Nordic family policies – between quotas and freedom of choice

2011-05-10 20 years ago, it was basically only the mother who took parental leave when families in the Nordic countries had a baby – but today the fathers have also entered the field. There are large variations in the division of parental leave between mothers and fathers, however, as is shown by new research. This also explains why Nordic politicians are continually adjusting the legislation in this area.

Prams are being pushed slowly in the park amongst the trees and the benches and the first dog walkers of the day. We are in the Vesterbro district in Copenhagen, which has become very popular among families with children during the last few years. Parents are now pushing their sleeping children in the early morning – and some of them are fathers.




Only a few years ago, the picture was quite different. The latest Ministry of Employment annual analysis (2010) of women and men in the Danish labour market shows that Danish fathers have now started taking more parental leave. Today, the Danish father spends an average of 26 days on parental leave. This is a week more than seven years ago.




“I’ve noticed among my colleagues that it is hip to talk about being a father on parental leave”, said Frank Jensen, Lord Mayor of the City of Copenhagen, to the Danish newspaper Politiken, as statistics from Copenhagen showed this same tendency among the city’s male employees.




And it is not only in Denmark that being a father on parental leave has become ‘hip’. Recently both the BBC and Reuters spread the news that two male ministers in the present Norwegian government were on parental leave from their respective ministries. It is not unusual for Norwegian ministers to take parental leave – including male ministers. But these two ministers have chosen to take very substantial amounts of parental leave. The Minister for Children and Equality, Audun Lysbakken, stays at home for four months with his child, while the Minister for Justice, Knut Storberget, takes a three-month parental leave.




“I miss them. But it cannot be the case that men are more indispensable to the workplace – or the government – than women”, said Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg, when he, the two ministers and their babies met for a photo opportunity at a café in Oslo.


Father quotas a success




The Nordic countries are world-famous for their generous parental leave policies. Parents in other parts of the world cast envious glances at the Nordic model, where recent mothers and fathers receive money for staying at home for a long period with their newborn baby. The record is held by the Danes and the Swedes, who have the right to care for their child at home for over a year, receiving a salary compensation.




The Nordic countries are also famous for combining caring and gender equality. Women have the opportunity to have a career, even if they are mothers. And fathers, as well as mothers, can move from work to child care with financial compensation from the state. But do they actually do so? Who takes parental leave, for how long, and why? These are questions explored by the new Nordic research report Föräldraledighet, omsorgspolitik och jämställdhet i Norden (Parental leave, caring policies and gender equality in the Nordic countries).


The report “Föräldra-ledighet, omsorgspolitik och jämställdhet i Norden” is being translated into English and will be available for download at




The report concludes, not surprisingly, that it is still the Nordic mothers who take out a major portion of the available parental leave when a child is born. However, it also indicates that obvious changes have happened in parental leave patterns over the last three decades. One of these changes is that fathers in the entire Nordic region have now entered the field. Fathers are taking more parental leave. In Iceland, fathers, who 20 years ago registered for zero per cent of parental leave, today take one third. This is explained by the remarkable Icelandic parental leave policy: a 3+3+3 model, where each parent has three months of earmarked leave.




“It is quite obvious that some initiatives work better than others, if the aim is a more equal division of parental leave between the parents. The father quotas in particular have had a reasonably strong impact,” says Ann-Zofie Duvander, family researcher and docent in sociology at Stockholm University, who is one of the writers of the report.




As a consequence of these, fathers in countries with father quotas generally take a larger share of parental leave than fathers in countries that have not earmarked periods of parental leave for men. Nevertheless, the fathers’ use of the parental leave allowances depends on much more than just quotas. The father’s and the mother’s situation on the labour market, their level of education and income also influence the way in which parents in the Nordic countries divide parental leave between them.




The most equal division of the leave is found among parents who both have a high level of education and a high degree of parity at the salary level.




“The most striking aspect was that the pattern seems to be the same in the entire Nordic region: fathers with higher education and a high income take most parental leave, while those fathers who take the least leave are those with a low income and fathers who are not on the labour market”, says Ann-Zofie Duvander.


Situation of the mother important




The report shows that while it is men with a high level of education and a good income that take most parental leave, the situation is the opposite among mothers in the Nordic countries.




Highly educated women with a good income and a high position on the labour market are those who – compared to other mothers – take least parental leave. Whereas those mothers who take most leave are mothers with a low level of education, income and a weaker association to the labour market.




The situation is not clear-cut, however. If you are a mother on a low income in a Nordic country, this does not automatically mean that you stay at home with your child for a long period of time, while the father is working. Since, according to statistics, your situation might also mean that neither of you stay at home for a particularly long time with your child.


