How the "glass ceiling" is affected by a woman as prime minister

On 24 November, the Riksdag (Swedish parliament) appointed Magdalena Andersson Prime Minister making her the first woman in Sweden to be elected to the post. According to research, women who occupy top political positions may improve the conditions for other women who come after, but the so-called glass ceiling still remains.

The text has been updated. Magdalena Andersson requested dismissal from the post of Prime Minister before she would have formally taken office.

ANALYSIS: Sweden's first female prime minister

– When we look at different parts of politics, we see that the number of women gradually decreases higher up in the organisations. The reason is usually referred to as the glass ceiling, which means that despite formal gender equality, there are seemingly invisible obstacles that make it harder for women than men to get ahead in politics. The glass ceiling is not broken just because a woman becomes prime minister, even though it may be a step in the right direction, says Line Säll, senior investigator at the Swedish Gender Equality Agency.

Sweden has had a large proportion of women in government since the 1990s. All but two parliamentary parties today have a woman as party leader. The distribution of which ministerial posts women and men have held does not follow a clear pattern, but Sweden, as the only Nordic country, has never had a woman as prime minister. 

The glass ceiling is not broken just because a woman becomes prime minister, even though it may be a step in the right direction.

 – Several studies indicate that female role models can be important for women's opportunity to become prime minister. In a country that has previously had a woman as head of government, the probability is twice as high that a woman will be re-appointed in the following decade, says Line Säll.

However, a woman as head of government does not have to mean a high proportion of women in the government. According to international studies, female leaders have been shown to be less likely to appoint women ministers than male heads of government. Researchers believe that female heads of government want to live up to male leadership ideals and avoid accusations of favoritism. In Sweden, a norm has been established since the 1990s with about as many women as men in governments. During the 2000s, the government has most often been characterised by a more equal representation than the Riksdag.

The Swedish Gender Equality Agency has compiled research on gender and political leadership. The compilation is part of the agency’s task to monitor and analyse the development of gender equality, where an even distribution of power and influence is one of Sweden's gender equality policy goals.

– Research on gender and political leadership shows two different perspectives on the issue. The first is about the conditions for women and men to reach top political positions and the second is about the conditions for those who hold leading positions. One conclusion is that women pay a higher price for their political involvement than men do. Women both find it more difficult to get to the top and face greater vulnerability once they have reached leading positions, says Line Säll. 

Women are leaders in more unfavorable circumstances

Research with an international perspective shows that when women are appointed political leaders, they tend to do so to a greater extent in more unfavourable circumstances, such as when a party has made a bad choice. It is also more likely that a woman will be appointed party leader in small parties in opposition while men tend to be elected party leaders in large parties in government. There are several signs that female ministers need higher competence to achieve the same positions as their male counterparts. Female political leaders are also exposed to more threats and violence than their male colleagues, research from both Sweden and the USA shows.

Studies show that women need to go through a difficult balancing act to be successful at the top because gender norms create different expectations of women and men. Women are expected to balance leadership qualities traditionally coded as masculine, such as showing ambition and drive, with feminine coded attributes such as being caring and caring. This can create conflicting ideals for women in leading positions to relate to. 

Municipal study shows glass ceiling

At the municipal level, Swedish researchers have analysed whether there is a glass ceiling that prevents women from reaching the top on the same terms as men. Four criteria for a glass ceiling have been developed, all of which must be met in order for it to be meaningful to talk about a glass ceiling: 

  1. There is an unequal representation between the sexes. The unequal representation can not be explained by other factors that are relevant to the work, such as different experiences, formal qualifications or personal interests.

  2. There is an inequality between the sexes that is increasing at higher levels.

  3. There are circumstances that make advancement more difficult for women.

  4. Inequality increases over time during an individual's career.

The largest proportion of politicians in Sweden work at the municipal level. An extensive study of municipal politicians shows that there is a glass ceiling in Sweden that makes it more difficult for women to reach the highest positions. The proportion of women decreases higher up in the hierarchy, and this cannot be explained by other relevant factors such as experience or education. The study also states that women are more disadvantaged the higher up in the hierarchy they come. The gender difference is greatest at the last career stage. Nor can women's under-representation be explained by the lack of women as candidates or the fact that women at lower levels lack relevant qualifications. The study shows that women are disadvantaged in internal career paths, even if it does not necessarily happen consciously.

– Overall, we can conclude that we do not yet have real gender equality in politics. In general, women still face tougher conditions, says Line Säll.

Power and influence

Publication date: 24 November 2021

Last updated: 5 January 2022