In Ukraine, Scandinavian companies are often praised for their ethical and gender-equal way of doing business. However, Scandinavian companies operating in Ukraine may not live up to their gender equal reputation. In a qualitative study of managerial approaches to gender equality, I shed light on equality practices in 10 Scandinavian companies in Kyiv. I focused on the working environment, internal policies and hiring practices. I conducted interviews with 17 Ukrainian and Scandinavian managers in the Kyiv offices. The interviews show that gender equality is considered a given. All the managers support gender equality and anti-discrimination. That is what Scandinavian companies are supposed to do, right? However, the company practices are not exactly gender-equal. Subtle elements of gender inequality are at play, both in the mindsets of the managers and in the company policies. Many managers hold stereotypical views on men and women, a few managers do not believe that structural gender inequality is an issue in Ukraine, and there is far between progressive gender equality policies.
In this article, I will walk you through the (in)equality practices of Scandinavian companies in Ukraine. First, I will discuss how the companies see themselves as relatively gender-equal compared to Ukrainian companies. This is followed by an introduction to the most progressive initiatives of the companies. Thirdly, I will present the companies’ passivity towards gender equality with an emphasis on the denial of inequality as an issue. Finally, I will show how some companies are not equipped to work with anti-discrimination and how the managers hold stereotypical views on men and women.
Orderly conditions, parental leave and relative gender equality
“With us, you have orderly conditions – you have a contract that is respected to the point, you have health insurance that covers up to two children. You don’t have that in the café down the street”.
When I talked to the managers about the working environment in their companies, they would tell me versions of this story. The story of how Scandinavian companies are good to their employees, because they respect the Ukrainian labor regulations, unlike many Ukrainian companies. As they pay taxes, respect the contracts and abstain from illegally firing pregnant women, they make good employers, they argue. On top of this, many of the companies in this study offer health insurance, which is not a requirement for employers in Ukraine. Providing social security for their workers and ensuring decent conditions is impactful and important. No doubt about that! Arguably, being complacent with labor laws is particularly important for female employees, because women are more likely to need employee benefits due to their family responsibilities (Libanova et al., 2016). There is thus a sense of social responsibility in the Scandinavian companies I visited, and it is acted upon. However, the companies seldomly go the extra mile to reach gender equality within the organization.
Let’s take the example of parental leave. The companies all state that maternity leave is handled in accordance with the law, and they guarantee that mothers can have their job back after maternity leave. However, some of the companies do not follow the law completely, because they do not offer their employees to return to the same position after maternity leave. The managers in the Scandinavian companies justify this by pointing to the poor morals of Ukrainian companies. As it is not unusual for Ukrainian companies to fire pregnant women, simply offering women to come back to the workplace after maternity leave is considered high standards. Scandinavian companies thus offer some protection for mothers, but they could and should have higher standards in relation to women's rights in the workplace - regardless of the practices of Ukrainian enterprises.
A few of the managers do not have a clear model for maternity leave. They consider it more of a “case by case situation”, because pregnancies are seldom in companies with mostly male employees. The lack of standard procedures for parental leave that some of the companies express is worrying. Not having procedures for future parents is a subtle way of delegitimizing pregnant women and mothers in the context of business. Many of the managers state that they are open to sending fathers on paternity leave, “if it happens”, but only one of the companies works actively to encourage male employees to take parental leave. There is thus an air of passivity in the way most of the companies work with parental leave. They offer some flexibility when mothers come back from maternity leave and the companies may offer decent parental leave. But still, they are not being as progressive as they could be. They have given up in advance. Paternity leave in Scandinavia may be common, they say, but Ukrainian men are not going to want to do it. I understand the difficulty of encouraging a culture where men take part in domestic responsibilities. However, if no one acts on it, nothing changes.
A few progressive initiatives
Most of the managers in this study think gender equality implies treating everyone the same way, regardless of their gender. In feminist literature, this approach to gender equality is criticized for not considering the unequal starting points of men and women (Chafetz, 2006). Women are structurally disadvantaged in terms of employment and professional advancement in patriarchal, capitalist organizations (Acker, 1990). Women often carry a double burden, because they have to take care of domestic tasks and their paid jobs. Men, on the other hand, have plenty of time to invest in career advancement, and they are seen as more fit for prestigious positions. From this perspective, treating men and women equally is not enough to create equality. Companies have to take it a step further and instate differentiated treatment or affirmative action to level the playing field (Pilcher & Whelehan, 2004). Employee flexibility, gender quotas, financial bonuses, targeted candidate search and work-life balance are all examples of affirmative actions that are proven to be beneficial for female employees and hence equality.