Fathers with higher education and a high income take most parental leave. Fathers with a low income and fathers who are not on the labour market take the least leave, says researcher Ann-Zofie Duvander. Photo: Anita Haslie




“The parental leave pattern for women with a low income is divided into two main lines: There are those who take all or most of the parental leave, since unequal salaries in the labour market make it more profitable for the woman to stay at home. But there are also women who very soon return to the labour market, since the family cannot afford that one of the parents stays at home”, Ann-Zofie Duvander explains.




How soon the mothers return to the labour market after their parental leave depends on, among other things, whether they were employed before they took it. For example, the Finnish mothers who take the longest leave are those who did not have permanent employment beforehand. Women who had a job before their child was born will tend to return to work quite soon.




So, the division of parental leave between Nordic parents is also largely dependent on the situation of the mothers. According to Ann-Zofie Duvander it is, nevertheless, difficult to say whether the fathers’ use of parental leave is a direct reflection of the mothers’ use of the leave.




“The data available in the Nordic countries varies greatly; some countries simply don’t have systematic records of the mothers’ use of the parental leave. But we also lack research on the parental leave patterns of mothers. Research has mostly focussed on fathers and parental leave”, she points out.




Or, as it says in the report: “It is not uncommonly taken for granted that the mother will stay at home.”


New reforms introduced




In Sweden it is believed that finances play an important role in determining the ways in which mothers and fathers choose to divide the care of their children. Therefore the government introduced a so-called gender equality bonus in 2008, which was said to be a historical reform, the aim of which was to convince more Swedish fathers to take more parental leave.




The policy gives parents a financial bonus in the form of an extra tax deduction if they divide parental leave more equally between them – in addition to the 60 days which are reserved for each parent. The more equal the parents’ use of the parental leave is, the larger the financial bonus.




However, the policy has not resulted in more Swedish fathers taking more parental leave. And in 2010 the Labour Movement’s Economic Council published a report which contained a crushing criticism of the gender equality bonus, calling it “a waste of money”.




But the Swedish Minister for Social Affairs Göran Högglund, responsible for the policy, rejects the criticism.




“It always takes some time before reforms of this kind take full effect. However, the government has noted that the rules (for the gender equality bonus, editor’s addition) were too complicated. Therefore we’re now working on simplifying it”, says Göran Hägglund.




In Finland, too, politicians are currently adjusting parental leave policies in order to achieve greater gender equality. A committee appointed by the Finnish Minister for Social Affairs and Health, Liisa Hyssälä, is exploring possible ways of reforming the parental leave system of the country. One of the suggestions discussed is a 6+6+6 model, inspired by Iceland. It has clear advantages for both men, women and children, says Johanna Lammi-Taskula, senior researcher at the National Institute for Health and Welfare (THL), who has designed the model together with Dr. Minna Salmi from THL.




“An extended father quota would strengthen the equal division of responsibility between the parents and improve the mothers’ situation on the labour market. If we can achieve a situation where parenthood and child care are no longer associated only with the mother, it might lessen the discrimination against women in the labour market”, she says.




The father’s relationship with his child would be strengthened, which would function as a protection of his parental rights in case his co-habitation with the mother ends. And the children would be at least 1 year old before they are placed in day-care, in contrast with the situation today, where many Finnish children start day-care when they are 9–10 months old.




“Which, according to child psychologists, is the worst possible timing in terms of children’s separation anxiety”, says Johanna Lammi-Taskula.




The main problem, however, is financial. There is a great deal of pressure on public funding at the moment, and the model would, according to Johanna Lammi-Taskula cost the state 50 per cent more than the current parental leave policy.


Shifting focus




In the other Nordic countries there are also lively debates on the parental leave policies. Norway has recently extended the country’s father quota. Denmark has moved in the opposite direction: in 2002 the father quota was abolished and instead parental leave was extended for the sake of the children. This has been the development over the last three decades, during which family policies have become a central part of Nordic welfare policy, since women have entered the labour market. However, the focus of the policies is constantly shifting.




”In the 1970s, the aim was to secure the position of women on the labour market when they also became mothers. That focus then changed into an increased attention on men: they were to have the opportunity to care and take responsibility for their children. Today, the child is in focus”, Ann-Zofie Duvander says.




At the same time, flexibility if the new code word – flexibility in relation to working life.




“All the Nordic countries find that it is important to give the parents a free choice. But most countries have also introduced father quotas. This might seem paradoxical, but it’s the direction in which developments are moving”, she explains.




If the Nordic countries want to continue being at the forefront in the field of welfare, it is essential that they are also able to handle the balance between gender equality and child care in the future, as was stated in the research report: “The achievement of such a balance is a difficult task, not least since the definitions of gender equality and what is in the best interests of the child constantly change – for example, based on the changing needs of working life.”

By Ulrikke Moustgaard


Logotype Nordic Council of Ministers Logotype Swedish Secretariat for Gender Research Logotype University of Gothenburg