In Sweden, Does Gender Neutrality Equate to Gender Equality?


Imagine being referred to, not as “he” or “she” but as “hen”.  In Sweden, that is precisely what is being done in schools, as gender is being phased out and gender neutrality is being phased in.  It is an extraordinary step on the part of the country to help eradicate gender inequality by removing gender from the picture altogether.  Toy stores are dissolving their boys’ and girls’ sections and integrating the playthings that children may access, appealing to boys with pink and girls with trucks, in a way not seen in countries like the United States.  The idea is that by removing the constraints of gender labels and the gender binary, society can become freer, more egalitarian.

But is gender neutrality necessarily the same as gender equality?  And is Sweden’s attempt to eradicate gender as beautiful a plan as it seems?

Proponents of the gender neutrality initiatives argue that by eliminating the teaching of gender, they give children more choices; they are no longer constraining children by antiquated gender roles and gender norms, as we have done in the past.  As schools in Sweden work to eliminate the teaching of traditional gender roles, they work to create a society in which people can just be people, and gender is no longer an issue.  According to a representative from the Swedish National Agency for Education, “All Swedish schools have a responsibility to counteract traditional gender patterns.”

This sounds beautiful on paper.  A society without gender, without the gender binary?  Fantastic.  Boys no longer oppressing girls, and vice versa?  Excellent.  But there are a lot of things that sound great on paper that are flawed concepts, and I am afraid this may prove to be one of them.

There are several ways in which this plan is extraordinarily beneficial.  First and foremost, it seeks to eliminate the ideas that thus far have helped push women out of fields like Science Technology Engineering and Math (STEM), as well as politics and international affairs.  It also seeks to eliminate the rigid gender apartheid that we have seen among children, the same segregation that has been cited as a major cause in intergender miscommunication.  On top of that, it has obvious benefits for those who are transgender or gender-nonconforming, because it relieves the pressure to adhere to a gender identity one does not necessarily feels fits.

However, if Sweden wants to create a society in which gender does not matter, there are going to be several problems.  First, how on earth are you going to teach history without teaching about the historical gender inequalities that have come to shape our present reality?  Second, while this great at freeing children from the pressure to conform to the standards of traditional gender roles, it also portrays these gender roles in a way that makes it seem that traditional masculinity or femininity should be eschewed, which is not necessarily the case.  If the aim is to increase the choices available to young people growing up in Sweden, then a problem arises from the fact that dismissing traditional understandings of gender does not create choices-~-it eliminates some.

On top of that, there is a root issue at play that unfortunately cannot be ignored here: gender is part of people’s identities.  It is inherently linked with other parts of a person’s identity (including sexuality), and it helps form a person’s understanding of his/her/hen personhood.  If transgendered people could just do things that the other gender did without it being an issue, don’t you think they would do so without bothering to actually come out as trans and/or go through surgery?  Gender identity is an important part of a person’s identity if they choose to let it be, and taking that away from someone does NOT increase their freedom.

It would be akin to someone telling me that, since I live in a secular society, we shall simply stop talking about religion altogether.  It won’t be taught in schools, and it won’t play a role in things like what job I can take.  This is, in essence, what is supposed to have happened in America.  But my religion IS a part of who I am; it influences how I behave and in some cases how I connect with people.  All of these pieces of our identities shape the people who choose to become, and de-emphasizing or dismissing a part of that identity does a disservice to those who do care about their genders, and to whom gender identity might matter.

I am in no way saying that gender neutrality is a bad concept, or that de-emphasizing the gender binary is a bad plan.  I think these are fantastic plans.  But when we write off gender as something that we should ignore altogether it is almost an admission that as long as gender exists, gender equality may be unattainable, and that the only solution is to take gender off the table.  I would hate to be asked to give up what it means to be a woman in my society, or to be a woman in our global society, and I can only hope that we will someday find a way to eliminate this rigid false binary without forgetting that in some cases, gender does matter, and that it can matter very much.


~ by Randi Saunders on May 15, 2012.

One Response to “In Sweden, Does Gender Neutrality Equate to Gender Equality?”

  1. Gender equality is possible. Gender neutrality is impossible.

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