Given its cultural background, government, and societal activities, as well as best practices in the workplace, the statistics show Sweden could be a solid...

By Melissa Lamson

For Diversity, Against Discrimination is the current slogan for the EU Commission, a European organization that promotes policies and programs in diversity while encouraging Europe to take an active stand against discrimination. In 2006, the European Commission declared that all union state members (countries who are members of the EU) should establish legislation that supports and promotes diversity and simultaneously eradicates discrimination. Each member state created their own strategy and legislation based on individual country needs and concerns. Several European nations wrote extensive anti-discrimination law, more detailed than the laws in the U.S., England, and South Africa—countries where anti-discrimination law has existed for years and with tough consequences.

The legislative focus of individual European countries mirrors the focus inside European companies. It is often the case that diversity programs address one or two specific dimensions of diversity. This is an interesting difference to the U.S. approach, as it is more common to look at diversity management as a whole, and not segment certain populations. Europe also sees a direct link to discrimination, where the U.S. traditionally keeps anti-discrimination legislation in the legal department, separate from diversity, which tends to be in a human resources or learning and development department.

Today, for example, Germany is focusing its efforts on ethnic and religious discrimination. Ireland focuses primarily on gender and marital and family status. Sweden, known for its equitable approach to gender diversity, is paying special attention now to ethnic, racial, and religious diversity.

Swedish Culture

Sweden is a large country (relative to other European countries) and other than the major cities, is not densely populated. There are many forests, lakes, and a lovely countryside. The Swedes are known for smiling often, but speaking less. The general attitude is, If there’s something interesting or important to say, say it, otherwise talking for talking’s sake is overrated. (Of course there are exceptions in any culture.)

According to the intercultural theory put forth by Geert Hofstede, there are five cultural values that impact Swedish business behavior. Here are three: 1) Low Power Distance, which means power in the organization is decentralized. An employee has easy access to their boss and a manager isn’t necessarily seen as an expert but more of a coach. The communication style in meetings is direct and participatory. 2) Femininity, which means work/life balance is important and is even a measure of one’s success. Strong competition is not highly valued in a feminine society and managers strive for consensus in decision making. 3) Uncertainty Avoidance: In Sweden, it is low, meaning that they have a more relaxed and flexible attitude about life and work. Risk taking is seen as positive and rules are made when necessary, but bureaucracy isn’t highly desired. Swedes are fans of innovation and change does not scare them easily.

Europe Looks to Sweden as a Leader in Gender Equality

Ask someone from another European country and they’ll tell you Sweden is a leader in gender equality. In part due to the culture and the value placed on work/life balance, however, the Swedish society actively teaches equality to children in school, and the government mandates equal opportunities, equal pay, and equal access to education.

In the Swedish business world, companies must have active programs supporting equal opportunities for women and men, and with respect to parental leave, either parent is entitled to 480 days of leave. (And the men will take their parental leave, different from other countries where stigma can override taking advantage of the possibility.) Over 25 percent of companies in Sweden are women-owned and those with female board members are also close to 25 percent. Half the parliament members are women as well. These percentages are what many European (and American) companies are striving for.

Other Aspects of Diversity in Sweden

Due to high rates of immigration and an influx of employees from other parts of the world, Sweden, especially in urban areas, has become highly culturally diverse. In fact, it is estimated that 11 percent of Sweden’s population today was born outside the country. There have been some incidents of extreme racism, but for the most part, basic general questions and concerns about cultural integration and the impact on Sweden exist.

Today, Sweden actively works on this issue and takes a strong public stand against racist or intolerant policies and individual actions. In fact, cultural sensitivity workshops are sponsored by the government and a website exists for “myth-busting” information about immigrant populations in Sweden.

Sweden as a Role Model for Diversity

Given its cultural background, government, and societal activities, as well as best practices in the workplace, the statistics show Sweden could be a solid diversity role model for the rest of the world.

What makes Sweden so special? And what can we learn from their approach? By looking at Sweden’s methods, we may find more innovative approaches to diversity, perhaps seeing a direct solution in our societies and workplaces to intolerance, inequities, or in extreme cases, discrimination.

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