Either a society is equal or it’s not, there is no in-between

When Lars Einar Engström realized he was a sexist his life took a turn. Now he is traveling around the world holding lectures about gender, equal opportunities and sexism. During April, Lars is in Belgrade to tell his own story of how he went from a sexist to a feminist, and Scandinavian Corner had the pleasure to sit down with him for a chat about his views on gender equality, today’s work market and how we as individuals can make a change.

larsLars at our library together with Scandinavian Corner's Lena Maričić

Tell us shortly about your background and how you came to write you first book “A sexist’s confessions”:

Ten years ago I was working as a leadership consultant for a Swedish insurance company and found out that they had a lot of problems with sexual harassments in the workplace. When the company asked me if I could help them deal with these issues, my first reaction was “Sexual harassments?! In year 2004?! In Sweden?!” I soon learned that this was not a single incident. There were a lot of companies in Sweden dealing with the same problems.

I started interviewing 40 women from different sectors about their experiences of sexual harassments and discrimination against women on the work market. They told me all kinds of stories and I couldn’t believe that I had never noticed these problems before. At the same time there was a lot of stories in the media about sexual harassment cases in other big Swedish companies. So I decided to write a book about it, “A sexist’s confessions”. I choose to call myself a sexist as I didn’t want to point the finger at other men and put the blame on them. I felt it was better that I told the story from my own experiences. The book became a huge sensation. I got invited to radio, newspapers, TV and to seminars. The book was translated to English, Danish and Icelandic and I soon started holding lecture on sexism and equality.

You said in an old interview from 2009 that ”Everyone is driven by something, I’m driven by my bad conscious”. Is it still your bad conscience that motivates you?

When I was working with recruitment I knowingly selected men over women all the time. We are talking about hundreds, maybe thousand of women. And the reason why I did that is still present in today’s Sweden. Here is the situation: You have a man and a woman in their 30’s without children. You choose the man in front of the woman because you think: ‘She could become pregnant tomorrow and be away from work for 18 months” The same goes if both the man and woman already have children. Again you select the man because statistics show that women are the ones mostly staying home when the kids are sick. In Sweden the women stay home with the children in 80% of the cases.

So do I have a bad conscious today? Well it is still there, but I feel that I have done a lot of things the last couple of years to make up for it.

You have held presentations and seminars in many different countries, from UK and USA to Lithuania, Russia and Poland. Do you see a big difference in how your message is received and how people react to it?

You can see differences depending on what part of a country you are in. There is a big difference between holding a lecture in Stockholm and Skellefteå (a small city in Northern Sweden), or on Manhattan and in Atlanta in the US. The societies on the countryside are still much more macho.

The interesting thing is that no matter what country or part of a country I go to, the main questions and problems are still the same: Women are seen as less valuable, they have lower salaries and women usually don’t make it to the top level of a company.
Even in big companies like ISS, a global cleaning company, with half a million employees worldwide where 80% of their employees are women, all the bosses are men. And the case is the same in companies and organizations everywhere.

Do you see any difference in how men and women react to your seminars and books?

Yes definitely. Women recognize and agree with what I’m talking about. Men can also recognize the situations, but they tend to be more defensive. I often hear things like ”I have never done anything like that. I have never hit or raped a woman” and men often feel that I am generalizing all men when I say that men harass women. Of course it is true that most men never have raped a woman. But there are still enough men that hit or rape women that it becomes a relevant topic. And the problem is that most men keep quiet. We think it’s terrible but we don’t know how to bring it up or talk about it.

I have read some of your blog posts on the IHM’s website and I have noticed that you use a lot of humor, sarcasm and self-irony in your writing. Do you think that humor is a good tool to get through with a serious topic? Is it a conscience choice from your side to use humor and self-irony?

Yes it’s a conscious choice. I usually start my lectures by saying that I’m an ironic guy, but people don’t always get it. I can say things like “As we all know, men are much smarter than women” and the audience is just staring at me in silence. It’s first when I tell them that it is a joke that people start laughing.

I like to mix humor with serious topics. I think it’s easier for people to remember it in that way, compared to if you just state facts and statistics.

Do you think the fact that you are a middle age, white man makes it easier for you to be taken serious when talking about sexism, compared to if you for example were a woman, black or younger?

Definitely. I think the main reason why I have gotten invited to do this many lectures is exactly because of that reason and because I have been a board member and worked a lot internationally. Thanks to my experience I can take examples from real life. If I didn’t have that, a lot of men would probably dismiss what I was saying by claiming that it is not true. If I had been a scientist without any experience from these working environments or a woman I think it would have been much harder.

I can say things like “Well, you guys know how we men talk in the sauna”, which a woman can’t, because she haven’t had a chance to be part of these groups.