Ideally, the Scandinavian companies in this study would act affirmatively to improve women’s access to their companies. Unfortunately, most of the managers in this study believe that affirmative action results in unfair competition rather than a level playing field. None of the companies in my study considers quotas to be a good tool. It would be unfair and bad for business, they argue. This is a quite common view in the business world. Affirmative action is often seen as “lowering the bar” (Rivera, 2015). However, a few companies have quite progressive practices. To increase women’s presence in the IT-sphere some of the companies actively encourage women to enter the IT-sphere. This is a way of increasing female representation in powerful and well-paid sectors. In one company, the managerial team encourages men to take paternity leave. In another company, a manager explains that “In my opinion, a working mother is doing extra work. Because when she comes from our job, she is still on the job if she has kids”. Equating domestic obligations with paid work shows awareness of the structural disadvantages for mothers in the tension field between family and work, unpaid labor and paid labor. This manager knows that mothers do not simply choose to opt-out of the labor market and work part-time out of preference. They do it out of necessity. To support part-time workers with family-obligations, they provide social benefits and financial compensations.
Some of the companies arrange their working environment in ways that are quite family-friendly, such as work-life balance and flexibility. In a society where family-obligations primarily rest on women, work-life balance initiatives help to level the playing field for men and women, because being able to work overtime seizes to be a competitive advantage. The companies thus have some progressive initiatives in the promotion of gender equality. However, as I will discuss in the next chapter, many of the managers think that gender equality is not really an issue, because being treated the same way is enough.
Denying the double burden
While the companies claim to treat men and women equally, it becomes clear over the course of the interview that the importance of gender equality is debatable for many of the managers. “For me, it is just like, some men would like to be in a top position, and some don't, and it is the same about women”. She thereby does not consider that women may have limited access to top-positions due to family-obligation, gender stereotypes, etc. Instead, she sees gender equality as a matter of equal opportunities. It is thus up to women’s preferences and the free choice whether they want to opt-out or build a career. Similarly, another manager says that from her personal point of view, “in Ukraine, we don't have such a problem regarding making a successful career to women. You see, they are really free to choose the career path they want”. There is thus a lack of awareness of structural gender inequality in the companies.
According to research, the progress in gender equality over the past centuries makes it increasingly difficult to address the inequality that still prevails (Schmitt et al., 2009). For instance, women holding top positions in the labor market are often used as proof that gender equality has been established. These women who excel in their professional careers, these female tokens, become symbols of gender equality, even though women continue to be structurally disadvantaged in the labor market. One of the managers in the study uses herself as a female token of equality, as she describes how women can easily prioritize having a career.
“If you would like to be in the business, you need to organize and arrange in a way to be able to combine your family sphere and business. Because, well, if you are ready for that, and if you would like that, based on my example, I can tell you, there is no issue with that”.
This manager does not see any structural challenges for women to occupy top positions in the labor market. Based on her own experience, organizing one’s time is all that is needed for a woman to have a successful, ambitious career. She supports this argument by pointing out that she has managed to do so. She also mentions other female colleagues with children who are building impressive careers. She thus uses herself and other women as examples of how all women can manage to ‘have it all’ and juggle between family-obligations and work-obligations (Cottom, 2017). Also, the manager presents having a career as a matter of priority. In business organizations, it is a common understanding that women choose to opt-out of their career aspirations because they prefer family obligations. Because they refuse to pay the price of success (Kalev & Deutsch, 2006). This is an example of how female tokenism and choice-terminology comes to hide and undermine the overall, structural issue of gender inequality in the labor market.
In these companies, initiatives against discrimination are often poorly implemented. According to one of the managers, their code of conduct “is a mandatory rule for any and all employees working worldwide”. However, when I ask if the code of conduct looks exactly the same in all countries, he admits that the Ukrainian board makes local adaptions of the global code of conduct.
“It varies, you know. So, for instance, for us discrimination by the nation is not so relevant, because the color of skin doesn't matter at all, because you see, the majority is white. So, for us, it is not as sensitive as for instance for France. But for us, gifts are more important and sensitive”.
In this quote, anti-discrimination is presented as part of the company culture, but it has low priority. Deeming discrimination irrelevant because the majority is white, is the essence of why anti-discriminative policies are important. According to another manager, harassment and discrimination are “not so popular” in Ukraine. She notes that “the problem is when people are not very happy living in a country, they don't think about sexual orientation, racial discrimination, some disabilities, they don't mind - they want to buy food”. She thus points to poverty and unhappiness in Ukraine as the reasons why anti-discrimination is not of a high priority within the company. “We live more in a simple way, still. And we are fine with that”, she adds. But may I ask, who is fine with living in a simple way? Not black people. Not disabled people. Not LGBT+ people.
Only one managerial team presents sexuality as part of their company’s diversity aspirations. Though the managers generally state that it wouldn’t be a problem to have LGBT+ people working in the company, most do not actively encourage LGBT+ people to join them, and some believe that sexuality is a private matter that should not be discussed with colleagues. However, in most companies, they know each other’s heterosexual husbands and wives. One manager explains the company’s approach to diversity like this:
“We work with our managers, explaining to them that it is a modern world. We are a modern company, so we need and want to follow this approach. However, I think that if we take sexuality, I am not sure we are ready for that yet. This is a fact”.
This may be a strike of realism, but all I am struck by is a disappointment. I am disappointed that some of these companies deny the existence of certain minorities. I am disappointed that these companies claim to be anti-discriminative, though they hardly know what anti-discrimination means. I am disappointed that they place the majority, who is “fine” with living in a “simple way”, at the center of attention.
