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The People Behind Sweden’s Mansplaining Hotline

It turns out the Scandinavian nation isn’t as woke as everyone thinks

Swedish men have long been touted as big, strong, and feminist — an early, international version of Matt McGorry and other, more recent woke baes. They are, we’re told, modern Vikings who shoot moose while trading potty-training tips with other dads in an anxiety-free commingling of new masculinity. And Sweden’s self-proclaimed “feminist government’s” work in recent decades to eradicate gender inequality is nothing short of dazzling. Sweden offers generous paid leave for both parents, boasts gender-neutral children’s books, and unlike us, they aren’t afraid of ads showing little boys playing with dolls. “Machos with dinosaur values don’t make the top-10 lists of attractive men in women’s magazines anymore,” the country’s former European affairs minister told The New York Times recently.

So last week when the country’s largest private sector union, Unionen, representing more than 600,000 white-collar Swedish workers, announced it had opened a weeklong hotline that both women and men could call to seek relief from and guidance on mansplaining — the pervasive phenomenon wherein men tell women, usually at great lengths, and always unsolicited, about things they already know — it was perplexing. Given everything listed above, mansplaining should be our problem, not theirs.

Yet, still up for debate seems to be whether mansplaining is a problem at all. Unionen was quickly accused by union members of being sexist for using such a provocative word rather than striving for inclusivity, the International Business Times reported. Some members even threatened to cancel membership. “To achieve change, Unionen believes that it’s important to create awareness about how seemingly small things that we do or say add up to a larger issue,” one spokesperson told the paper.

But such small things still stoke male ire. The Independent combed through the many angry comments on Unionen’s Facebook page to highlight the prevailing sentiment. “How would women react if you used words like ‘old biddy chat’ or ‘female whining’? Equality can’t be won using negative invective, but should be built using mutual respect and partnership,” wrote commenter Daniel Bergman. “Just what we need in society, more polarisation. And people wonder why right-wing populism is on the rise. You. Are. Retarded,” another commenter, Jim Brannlund, wrote.

It probably didn’t help the case for mansplaining that some media coverage (including The Independent) described the hotline as a way for Swedish women to “report” the mansplaining of their colleagues, which imbued the counseling resource, staffed with 20 men and women who are authors, academics and gender experts, with an air of tattling. But that wasn’t the point, Unionen spokeswoman Jennie Zetterstrom says.

“The aim of our campaign is to draw attention to discriminatory behavior and harassment in the workplace,” she tells me by phone. “We want to contribute to awareness, and start a discussion that we hope will be the first step in changing the way we treat each other and talk about each other in the workplace.”

Maybe mansplaining isn’t the most flattering of terms, but any woman can tell you that it’s a real phenomenon— it’s well-documented that men speak more words in general and at greater length than women, and have far more confidence in their grasp on the facts. Most generously, mansplaining could be understood as a well-intended but misguided form of peacocking, wherein a man is simply playing the best cards he believes he has — an impressive mind — in order to curry favor with women.

Yes, anyone can be a know-it-all, and certainly not all instances called out for mansplaining add up. But showing off what you know is quite different than assuming you’re the only person who knows it. In one famous example, author Rebecca Solnit, who coined the term in 2008, describes being told all about a book by a man who was unfazed by the fact that she herself had written it.

But that’s America; what’s Sweden’s excuse?

In that same piece at The New York Times rounding up research on male enthusiasm for droning on, we get a clue that might shed some light on the universality of the issue. One study conducted by Princeton and Brigham Young universities found that women drastically reduce the amount they speak in direct proportion to the number of men in the room, particularly when outnumbered. “Including women is not the same as hearing women,” the researchers wrote in the paper. “Women at the table will attest to finding themselves talked over, cut off, interrupted or forced to politely listen to reams of lengthy speeches.”

In other words, it’s entirely possible that men are too busy patting themselves on the back for letting women in the room to understand that, if they don’t let them get a word in edgewise, the result is mere tokenism.

Gender equality is often thought of in terms of the big stuff: The wage gap, equal political participation, stopping violence against women and ensuring reproductive freedom. But it’s the everyday, mundane sexism — emotional labor, being told to smile or look pretty, being asked to plan all the office birthday parties because you’re just “better at this stuff,” and being talked over most of the time — that can sometimes sting the most, because such gray instances of discrimination are stark reminders of where things still stand in spite of all that’s been accomplished. The last mile is always the hardest.

Zetterstrom says that in Sweden, for all its progress, these little issues of full equality are still hotly contested. “There’s been quite a debate in Sweden about this, and that shows us that it’s an important issue to talk about,” she says. “Some men have been very upset with our campaign, but our aim has never been to point fingers or blame all men, just to bring awareness to the question.”

The hotline took its last call on Friday, and Zetterstrom says they will compile the call logs and determine some way to share publicly what they’ve learned. She says they’ve received hundreds of calls — from both men and women. It’s worth noting that for all the Sturm und Drang over mansplaining, most of the calls they received from women were about garden-variety work sexism that might be better answered by Sheryl Sandberg’s career-advice book, Lean In, than a mansplaining hotline.

One woman caller, for instance, said she felt left out by male colleagues who get drinks and take lunches together without ever including her. She wondered how to bring it up so she could quit missing out. Another said she found it difficult to speak up for herself, particularly when she felt run over by a male colleague. She, too, wondered how she might approach the issue without coming off like “a bitchy feminist.” Another woman was concerned that a male colleague in a similar role did less work but took more credit. She wanted to know who to talk to about it.

And while certainly some men find the term mansplaining threatening, Zetterstrom says many men also called the hotline wanting to know how not to be a mansplainer. “I think that’s pretty nice,” she says. “We tell them to maybe listen a bit more, and ask questions — to start out by being interested in the person instead.” (This flowchart could also come in handy.)

Zetterstrom adds she couldn’t quantify how big a problem mansplaining is in Sweden. “I’m not sure it’s more common here than anywhere else,” she says. “It’s wherever gender inequality can be found.”

The real goal, Zetterstrom explains, is to help women do something about it when it happens: “That makes it easier to make a change or speak up for themselves or another colleague it’s happening to.”

When I ask what her response was to media outlets thinking the hotline might be a joke, given that Sweden always gets ranked ahead of the rest of us on gender equality, Zetterstrom’s tone change implies the question itself —i.e., the idea that they would stop working on the little stuff just because they’d improved so much of the big stuff — was absurd.

“We’ve always been ambitious,” she says. “When it comes to [equality], we have come further than other countries, but we aren’t done. Not at all. Women aren’t paid as much as men for the same area of work. The wage gap is still 90 percent to their 100. The wage gap in the private sector is even worse, less than 90 percent. And while we have parental leave, it’s still where 25 percent of the time the man stays home, and 75 percent the woman. We’ve never had a female prime minister. So we’ve come far, we aren’t there yet. Progress goes very slowly here, too.”