Increased Parental Choice Can Lead to Reduced Gender Equality

Next year the Swedish Government will carry out two family policy reforms which some researchers regard as contradictory. With a so-called gender equality bonus the Government aims at getting more fathers to stay at home with their children. The introduction of a home care allowance might on the other hand result in mothers staying at home even longer than they do now. This is shown by research in the other Nordic countries.

There has been a heated debate on the shaping of family policy and its influence on gender equality in Sweden since the centre-right Government presented its plans for a family policy programme in the early autumn. The Government aims at introducing the first half of its four-part model on 1 July 2008; this includes a home care allowance as an alternative to public day-care, and a gender equality bonus. The two remaining parts of the programme, childcare vouchers and an increased pedagogical element in day-care, will be implemented later during the Government’s term of office. Some researchers have criticised aspects of the programme. It is the home care allowance that is the red rag to many. The Government, for its part, thinks that Sweden will now implement a truly modern family policy.

The Government’s point of departure is that families vary, have different needs and wishes, and should therefore be offered more flexibility and more opportunities to choose how they organise their family and working life. The home care allowance is thought to increase the parental choice, while the gender equality bonus is meant to encourage families to make their free choices in an equal manner. Thus the focus is on the family as a whole, but also on the individual choices each parent should be able to make.

According to the proposal, each local government authority that wishes to do so can introduce the home care allowance. Parents with children aged 1–3 years can be granted an allowance which is reduced, depending on how much other subsidised public childcare the family chooses to use. The allowance may amount to a nontaxable maximum of 3,000 SEK (323 Euro) per month and is fully compatible with working outside the home. This means that the allowance can be used to, for example, employ a nanny or an au pair.

The gender equality bonus is intended as an incentive for families to share the parental leave equally. If the parental leave is shared equally, the family receives a full gender equality bonus, which means a non-taxable income of 3,000 SEK per month. The purpose is to increase the families’ financial opportunities to share the parental leave equally. Not all details pertaining to the home care allowance and the gender equality bonus have yet been settled, but are to be finalised before the Government’s proposal is presented to Parliament.

The home care allowance – a controversial story

Contrary to the gender equality bonus, the home care allowance is a model that has already been tried in all the Nordic countries, including Sweden. In 1993, the centre-right Government introduced a home care allowance, which, after the election the following year, was abolished by the new Social Democrat Government. As in Sweden, the allowances in the other Nordic countries have always been introduced by right-wing and centre-liberal governments.

The arguments for a home care allowance are mainly based on the parents’ opportunities to freely choose between staying at home with their children and using public or private day-care. Advocates have also emphasised that it gives parents the opportunity to spend more time with their children. The home care allowance has further been defended as valuing the unpaid work women do at home and contributing to making women who do not work outside the home equal to their working husbands and to working women.

The home care allowance has not aimed at motivating the parent who participates less in the care of the children, that is, usually the father, to stay at home. This is the main point on which opinions diverge. The greatest conflict centres on the issue of whether a “salary” should be paid to those working at home or whether the aim should be that both parents work outside the home and society offers public day-care and better support for parents on the labour market. This is not at all a new debate, but one that was already topical in the 1970s within the West-European women’s movement.

Freedom of choice before gender equality

The home care allowance has been a constant controversial issue among Nordic feminists. The ideological principle behind the allowance marks a breech of the established Nordic strategy to focus on women as citizens working outside the home, and this naturally arouses criticism. It is claimed that the responsibility for the financial allocation is moved to the kitchen tables in the homes and that the financial independence of the parties in the household is reduced. From an international perspective it can be noted that childcare in the home is seldom supported by state allowances except by means of tax reductions.

While advocates emphasise an increased freedom of choice, opponents think the home care allowance is a trap for women. It would be easy to talk about freedom of choice in a fully equal society. The question many pose is whether there is a real freedom of choice as long as we do not have real gender equality. In Norway and Finland, more than 9 out of 10 parents who stay at home with the aid of the home care allowance are women. This of course influences women’s position on the labour market, as the Swedish Social Democrats have been quick to point out. Family policy must also include a labour aspect, the Social Democrats noted in a parliamentary proposal in October 2007. Even if the home care allowance is theoretically gender neutral, in practice it is gendered, and reproduces the traditional division of work into work outside the home and in the home. But when gender equality is set against the parents’ freedom of choice, gender equality seems to be the losing party in the Nordic countries today, according to critical scholarly voices.

Other warning fingers that the opponents raise are the possible regional differences that the home care allowances granted by local governments might lead to in Sweden. 109 out of Sweden’s 290 municipalities plan to introduce a home care allowance next year, according to a survey conducted by the Aktuellt news programme on Swedish public service TV. Most municipalities in favour of the allowance are governed by right-wing parties while those governed by left-wing parties say no to the home care allowance. The optional allowance can thus be regarded as a weakening of the universality principles which are typical for the Nordic welfare states.

Only for the rich or only for the poor?

