Why gender equality?

“When I think back to how I felt before I started here, I saw no light,” says Alma Nukic, a participant in Gothenburg’s Project Nordost. “What I needed was for someone to listen to me and not just say ‘you need to get a job’.”  Around 50% of women in the northeast district of Gothenburg are unemployed, so the city uses Project Nordost to offer them a different kind of job support: the support of each other. “I believe in myself now,” Nukic says, “I did not have self-confidence before. I dare to do things.”

This renewed confidence has its origin in an approach that goes way beyond the standard approach to enabling under-represented groups to enter the labour market. For example, Gothenburg’s Project Nordost targets foreign-born women of working age who live in the northeast. Its nine-person team is not limited to job coaches but also includes health coaches and rehabilitation counsellors.

Group transformation

Individually and in larger groups, the women in the programme discuss health, work, gender and hobbies. The trust built in these groups also allows them to delve into more sensitive subjects, such as domestic violence, which almost half of the programme’s participants had experienced.

For Alaa Rasool, this group dynamic was transformative: “If you feel that you are part of something,” she says, “you have friends or classmates, your health improves. I am very grateful.” For her, as well as Nukic, the group experience helped her move out of a very dark place: “I did not want to meet people. I lost my confidence, but through this project and work placement, I came back to society.”

I did not want to meet people.
— Alaa Rasool

These two women are not alone. Around 120 women participate in the project each year. Some are sent by the social services department or the Swedish employment services, but many also come because they have heard good things from their friends. Each woman spends about 18 months in the project, getting to the place they need to be to enter work or studies.

The ‘why’ method

This project is one part of a wide-ranging effort by Gothenburg to staunch the relatively high drop-out rate of women from the support systems the city has put in place for migrants to integrate into Swedish society. For the local administration, employment is critical to independence, and the idea that migrant women should be missing out on this as a consequence of their gender is unacceptable.

Achieving equity between migrant and local populations and between the genders is a complex task that the city is approaching with various tactics. According to Gitte Caous, Director of the Northeast Social Administration, one simple measure is that the city makes an effort to give family benefits to the wife rather than the husband.

This is not a legally mandated system, but rather one that is managed through the power of suggestion: Rather than simply asking to whom the benefits should be paid, the responsible city employee says, ‘We would like to pay the benefits to the mother. Is that okay?’ A simple nudge like this can have enormous effects.

We would like to pay the benefits to the mother.
— Gitte Caous

Vital skills

Another critical point is ensuring that women are equipped with the required skills to be an empowered member of Swedish society. For example, in Sweden, all doctor’s appointments are made online; therefore, digital skills are vital if equality is to be achieved. At the civic integration centre, Steve Mahoney, Teacher and Method Developer at the Civic Orientation Course, explains, digital and parental skills are taught alongside courses that centre on Swedish values.

Ensuring equality

The emphasis in these integration courses, which last 60 hours and are taught in a number of popular worldwide languages, is not in didactically telling the students how they should think, feel or behave. Rather, the idea, Mahoney says, is to embrace the ‘why method.’

This means helping students understand the local historical, social and political context in which existing values sprung up. Rather than saying that any particular practice is right or wrong, the instructors work with students to question why the majority of Swedes act and think in the ways that they do. The environment is structured to allow participants to freely express their own opinions about these values and by exploring everyday situations relevant to gender equality.

For Nasro Hussein, the course has had a big impact on the way she views the world: “In my home country, there is an expectation that women should stay at home and nothing else. But now, I see women in the workplace taking active part in society. So I feel that I can do something as well. It is because we talked about this in the class, and it has given me new thoughts on how women can work and act in society.”

My husband and I now share the work with our children.
— Nasro Hussein

Hussein credits the course changing the way her household is organised: “During the course, I have understood how I can be part of different parts of society. For example, at home, my husband and I now share the work with our children. But also the economic part: I have understood that I can be self-sufficient.”

It’s about trust

Now our EU funded CONNECTION project is giving other cities the chance to learn from Gothenburg on gender and migrant integration and to share their own insights. Utrecht, Warsaw, Leipzig and Pesaro came together with Gothenburg last month to share ideas on this topic. What surfaced as key for all these cities was the importance of bringing migrant women into migrant integration, not just as objects of integration but as actors, both through a co-design approach to programmes and projects and through recruitment as tutors or ambassadors.

As well as this, all of the cities saw creating and leveraging trust as essential. For example, giving doctors who are in regular content with migrant women information to pass on to them about other services that are available is a good way to reach them, as is the placement of less trusted services like employment centres in trusted places like children’s centres.

No quick fix

Despite ingenuitive approaches like this, it remains the case that statistically, it takes ten years for newly arrived women to enter the labour market, whereas the time for men is five years. And the future is not necessarily bright: New laws are coming into effect on the national level in Sweden that some fear will make integration more challenging. Nevertheless, on the local level, people like Mahoney are doing their best to ensure a cohesive society.

“It is not like hypnotism, where we can get a quick fix, click our fingers and everyone will awaken and embrace the system,” says Mahony, “We, in civics, must continue to engage on an individual level with students, encourage them to embrace integration and see the positive possibilities, both for themselves and their children.”

Anthony Colclough Eurocities Writer