Friday, June 22, 2012

Women and Men Can Have It All But Maybe We All Need to Move to Sweden

You may have seen the image of the child in a suitcase.

The article by Anne-Marie Slaughter, "Why Women Still Can't Have It All," in the Atlantic Monthly,  in which the photo was featured, has created an explosion of discussions in the blogosphere, in the New York Times,  and has reached me in Sweden, where I am spending the month of June as a Visiting Professor in Gothenburg.

Let me say, at the onset, that I am an academic, a wife, and a mother, and felt Slaughter's pain in missing her children while she served for two years in Washington DC in the State Department, on leave from her tenured faculty appointment at Princeton University. In her article, she eloquently writes about her teenage son's difficulties in school and growing up issues and attributes part of his difficulties to her absence during the week for two years while she served in government and was, in effect, a weekend mom, while her husband, also a tenured professor at Princeton, was in charge of the home base.

In her article,  she points out the pressures of face-time (being in the office early and staying late), the necessity of heavy travel for professional success, and cites studies and quotes from other highly successful professional women, including Facebook's Sheryl Strandberg, who has also recently "come out" in discussing work-life issues as a mother and highly visible female executive. I might add that I have been on panels to discuss work-life balance issues as part of special sessions organized by Women in Operations Research and the Management Sciences (WORMS), which is a forum of the professional society INFORMS.

Being now a Visiting Professor in Sweden, and soon beginning an academic sabbatical, I have gained a lot from living abroad. My husband and daughter had a chance to come visit me for two weeks here in Gothenburg and their insights and observations have added to what may be some solutions.

If only the US would listen and be willing to change.

We are now in the midst of celebrating midsommer, which is actually the beginning of summer, and although I am in my office (after taking a long walk through one of my favorite parks here in Gothenburg) the Swedes are on holiday.

Swedes, in my opinion, have solved the work-life balance issues for both males and females. Even my daughter noticed how many men are pushing baby carriages and are escorting young children around the city and in the parks and playgrounds. The Swedes offer extensive parental leave packages for both males and females and the expectation is that both parents will take advantage of them and these are not just for infants.

My colleagues here at the School of Business, Economics and Law at the University of Gothenburg who have young children, are on parental leaves which are very flexible. One male colleague is coming in only 1 day a week, for example.

There are wonderful after school programs and a colleague here who has a disabled daughter brought me to the lovely school that takes care of her after the official school day is over with. Also, families get a monthly allowance from the state for their children (and we did, too, when we lived in Stockholm when my daughter was 2 years old.)

I have met numerous successful females here, with children, who have high level positions in academia, commute to work (if only we had the trains, trams, and busses in the US that Sweden has), and even have farms with horses.

Plus, as I have been told, the Swedes take their vacations seriously and have multiple weeks of vacation. Vacation is for public health and must be taken. People are more productive when they have a chance to relax and to refresh themselves. Also, with the Swedish labor laws, there is a lot of job security.

Many of my colleagues who are fathers leave their offices to pick up their children and do it cheerfully.

People in Sweden are very happy as even a recent United Nations study has shown.

To see the working conditions and benefits in Sweden, just have a look at this official brochure.

More expats are interested in moving back to Sweden for their children and, just this past week, I met one of them, who is a professor in North America, and is interested in returning  because of the quality of life here.

Swedes know that there is a time for work and a time for play.

Yesterday, for example, in downtown Gothenburg, just in front of the art museum, there was a free MTV World Concert that I attended for about two hours, which was fabulous. It was for families and all ages were in the audience, which consisted of about 20,000 people. I stood and chatted next to a female who is in her 70s who had seen Bruce Springsteen, the Beatles, and Elton John in concert in Gothenburg and told me that Springsteen has a lot of Swedish friends and loves to go fishing here.