“No family with children can live on 2,000–3,000 SEK a month. This is of course only intended for those who already have a lot of money. This is absolutely not anything for a single parent”, says previous Social Democratic Minister for Social Affairs Berit Andnor in an interview on Radio Sweden. The current Minister for Gender Equality, Nyamko Sabuni from the Liberal Party, thinks that the home care allowance of 3,000 SEK will not keep anybody at home who had not already previously planned to do so. “But it is a signal that we support those who choose to stay at home”, she said at a press conference in connection with the introduction of the home care allowance and the gender equality bonus.

The Swedish Government admits that the opportunities for, for example, single parents to make use of the home care allowance are limited, but thinks that the positive aspects of the allowance, after all, outweigh the negative ones. The home care allowance is thus not something one can live on, but is based on the idea that the recipient of the allowance is supported by a partner. Experiences in Finland and Norway, on the other hand, indicate that a new class distinction can appear between a middle class which prefers public day-care and low-income earners with a minimal education who choose the home care allowance. In Finland, the home care allowance is mostly used by low-income earners. The Norwegian political left has pointed out the unfortunate fact that the allowance, in Norway called cash-for-care benefit, obstructs the integration of both women and their children, as immigrant mothers are the most frequent users of the allowance. 78 per cent of 1–2-year-old children in immigrant families were cared for in the home in 2004, compared to the national average of 62 per cent the same year (Daugstad 2006).

Will the gender equality bonus have any effect?

When a home care allowance was introduced in Finland in 1985, a law on the subjective right to day-care for children under 3 years of age was passed at the same time. This was a political compromise to satisfy both the right and the left. In Sweden, the home care allowance is now combined with a gender equality bonus. In the ensuing debate the bonus has played a minor role and been overshadowed by the discussion on the home care allowance. The gender equality bonus is also based on the principle of freedom of choice and is not an extended quota allocation for the parental leave.

The gender equality bonus is so far politically untried and it remains to be seen if it will have a positive effect on a more equal use of parental leave. Other incentives have, however, been tried in Sweden to get fathers to stay at home with their children. An increase of the maximum amount of the parental insurance (that is, that the parent staying at home on parental leave receives a larger compensation for his or her loss of income) has proven to have no significant effect on the tendency of fathers to stay at home with their children.

The study Vägen ur föräldraledigheten (The way out from parental leave) conducted by the Swedish Social Insurance Agency in 2005 shows that changes in the loss of income do not explain the reasons for men’s tendency to use a larger part of the parental leave. For instance, the proportion of men on parental leave is larger among high-income earners, who financially have more to lose, than among men with a low income. For example the sociologist Lisbeth Bekkengen’s study shows that there are many dimensions to the financial arguments. They are used to explain why men do not use parental leave both when they earn most (“we would lose so much of our income”) and when they earn least (“the parental allowance would be too small”). Traditional choices are made regardless of their financial effects. Looking at statistics of fathers who stay at home on parental leave, Iceland is in a class of its own. There, fathers stay at home for an average of 97 days (cf. mothers 183 days). In Iceland a quota allocation of the parental leave was introduced in 2000, meaning that 3 months are allocated to each parent while the parents themselves decide who uses the remaining 3 months. The new law has had a considerable impact on the use of parental leave.

The introduction of a home care allowance in Sweden today using arguments based on the family’s freedom of choice is facilitated by the fact that there are corresponding systems in all the other Nordic countries. But while the principle of freedom of choice has spread in the Nordic countries in the 21st century, there is also the Icelandic example of quota allocation, which has now aroused interest in, for example, Finland (see adjacent article).

By: Jennie Westlund


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Bergman, Solveig (2004): Collective Organizing and Claim Making on Child Care in Norden: Blurring the Boundaries between the Inside and the Outside. In Social Politics. Vol. 11(2), 217–246.

Daugstad, Gunnlaug (2006): Flere innvandrerbarn bruker kontantstøtte. Statistics Norway, Oslo- Kongsvinger. Eklund, Stina & Olsson, Sten (2005): Vägen ur föräldraledigheten. Försäkringskassan Redovisar 2005:7.

Gíslason, Ingólfur V. (2006): Fostering Caring Masculinities (FOCUS) – Icelandic National Report, Centre for Gender Equality, Ministry of Social Affairs.

Ellingsæter, Anne Lise & Leira, Arnlaug (2006) (eds.): Politicising Parenthood in Scandinavia – Gender Relations in Welfare States, The Policy Press, Bristol.

Rantalaiho, Minna (2008): Kvoter, fleksibilitet og valgfrihet: om de indre spenningene i nordisk familiepolitikk”. In Bergman, Solveig (ed.): Familjepolitiska ordningar i Norden – olika modeller och deras konsekvenser för jämställdhet mellan könen. Tema Nord-serien, Nordiska Ministerrådet, Köpenhamn (forthcoming).

Salmi, Minna & Lammi-Taskula, Johanna (2002): Mitä pienten lasten vanhemmat haluavat perhepolitiikalta? Yhteiskuntapolitiikka Vol. 67(6), 578–583.

First published in NIKK magasin 2 2007 © NIKK




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