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Sweden: Pioneers in gender equality

The film industry has a notoriously strong masculine bias. Gender disparity is entrenched and women continue to face an uphill battle. The number of women in some areas of the industry, particularly technical, has been going backwards and, in most cases, fails to reach the 25% mark. Worryingly, this trend is widespread, apart from a few progressive countries - the shining example being Sweden.

Where other countries have taken tentative steps to accept gender as an issue and bring the problem to the fore, Sweden has taken serious strides and leading the way is Anna Serner, the woman behind achieving Sweden’s 50:50 gender target in record time.

In 2011, when she took over as CEO of the Swedish Film Institute (SFI), she set the film world alight by announcing that Sweden would seek to have gender equal funding in all productions by 2015. The results were unprecedented, making Sweden the first country in the world to hit gender equality.

Explaining her move, Serner said: “We decided to go from talking to acting. We made the target in 2014, a year before expected. Anything less than 50:50 is not unacceptable.” 

The initial government policy aimed for a 40:60 ratio. But Serner demanded more. When she took over, 26% of funded directors were women. Last year even saw a two-fold increase - 50% - in two and a half years.
 


 

How did Sweden pull it off? An action plan was pivotal - a manifesto debunking the most common misconceptions and myths concerning women in film. “For every argument we set up an action. Against the argument that women are less competent in the industry, we set up a website including all female film-related role models. It has had a huge impact and created a lot of awareness.” 

Yet praise for Serner and her policies has been counter-balanced with criticism and intransigence.  Naturally, the greatest obstacles arise from the establishment. 

“Criticisms come from both sides, from both men and women” she insists, adding that a lot of women deny discrimination, falling back on the same arguments that men do to discredit the gender equal agenda.  

Many men - and women, as Serner is quick to point out, feel that the SFI’s focus on gender equality risks compromising on quality. They risk taking their eyes off the ball, so to speak, and credit Sweden’s poor performance in international competitions down to this emphasis on gender equality.  

A valid concern perhaps, but Serner turns the argument on its head: “Without gender equality and without a wide range of voices you don’t reach quality. Working without discrimination allows a wider range of voices to come through which challenge the white male norm.

“The films that are in competition in Cannes and Berlin are 95% male films. So you either challenge them with another film made by a man or you challenge them with something else, different to the expected. But that requires courage.”

Unsurprisingly, Sweden’s revolutionary policies have not proven popular with its neighbours, Finland and Iceland. The two countries support the cause vocally but lack the action that defines the Swedish approach. Denmark, however, has not been very co-operative, “they think we are the crazy ones” Sermer quips, “they give 17% of funding to female directors and they don’t think they have a problem.”

Faced with such antagonism - I asked Serner how she feels: “I am quite alone. There are few women in my position that are willing to be this awkward and difficult, but, I believe, that as a woman and a leader, it is a chance to make a change”.

That change ultimately entails a complete shake-up of Sweden’s film industry, and so far Serner has hit the right buttons to bring this about.