Men are rational, women are emotional
When discussing hiring strategies with the managers, skills are at the center of attention. They emphasize how they always attempt to hire the person with the best qualifications. As expressed by the one manager, “our main goal is to provide high quality, and we hire based on professional qualifications first of all”. This is the approach in all of the companies. Skills first.
However, several of the managers hold very stereotypical views on men’s and women’s skills. Drawing on descriptions from all of the interviews, women are described as emotional, creative, strong, careful, charming, nice, open, beautiful, extroverted, diplomatic and attentive. Men, on the other hand, are described as rational, calm, closed, professional, ambitious, efficient, organized and planned. Eagly and Sczesny (2009) argue that both skill sets are sought-after in most companies. However, stereotypically male traits are prescriptive for management, whereas stereotypically female traits are prescriptive for assisting roles (Eagly & Sczesny, 2009). In line with this, many of the managers argue that women and men bring different qualities to the workplace. Therefore, they think it is important to have both men and women in the workplace. One of the managers expresses it this way:
“We are all the time in the women's collective. And I think there should be harmony in everything, like yin yang, black and white, day and night”.
Women and men are seen as each other’s opposites as well as highly complementary. Like day and night or yin and yang. They complete each other and the result is harmony. Some of the managers explain how women contribute to “a comfortable climate”. Women make male teams less rude and agitated. Some even argue that women make men work better:
“When there are a lot of men working together, it is very useful to have the leverage of women among them, because that makes them a little bit more careful about a lot of things, like details, communication style, etc.”.
Women and their supposedly emotional nature are thus valued in the companies, but they are assigned a very assisting value. Women are useful for making male teams work better. Another manager states that men and women are of “a different nature. It’s an emotional part and a rational part, and it is very nice to have this combination”. These strong stereotypes of male and female qualities make it difficult for managers to judge individuals based on skills alone. The consequences are that men and women are hired - to some extent - on the basis of the qualities that are expected of them as gendered subjects. Such gender biases in hiring practices inhibit the existence of alternative gender identities and maintain gender segregation in the labor market.
In my conversations with some of the female managers, it becomes apparent that they are affected by the idea that men are more professional than women. A manager describes how she sometimes meets resistance because of her gender and has to act in stereotypically masculine ways to gain influence.
“They don't want to see a woman. Yeah, it is exciting, of course, eh? It can be helpful in some cases, to be charming, nice, beautiful. But in the majority of cases, you just need to forget about your gender and be as constructive and efficient as you can - and very professional”
In this quote, the manager describes how she seeks to avoid behaving and communicating like a woman. She describes forgetting about one’s gender as a professional approach to business. She interprets femininity as beauty, charm and a form of sexualized excitement that can be helpful but should be downplayed. Stereotypically female behavior is thus considered unprofessional. Once women act professionally, they are no longer considered women, they are ungendered.
In a few of the companies, the managers do not think of women and men as different. They look at job applicants as individuals. In this company, the managers strive for diversity by staying open:
“We try to choose objectively who is the most competent for the role. Because the working environment in general looks like it does, I think maybe women often tend to be undervalued in the job market, which means that simply by being open and equal, we are more attractive to female employees (…) We get more competent people. If you imagine the opposite, a traditional classical male-dominated management team, we would be limited to a narrower category of people. Based on being more open to everybody, you attract good people.”
In this company, the managerial team expresses no gender stereotypes. They make themselves attractive by showing openness towards different people and by making so-called objective decisions. Of course, it can be argued that it is impossible to ignore gender and look objectively at people. However, it seems to be working quite well. The company engages in affirmative action, has LGBT+ employees, offers work-life balance and has a friendly atmosphere. In fact, they have a more progressive approach to business practices than most companies in Scandinavia.
Being better is not the same as being good enough
Conducting this study, I have seen inspirational, progressive equality practices that seemingly make a difference. I have also seen practices and perceptions that are highly unfortunate for establishing gender equality. Involving managers in processes of change can be a good way to improve gender equality within an organization (Kalev and Deutsch, 2006). The managers in this study all show great willingness to build the best possible company, and they take great pride in being part of a Scandinavian company. However, addressing women’s rights in the Ukrainian labor market requires the managers to understand structural inequality and attain tools to combat it. For instance, by receiving education in gender-sensitive management and structural inequality.
The Scandinavian company roots are used to establish an environment that is inclusive, comfortable, stable and relaxed. Unfortunately, the Scandinavian business identity also comes to conceal the existence of gender inequality within the companies. Even if the companies recognize gender inequality as an issue, they do not think of themselves as part of the problem. That needs to change. The companies genuinely seem to care about their employees, male and female. But they don’t grab the bull by its horns. They don’t take the lead on the gender equality agenda. These companies might be more gender-equal than Ukrainian enterprises. However, being better is not the same as being good enough.
This article is based on the results of my master thesis in Sociology and Gender Studies (Lund University and Taras Shevchenko National University of Kyiv). It is called ‘Overt and Covert Practices of Gender Inequality in Scandinavian Companies in Ukraine’. Would you like to read the full thesis? Click here.
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