Do you think that we will have a chance to experience an equal society during our lifetime? That men and women will have the equal salaries for the same job and that there will be 50% women on the boards of big companies?

It can only be achieved through legislation and affirmative actions. Every success that we have had in the struggle for equality has been reached by implementing new laws, and by women. The men have never dealt with these questions. I usually tell people that Sweden became a democracy first in 1919, because that’s when women got the right to vote. It’s not that long time ago.

When it comes to getting more women on the boards, we need affirmative actions. On the other hand affirmative actions is a sensitive topic, because of course competence should be the first thing we look at rather than the sex. But something needs to be done because the change is going so slow. Every time we see an increase in the number of female board members in Sweden, it has been because the government has threatened with affirmative actions. Then you ask yourself, how come they find all these competent women all of a sudden? Where were they a week ago?

The problem now in Sweden and in many other countries as well, is that we have a lot of other problems that needs to be addressed. The situation in the world is very turbulent at the moment and in Sweden we have the refugee situation, housing shortage and unemployment among young people to deal with. The question of equality gets put on hold with the argument that “we have already achieved a lot, so you women have to wait a while”. So no, I will not have a chance to witness an equal society. Perhaps my grand children will.

Who do you think needs to be the driving force to change society? Is it women, men or do both groups carry equal responsibility?

Of course both men and women should take the same responsibility, but it’s not that simple. The women cannot do it alone. Men are the ones that hold the power in most societies today and it is the one in power that can change the conditions. But as I mentioned before women have been the driving force behind all the positive changes that we have had up until today.

However we do see more men that are engaging in this questions, at least if you look at the Scandinavian countries. In Norway they have already introduced affirmative actions and a lot of other countries are following. Angela Merkel is pushing for it in Germany, some parts of Belgium already have it and Spain is thinking of introducing it.

It is important too see more women in power to create role models. It’s important for women to see that it is possible. It is interesting that Sweden never have had a female prime minister. Finland and Iceland had a female president, Norway had a female prime minister, Denmark has a female prime minister. But we still have not had one in Sweden. I sometimes feel that Sweden receives more credit for our equality achievements than we perhaps deserve. Sure, Sweden has reached far when it comes to equality, but that doesn’t really matter. Either a society is equal or it’s not, there is no in-between.

You have said that a lot of your sexism and view of man’s role in society and in the family comes from your childhood and upbringing. Are you raising your children differently today?

I do now, but I didn’t in the beginning. I think I was pretty traditional then. I bought dresses and dolls for my daughter, and Heeman for my son. In fact, I wasn’t very present when my children were young. We were living in Paris at the time and I was travelling 150 days per year. I was a ‘weekend’ dad. My children have turned into two great people, and the biggest reason for that is their mother. But I think that I have had a greater impact on them later in life, from when they became teenagers until now.

But if I would have small childrentoday and be 30 years younger, I probably would have raised them differently.

You are currently writing a book about sexism, racism and gender equality in Europe. Tell us more about it:

I’m writing it together with a woman in Denmark and we are looking at Scandinavia and Europe to see what the basic problem and common questions are when it comes to sexism, racism and gender equality. It will hopefully be released in the fall this year.

Finally, what will you talk about on your seminars in Belgrade on Saturday and in Novi Sad on Tuesday?

Well, I will start by explaining what a sexist is and how and why you become one. I will talk about feminism and why it is not something dangerous and bring up why women don’t get the same opportunities as men and what men are afraid of when it comes to equality. I will also discuss gender structures and how we can deal with these issues, no matter who we are or what our position is.

Lars will hold two lectures in Serbia:
-          Belgrade, 25th of April at 11.00, Centar za kulturnu dekontaminaciju, Birčaninova 21.
-          Novi sad, 28th of april at 19.00, Omladinski centar CK13, Vojvode Bojovića 13.

The lectures are organized by Krokodil (Književno Regionalno Okupljanje Koje Otklanja Dosadu I Letargiju).

More on Lars:
Lars Einar Engström is a trained psychologist, writer and lecturer and a senior partner with the Swedish consultant company Edcolby AB. He has written four books, two of which have been translated into English, Confessions of a Sexist (2008) and Your Career in Your Hands (2011). Lars writes an online column for the Swedish business school IHM (www.ihm.se) and for newspapers throughout Scandinavia. Lars has lectured in Sweden, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, UK, Lithuania, Australia and the United States on topics including equal opportunities, gender and leadership, as well as organizational development. He has lived and worked in Paris and London.


The project ‘Nordic Reading Corner’ is financially supported by The Royal Norwegian Embassy in Belgrade www.norveska.org.rs