Åsa Lindhagen took a master’s degree in engineering at Linköping University. Now, 10 years later, she has been appointed minister for gender equality. The advice she gives to today’s students: “Sit down occasionally and reflect. Think about how you can contribute to society.”
Your area as minister for gender equality is extremely broad, and you have a particular responsibility to combat discrimination and segregation. What do you see as the highest priority?
Combatting violence in close relationships and honour-related violence. Another area is equal pay for equal work: there are still unexplained differences between men’s and women’s salaries. Well, of course, there are many things that should be given priority. Sexual harassment is another central issue, as is the way in which unpaid work in the home is distributed. I also want to put the spotlight onto children’s rights, and giving children a positive environment to grow up in.
You studied for a master’s degree in industrial engineering and management at LiU, graduating in 2008. Do you have any special memories from your time here?
Oh yes – many! It was a great time, and I have a strong connection with my alma mater. What comes to mind most readily are all the opportunities that the university gave us. Studying was hard work, but we had the chance to get involved with other things, if we wanted to. I was chair of the LinTek student union for a year, for students of the technical faculty, and was a member of the vice-chancellor’s management group. Those of us who got involved had to take a lot of responsibility, we could work with, for example, the careers fair and the quality of the education. Well, we had a load of important and demanding tasks, despite our limited experience.
Have your studies in industrial engineering and management helped you in your political career?
Indeed. The ability to think logically, for example, to solve problems and to structure information. This is what politics is about a lot of the time – identifying the problems and finding solutions.
You took a master’s in engineering, but as the years have passed you have got involved with broad questions of welfare. You are, for example, chair of the board for Save the Children Sweden, were commissioner of social services in Stockholm, and are now minister for gender equality from the Green Party. Are you surprised about the way your professional life has developed?
I don’t see any discrepancy between my education and what I do today. The master’s in engineering is a platform to build on, and it opens many professional pathways. I’ve been deeply committed to social issues since I was very young: I want to do what I can and help others succeed. I’ve got a lot to be grateful for myself, having grown up in a welfare state with much liberty and free education is, for example, not something that can be taken for granted.
What are your driving forces?
I have never had a clear plan for how I wanted my professional life to progress, but have tended to follow my intuition. I have never accepted a job because it would look good on my CV, but because I thought it would be interesting to get involved and take responsibility. I must say, however, that I never expected to end up where I am today.
As councillor of social services, you were the target of criticism concerning support services for prostitutes in Stockholm. Are you prepared for public criticism in your role as minister?
As a public figure, you have to accept that you will be criticised. In the particular case you mention, I am convinced that we took the right decision, but sometimes, of course, we make mistakes. Open criticism is fundamentally positive – the ability for people to make their voices heard and for the media to examine decisions. This is a pillar of democratic society, and something that we must protect.
As minister you have power. How do you deal with that?
Well, I take responsibility as minister to do what I can to make a real difference. I want to use the opportunity I have to achieve something. This means that I feel under pressure, but I should be under pressure. The more power you have, the more responsibility is laid on you to achieve as much as possible.
Is there anything you want to say to students at LiU today?
That they should try to have as much fun as possible while they study. Don’t give up in the face of adversity. I know how it can feel, and I had to wrestle with studying sometimes. But all people choose a course based on their internal compass. I would also ask them to sit down and reflect. We have a strong welfare system and free education. I would ask them to consider how they can contribute to making Sweden stronger: “How can I give something back?”
Translation: George Farrants