women and men are entitled to 480 days of paid parental leave (16 months) per child. Ninety of those days (3 months) are reserved for each parent and cannot be transferred to the other parent (the third reserved month was introduced in 2016). Introducing a third reserved month for each parent was a measure to achieve a more even distribution of unpaid household and care work, and gender equality in the labour market. (source: Gender Equality policy in Sweden (2016) Government offices of Sweden)


Despite the remarkable growth in women’s labour force participation in recent years, women’s greater responsibility for childbirth and childcare does seem to be hindering gender wage equalization. Throughout their working lives, women continue to face significant obstacles in gaining access to decent work. Inequality between women and men persist in global labour markets, in respect of opportunities, treatment and outcomes.

The labour market position of women in the UK has been generally improving, with higher employment rates and increases in earnings. However, on these measures women still fare worse in the Job market; the formal employment rate for women is lower and female weekly earnings are still less than 70% of male weekly earnings

Sweden has been described as a social democratic welfare state regime (Esping-Anderson, 1990), as a weak male breadwinner system (Lewis, 1992), and as a nation with an extensive family policy system (Boje and Ejrnaes, 2012). There is a well-developed, publicly funded universal health insurance system, unemployment insurance, and social assistance system, but the state also takes responsibility for the children and the elderly. With publicly subsidized day care centres, public schools and universities, paid maternity and paternity leaves, medical and social care for the elderly, and the statutory right to stay home from work (also paid) with sick children for either parent all financed through the tax system. These policies have resulted in a high rate of labour market participation for women and a comparatively low degree of social stratification. It has also created jobs for women in the public sector: 82% of women changed 20-64 are in the labour force, and about half of them work for the public sector (Statistics Sweden, 2012).


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Bryan McIntosh, R. M. (2012). Motherhood and its impact on career progression. Gender in Management.

Bryan McIntosh, R. M. (2012). Motherhood and its impact on career progression. Gender in Management: An international journal.

Gustafsson, A.-K. (2015). Gender equality and Working conditions. EurWORK.

Holith, L. B. (2017). Gender, availability, and dual emancipation in the swedish Ict sector, Work . Work, Empolyment and Society , 230-247.

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lewis, G. (2014). CIPD people management. .

Lewis, M. (2014). Shared Parental Leave: Steps for UK Employer. Venulex Legal Summaries.

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Smith, J. (2017). Are fathers rights at work working? Employers Law, 12-23.

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