Towards a Family Equality Policy? The abandonment of the male bread winner family model

How have welfare policies in the Nordic countries been influenced by developments in the European Union? How have changes in the division of paid and unpaid labour between the sexes influenced welfare and family policy and led to changes in family formation? A team of researchers has analysed trends and changes in employment and family issues in eight northern European countries.

Within the northern European context, there is a clear trend for the “male bread winner“ model being abandoned and replaced with alternative family models where both parents share the responsibility for supporting the family. This is a huge adjustment to make since it is not just about practical issues, but also about a mental and ideological rethinking of gender, dependency and finances as well as regarding childcare and relatives requiring care.


This process of change started many decades ago in the Nordic countries, while in other northern European countries such as Germany, Holland and Britain, real change started in the 1980s and 1990s. The picture that emerges shows the ambivalent attitude of politicians to the situation. The Nordic countries have maintained a high profile with respect to the development of publicly-financed childcare. In Germany, an active effort is being made to develop childcare services. In Britain, there is a 10-year plan for developing publicly-subsidised childcare to make it more economically available. In Holland, all childcare is private and has been planned accordingly, with the state taking no financial responsibility for its development. In all the countries studied mothers are now entitled to paid parental leave, though in a very restricted form in Holland.

Women’s paid work is required


In the comparative study of all five Nordic countries, Germany, Holland and Britain the focus has been on changes during the 1990s up to 2003. This period has been chosen because of a desire to study how the 1990s, which from an economical point of view were a turbulent period, influenced family establishment and employment patterns among mothers and fathers in the countries studied. In all the countries, employment among mothers increased and there was a clear trend towards convergence, i.e. the pattern is becoming more similar in all the countries.


A pervasive feature is the recognition that the gainful employment of women is needed for many reasons, not least for economic growth in Europe. Furthermore, there is an awareness that the combination of an ageing population and low birth rates poses a problem for national economies in the future. It is also increasingly recognised that this problem affects both women and men. For example, in Sweden the trend towards bringing back care for the elderly into the home is quite prominent and it has major consequences for relatives of elderly living nearby (Socialstyrelsen 2006), while childcare services were developed even during the economically difficult years of the 1990s (see also SOU 2005:66).

Strengthening fathers’ rights and responsibilities


Hence, in all countries the focus of family policy has been on mothers’ gainful employment and working conditions. Family policy has been enhanced in the Nordic countries. But there are some conflicting trends. On the one hand, there is a clear effort towards strengthening fathers’ rights and responsibilities as regards care for children. This is exemplified by the introduction of parental leave for fathers (“Father leave” or “father quota”) within the framework of general parent’s social insurance. Father quotas have now been implemented in Sweden, Iceland and Norway. Entitlement to parental leave for fathers now also exists in Britain and Germany, but the financial compensation is low (Germany) or non-existent (Britain).


The effort to strengthen fathers’ responsibility of care is also evident in the framework for how divorces, care issues and care of relatives are administered. Father’s rights have increased and been reinforced, as has fathers’ duty to provide for children they don’t live with regularly after divorce or separation.

Child care allowances


On the other hand another objective is to expand the possibility of taking time off work to look after children in the home (childcare allowance) (See Leira, 2002). In Norway and Finland these rights are in place and they are mostly taken up by mothers. In Sweden, the childcare allowance was abandoned after a short time and Denmark has placed restrictions on extended leave. In Germany, the right to prolonged childcare allowance existed for a long time, but there have been major reductions in the amount of financial compensation. In Holland there is no childcare allowance, but the tax regulations favour a situation where mothers take care of children at home. There is also a lack of general rights to paid parental leave for both mothers and fathers.


Childcare allowance is indeed gender neutral. However, the combination of long leave and low financial compensation does not provide an incentive for men to avail of it. As men tend to have higher incomes the financial loss to the household would be too great. Moreover, long absences from the workplace may entail a risk of losing competitiveness in the job market – a risk men does not want to take. However, staying at home with the children is considered by many to be the best thing for the children, which is due to a complicated mixture of gendered moral rational reaso¬ning and access to acceptable alternatives for childcare (Duncan and Edwards 1999).


However, in all the countries there is increasing political awareness of family policy and the opportunities for mothers to remain active in the labour market after they have had children. This is expressed partly in policies concerning parents’ rights to leave to take care of small children and partly in policies on making childcare available and financially viable for parents in paid employment. Childcare shortages are a recurring problem in all countries. Particularly difficult is the cost of child care, also in the Nordic countries where demands have been made for a maximum cost of child care both to the users and to society. Maximum rates are in place both in Sweden and in Denmark.

