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Gender power structure and women’s situation in the labour market

A commonly raised question is why women are on sick leave from work more than men. But Sara Hultqvist, author of a recent report on sick leave and gender in the Nordic region, thinks that the question is incorrectly formulated.
‘What should be focused on instead is that some sectors of the labour market, in which mostly women work, offer unacceptable working conditions.’

The report, titled “Sjukskrivningar och genus i Norden – vad vi vet och inte vet” [sick leave and gender in the Nordic countries – what we know and do not know] was produced by the Nordic Welfare Centre at the request of the Nordic Council of Ministers, with an aim to give an overview of the psychological health in the Nordic region from a gender perspective. The statistics show that women’s sick leave rates are higher in all Nordic countries. The biggest gender differences are found in Norway and Sweden, while the gaps are smaller in Finland and Iceland. Three common explanations for the gender differences are women’s ‘double work’ burden, their health and the work environment. But the research in the area is insufficient and has so far been able to explain only a fraction of the gender gap.

 Sara Hultqvist, author of the report

‘What’s most striking is that we still know very little. Few studies have proven the link between women’s double work and sick leave. One explanation may be that the tools used to measure these things are too dull,’ says Sara Hultqvist.

She believes the issue should be seen through several layers and with an understanding of how the gender power order affects women’s situation in the labour market. A woman who works double shifts, in the sense that she not only works in the labour market and but also is in charge of family life and household work, may also be single and employed in a low-paid occupation

‘I think a big reason for women’s high sick leave rates is the gender-segregated labour market, where female-dominated sectors are assigned less value,’ she says.

The report from the Nordic Welfare Centre calls for a plethora of studies exploring the issue from new angles. The need for categories other than ‘man’ and ‘woman’ is emphasised. In the current discourse, the healthy man is considered a norm that women should strive to comply with.

‘By instead looking at categories such as class, education or age, we might discover other patterns and models,’ says Sara Hultqvist.

She also thinks it is important to look at the organisation of the work. According to a recently published report from the Swedish Work Environment Authority, sectors dominated by women are characterised by problems in the work environment, a higher risk of health problems and a higher probability that employees quit due to illness or dissatisfaction. Sara Hultqvist calls for more case studies of occupational groups such as preschool teachers, healthcare personnel and social workers.

‘At present, there are mainly register-based studies of the inequality. But there is a need for more specific case studies in which workers are interviewed about the causes of the health problems. They probably know best why they’re not doing well.

A major problem in the development of the report was the lack of compatible data for the Nordic countries. For example, there are no comparative statistics on short spells of sick leave as occasional days and weeks off are only reported to the employer, which makes some types of health problems invisible.

‘I’m for example thinking of men’s violence against women, which can lead to brief sick leaves, or menstruation-related issues that keep women from going to work,’ says Sara Hultqvist.

Are there any differences among the Nordic countries in terms of how they address the sick leave problem?
‘There are differences in the type of research being done. In Norway, there are several studies on biological differences between male and female bodies. And in Sweden, there is a focus on gender rather than biological sex,’ says Sara Hultqvist.

Updated 23 January 2020