EurWORK European Observatory of Working Life

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


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

Swedbank, one of the four largest banks in Sweden, has for a number of years focused on creating equal working conditions for men and women. This is not only a personnel policy but an integrated part of its business development with a customer-orientation, built on recognising the financial needs of both men and women. The most important targets have been changing attitudes and knowledge on gender issues throughout the organisation, promoting more women into management positions and providing both men and women with parental leave without economic and career losses.

Organisational background

Swedbank is one of the four leading banks in Sweden with 9,000 employees, 4.5 million household customers and 250,000 SMEs. It is also one of the largest banking groups in the Nordic area with operations both in Sweden and in the Baltic States. It was founded in 1997 through a merger between two cooperatively-based banks – Föreningsbanken and Sparbanken Sverige.

Swedbank is a market leader in household savings, funds and pensions. In addition, it is the second largest real estate agent and house investment lender in Sweden, and has 25% of the corporate market.

Swedbank is locally based with decentralised decision-making. In Sweden there are about 70 local banks brought together into six geographical regions. Other parts of the organisation are Baltic Banking, Markets, Shared Services and Strategic International Banking.

Most of the 9,000 employees are organised in the Swedish Financing Union. A codetermination agreement was established in 2001 between Swedbank and the local unions. The agreement is based on common concepts of ‘insight, participation and responsibility.’ Union representatives are integrated partners in-decision making, from the management committee at group level to the local banks. Development talks between employees and managers and individual development plans for each employee are part of the agreement. In 2003, Swedbank won the prize as Sweden’s best workplace and in 2004 the bank was declared ‘Competence Company of the year’.

Description of the initiative

Companies are required to abide by the law on equality, which stipulates that there shall be no discrimination based on sex and each company with over ten employees must have an equality plan. A dedicated Equality Ombudsman monitors the law and can take an individual employer to court for breaking the law.

Linked to the codetermination agreement in Swedbank is a joint policy on equality and diversity.The policy is based on using every employee’s potential as well as meeting the customers on an equal basis. Five targets are set out in the policy: more women managers (a target of 40%), more men on parental leave, no wage differences, no discrimination and more diversity.

Swedbank also subsidises employees’ parental leave beyond the public insurance system. Public subsidies for parental leave only cover up to 80% of the salary up to a certain income, causing higher-paid employees (still in male-dominated positions) to lose income when going on parental leave.

The bank started its equality work in the beginning of the 1990s by focusing women and economy as a customer-oriented activity, offering training to women customers. At the same time, an internal training programme was launched for women managers (and managers-to-be). This was built after discovering that women employees who came in second on management appointments lacked networks, knowledge of business economy and banking systems. Equality is now part of all internal management training programmes.

Under Swedbank’s current policy, a joint equality committee was formed, consisting of the HR manager, line managers and union representatives. The committee started the process by gathering information and knowledge on equality. The information led to the conclusion that gender is a social structure. The study also included sexual discrimination and ethnic diversity

In 2004, Swedbank, together with 14 other organisations in Sweden, joined a project called ‘Women to the top’ (W2T). W2T was sponsored by the Equality Ombudsman and funded by the EU. The project is built on mentor/apprenticeships. The purpose of the project is to build knowledge for other women to further their careers and also to promote women to higher positions in every area of the work environment. Swedbank’s CEO took significant responsibility in the project. When the CEO left the company, another top manager, also female, took over.

Swedbank’s equality work is now part of the company’s overall policy. Targets and activities are determined at company and local level in the budget process and in the operational plans. These targets and activities are monitored on a contingency basis – partly through quantitative measures, such as gender distribution among managers, competence development, use of part-time work and parental leave. There are also more qualitative measures, as part of human capital surveys, reflecting opinions on career opportunities for women versus men, discrimination, etc.

On wages, special equality principles are stated, in addition to ‘equal work – equal pay’. There are tools used to discover unequal wages and this is linked to the budget process. Parental leave is regarded as working time and is a component in the wage-setting. Managers have continuing contact with employees on parental leave – in order to keep them updated and to know what to expect when coming back to work.

A goal is also to recruit more men into the local front-offices; however, men tend to move to different bank locations.


Swedbank’s equality work is based on both business oriented goals and on being a fair and socially-oriented employer. One example of how the equality aspect really contributes to business goals was demonstrated when a major customer choose Swedbank because of their personnel and equality policies.

Equality work covers many aspects of the organisation and its personnel policies – from management issues to parental leave.

The process in which the equality programs and activities have developed is maybe the most interesting:

• Starting the process early with the realisation of equality as part of the business idea and establishing a joint committee.

• Exploring the area and building knowledge on the issues.

• Implementing specific programmes (training for women managers) and pursuing more basic issues such as subsidies and measures against wage discrimination, etc.

After many years of work, Swedbank has fully integrated the equality work into the organisation. Equality work has become an area of equal importance to other personnel policies or policies in production or customer relations. These policies are being disseminated by top management. An important aspect is the fact that Swedbank has the most equal Board of Directors of all companies listed on the stock market. Top management has clearly integrated equality. Expectations are placed on management at all levels. Figures on equality are constantly monitored. In general, the policies seem to be supported among middle management but there are still some important attitudes that need to be dealt with. Adopting the policies into the day-to-day operation and knowledge building are the key concepts.

Examples of results over the last six-year period of 1999 to 2005 include: a rise in percentage of women in managerial positions from 31 to 38, a rise in the percentage of men taking parental leave from 36 to 43 and in men taking leave to care for sick children from 28 to 31.

Concluding reflections from both management and union representatives are:

‘The business focus on making money and meeting our customers has been an important base.’

‘The importance of knowledge building and guiding the individual employee through the social structure of gender, thus making it possible to realise competence potentials among all employees.’

‘Seeing equality as an important issue on which managers and employees must focus on a day-to-day basis. At present, problems include a more equal distribution of part-time work, making basic banking work attractive for both men and women and changing women’s attitudes on allowing men to take part in parental leave.’

Exemplary and contextual factors

Swedbank has initiated a long-term and sustainable process to make the organisation more equal. The basis has been business and customer-oriented. In that manner, a number of activities have been launched in a wide number of areas. Special focus has been placed on supporting female managers. Swedbank appears to have been one of the more successful companies in incorporating equality on a day-to-day basis, through constant checking and continuous knowledge-building.

Per Tengblad, AB & ATK Arbetsliv, Stockholm

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