The Nordic countries: political responsibility


The Nordic countries stand out by virtue of the fact that childcare is viewed as the clear responsibility and that it has to be of high quality. But children’s developmental opportunities have become an urgent objective in all the countries, and on a rhetorical level this is expressed by that children must be regarded investments for the future. This leads to politicians increasingly emphasising the importance of children receiving early education. The pedagogical aspects of childcare are held up as being particularly important before stressing the childcare aspect. Childcare is carried over to become the responsibility of the Ministry for Education and the objectives are emphasised in terms of educational policy. This may be seen as contrasting with the policy of supporting childcare in the home.


In all the Nordic countries, employment for women has been maintained at a relatively high level, within the international context. Mothers remain in the workplace on a part-time and full-time basis in all of the Nordic countries, but Iceland stands out by having even higher percentages. A characteristic feature of the Nordic countries is that the work intensity for men of “childbearing” age is somewhat lower that for the other countries, which to some extent can be seen as reflecting the fact that men are increasingly making use of their right to parental leave.

Single mothers


A common trend for all the countries is the increasing percentage of single mothers. This trend must be understood in the light of increasing instability of family relations – divorces and separations of cohabiting parents, rather than women choosing to have children without a steady partner. Indeed, the last is also an increasing trend, but it is still very small compared to children born to couples in a relationship. In all countries single mothers endure a strained financial situation, which in part is due to their situation in the labour market and their opportunities for providing for themselves. Women’s wages are generally lower and single mothers find it harder to combine work and family, which is reflected in the fact that they are to a greater extent confined to jobs with less stable conditions (part-time, irregular working hours, low wages). A rising employment rate is particularly noticeable among single mothers.


In all the countries except Norway, the political goal is to get single mothers back to work. The main reason for this is that dependency on allowances among single mothers for prolonged periods reduces their employability and will contribute to their exclusion from the labour market in the long term. The common political opinion is that mothers’ ability to provide must be improved for the sake of the children. The percentage of children living on tight financial margins and in poverty is particularly high among single mothers. Overall, the Nordic countries manage better at keeping children out of poverty than the other countries. Within the Nordic countries, Sweden is the most successful in this respect while Denmark is the least successful. One study shows, however, that measures to improve employment rates must be combined with other financial support and child care (Skevik, 2006).


Differences in demographic patterns


So, can we discern any differences in demographic patterns between the countries? The results of the study show that there is a more individualistic pattern in the Nordic countries. For example, the proportion of unmarried women is higher in the Nordic countries compared with the three other countries and there is a particularly high percentage in Sweden. But the birth rate is also higher and women give birth at a comparatively younger age. The percentage of childless women is lower in the Nordic countries (except Finland).


In this study we have also observed that childbirth is delayed, which is indeed a trend in all the countries. Delayed childbirth is an effect of education, but also of how the system for financing the education is organised. In the Nordic countries, student funding provides the students with economic independence in a radical way, whereas students in the other countries are more dependent on their parents to finance their education. Added to this is the fact that the availability of affordable childcare is significantly more difficult in the other three countries compared to the Nordic countries, where students also have access to childcare. The effect is that more women (and men) delay childbirth until they have completed their studies. More highly-educated women have children and have more children in the Nordic countries compared with the other countries (Björnberg, Eydal and Olafson, 2006). But a general trend in all the countries is that uneducated or less educated women have fewer children. Childlessness among less educated women is unique to the Nordic countries.

A distinctively Nordic pattern


The Nordic countries have been identified, in various studies, as social democratic welfare models (Esping-Andersen 1990; Kautto et al. 2001; Korpi 2000). With respect to family law the Nordic countries have been working together since the early part of the 20th century, which has resulted in considerable similarities in family law and family policy (Therborn, 2004). Our studies show that the similarities have prevailed up to the turn of the century. Thus, there is a distinctive Nordic pattern for institutional conditions affecting demographic characteristics and division of labour between the sexes. The period of 10 to 15 years covered by the study does indeed show considerable differences in economic development in the various countries. In Denmark, Iceland and Norway economic development has been positive while Sweden and Finland underwent an economic crisis during the 1990s. Both those countries are again experiencing positive economic development, but with significantly higher and more persistent unemployment levels than before the crisis. Despite these different conditions the Nordic countries, in general terms, show a separate pattern compared to Germany, Britain and Holland. Out of these three, Germany comes closer to a Nordic approach.


The road to increased equality between the sexes in the Nordic countries as well as the Northern European countries we have studied is rough and uneven. Women have in more respects been able to achieve economic independence, but the psychological and ideological adjustment to the new conditions lags behind. Women, and in particular single mothers, mothers with low education and on low income are inadequately compensated.



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First published in NIKK magasin 3 2006 © NIKK


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