EurWORK European Observatory of Working Life

Folksam, Sweden: Increasing the labour market participation of underrepresented groups – women


Organisation Size: 
Financial services
increasing labour market participation of underrepresented groups

Folksam is a large cooperative insurance company with 3,800 employees and offices throughout Sweden. Folksam is generally considered to be a customer-focused and socially-oriented company. In the light of the gender-aware strategy in their customer relations and capital management policy, Folksam has initiated a number of initiatives (mentor projects, training programmes and pay equality) and measures (parental leave support and part-time work). The present strategy builds on integrating women into the management and auditing system and on continuous training.

Organisational background

Folksam is a mutual cooperative insurance company specialising in insurance, savings and loan products. It insures half of all homes and people in Sweden. Folksam was founded as part of the cooperative and labour movements at the beginning of the twentieth century. A union product on a collective basis is one important part of the business strategy. Folksam manages about 19 billion euros in assets.

Folksam has 3,600 employees, of whom 49% are women and 51% are men. It has about 40 offices in Sweden with its headquarters in the south of Stockholm. The organisation is built on market areas (geographically oriented) and product areas. A majority of the employees are organised in the Union for Insurance and Finance. Other unions are the Union for Commercial Employed and the Confederation of Professional Workers. Total union density is over 90%.

Folksam Life is the part of the group that operates life and pension insurance. Folksam General operates non-life insurances, such as motor vehicles, households, homes and personal accidents. Both parts of the group also own a number of subsidiaries in fund management, facility management, auto services and health companies.

Description of the initiative

Equality in Swedish companies is, to a high degree, dependent on the Equality Act which, apart from banning discrimination, states that every company with over ten employees should produce a plan for equality development in the organisation. Supervising the act is the responsibility of the Equality Ombudsman. The social security system incorporates subsidies for parental leave for 18 months and also the right to part-time work for parents with children up to eight years of age. Childcare is well catered for all over Sweden.

The equality work in Folksam had already started in the 1980s. At that time, it was a part of developing a socially-oriented personnel policy, mainly based on Folksam being a part of the union and labour movement. Seminars on gender issues – attitudes and knowledge from research – were initiated and involved all employees. An early measure was to make it easier for parental leave to be taken. This has been a part of a strategy for a work-life balance in the company. The culture is one of making it easy to combine work and family life – not imposing overtime, not having meetings at night, etc. To this end, many top-level managers function as role models. The company is adding up the public parental leave subsidy (from 80% of the monthly salary with a ceiling) so that the economic losses, independent of wage levels, will be minimised. Folksam has also reduced the regular working time to 37.5 hours a week – the lowest in the business. Every parent also has the right to work part-time until their child is 12 years old (eight by law).

From the 1980s, Folksam has continued their Equality work. One of the major targets has been to increase the number of female managers, especially at higher levels. The target has been set at having no less than 40% of each sex in all managerial positions. Examples of measures are:

  • Taking part in the Women-to-the-top network, a cooperation between companies to link women manager candidates with mentors on a higher hierarchical level (male or female).
  • Integrating gender issues in management training and getting an equal distribution of sexes in training of future managers.
  • Monitoring the gender distribution in the Folksam version of a balanced system.

Other measures include:

  • Wage investigations, securing equal pay for equal work.
  • Information to all managers on the Equality Act and to all managers and employees on the Equality plan.
  • Active recruitment of men in female-dominated customer services as well as women in the male-dominated sales positions.
  • A yearly ‘Equality price’ to units, giving special attention to equality.

Today, Folksam states that equality is part of the business idea, thus providing a better understanding of the diversity of customers.

One concrete example is a project where women in sales (traditionally a male-dominated group) could initiate effective campaigns for self-employed women, or female sales personnel initiating integrated product development on housing (traditionally a female area) and building (traditionally a male area).

Another important gender issue for Folksam is acting as a gender-aware company. Folksam is one of the largest investors in Sweden and, in that capacity, has an impact on stock market listed companies. Folksam takes special interest in having boards of directors of the companies in which they have invested becoming as gender equal as possible. In addition, every year Folksam publishes a list of the percentage of women on the boards of public and publicly-listed companies.

From the inception in the 1980s, with training and seminars increasing awareness, via specific measures and monitoring the Equality work, Folksam now is in its third phase. This phase consists of constantly monitoring what has been achieved so far, and integrating additional monitoring and measures into the management system. Previously, there was an equality committee with management and union representatives. This has been abolished as a part of the integration.

As the Human Resources manager describes it, ‘We have passed the monitoring stage, now it’s a question of attitudes and quality’. The responsible person in the HR department adds, ‘It is an arduous task, demanding patience, but you need to be conscious of the goal all of the time and you cannot relax even if you have reached a 40–60 situation’.


Today, Folksam has been successful in many areas of its Equality work, even if there have been some minor problems. Through long and hard work, supported by gender-positive working conditions and culture, the Equality work permeates all over the organisation.

The adopted strategy that is integrating gender and equality aspects in the day-to-day work, management systems and training seems to be a natural step after a number of specific initiatives. By setting concrete targets, they can be monitored in the management system (balance scorecard) and through the employee surveys. The employee survey includes not only gender questions but also distinguishes between the answers of women and men.

In the latest survey, for example, almost 90% of both women and men considered that they were working in an equal company.

In the monitoring of the equality plan in 2005, a 40 to 60 balance in all positions in the following departments were the goals:

Managers in central and business units, almost a 38 to 62 ratio in market units and department and group managers

Personnel in customer relations (sales and customer services are still being dominated by one sex).

Important aspects of the Folksam work has been its culture and early work on gender issues (since the 1980s) but also specific management and union initiatives and involvement. During the last five to eight years, both the chairman of the FTF union and the HR director of Folksam have been deeply committed to Equality work – influencing both the rank and file members as well as top management. The combined business perspective of mirroring the customers, both on capital management (gender aspects as owner) and on general insurance issues, has been an important driving factor. Important roles are also being played by the gender-positive working conditions (parental leave subsidies, shorter working hours, part-time work for parents, etc.).

Exemplary and contextual factors

Since the 1980s, Folksam has gone through a process towards reaching gender equality in the organisation. The starting point was a combination of cultural factors and customer strategy, both in investment and customer service. Supporting work–life balance, based on a positive culture and supportive measures for parental leave, has been combined with projects and efforts to obtain an internal balance between men and women in all positions. Folksam is now in a phase of constant monitoring, based on a long-term sustainable strategy with short-term targets.

Per Tengblad, AB & ATK Arbetsliv, Stockholm

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