Both mothers and fathers are entitled to paid parental leave in the Nordic countries. In order to promote and facilitate gender equality at home and in the labour market, efforts have been made at the political level to encourage parents to divide the leave time equally. These efforts have yielded results: Nordic fathers take more parental leave than fathers anywhere else in the world.
Parental leave enables working parents to stay home and take care of their young children. Traditionally, mothers have stayed home with their children while their spouses have gone to work. The Nordic countries have seen it as important to enable women to provide financially for themselves and their children. Women’s empowerment and self-sufficiency has been a priority. Men’s involvement in childcare and unpaid work has also been a policy priority, based on the understanding that it is good for children, good for parents and good for society. As such, they have been at the forefront of introducing longer, paid parental leave that can be shared between the parents. Sweden currently offers the longest period of paid parental leave in the Nordic region, 70 weeks per child, and Iceland the shortest, 40 weeks.
At the global level, there is great variation in parents’ right to parental leave. Many OECD countries offer shorter parental leave periods than the Nordic countries, and eleven of the thirty-five OECD member states do not guarantee parents paid leave at all. These include the United States, where national law gives mothers the right to 12 weeks of unpaid leave. Although some states and employers provide more generous protections, the lack of universal paid parental leave makes it complicated for many US parents (and parents from other countries with insufficient leave) to combine work and family life.
The Nordic countries encourage both parents to stay home from work with their young children. In recognition of a gender imbalance in the distribution of parental leave, and with the explicit goal of promoting gender equality both at home and in the workplace, the Nordic countries have taken initiatives to increase the rate of paternity leave through campaigns, organisation and quotas.
Organisation and quotas
In 1974, Sweden became the first country in the world to introduce parental leave that could be split between two parents of a child. Norway followed suit in 1978, Iceland in 1981, Denmark in 1984 and Finland in 1985. However, the initiative had only marginal effects, as mothers continued to take much more parental leave than their male partners.
All Nordic countries except Iceland offer a special paternity leave that fathers can take immediately after the birth of a child to stay home with the newborn baby and the mother. In 1993, Norway took an additional step by earmarking some weeks of the allotted parental leave period for the father – a daddy quota. If the fathers do not use the quota, the family loses the weeks reserved for them. Since then, all Nordic countries have experience with daddy quotas. Research shows that men have responded to the introduction and expansion of the quota by taking more parental leave. The quotas have also influenced people’s thoughts and attitudes regarding paternity leave. The daddy quota, as well as the shareable part of the leave entitlement, can also be used by the other parent in same-sex couples in several Nordic countries.
The Nordic countries promote an equal sharing of parental leave between women and men for several reasons. One reason is fairness, and a belief that mothers and fathers should take equal responsibility for their children, and that children have the right to be with both parents. Gender-equal parenting also contributes towards a more gender-equal participation in the Labour market. The fact that women take more parental leave than men can still affect their careers negatively in too many cases. An extended absence from work may reduce a person’s status and opportunities in the labour market. Thus, when more men take long-term parental leave, the prospects for gender equality in the labour market increase.
Nordic research shows that men who take longer parental leave also take more responsibility at home. They are more involved in the care of their children, have better relationships with them and do more unpaid housework. Importantly the men spend time caring for the child or children alone, after their partner has returned to work. This establishes a more fundamental sense of shared responsibility between parents. Several initiatives have been taken at the political level to encourage parents to share their parental leave more equally, and the efforts have been successful. Over the past 15 years, men’s share of the parental leave has increased in all Nordic countries. Iceland, Norway and Sweden are the OECD countries with the most even distribution of parental leave between men and women. However, the work to reach the goal of equal sharing of parental leave and childcare continues, as mothers in the Nordic region, compared to fathers, still spend much more time tending to their young children.
The rules vary across the countries
The exact design of the national schemes granting the right to paid parental leave varies across the Nordic countries. Iceland is the only country in the world with a parental leave scheme consisting of three parts: three months are reserved for each parent and three months can be divided between the parents as they desire. In Norway, parents are entitled to 49 weeks of paid parental leave with their full salary or 59 weeks with 80 per cent salary. The daddy quota is currently ten weeks, but will increase to 15 weeks from 1st July 2018. In Denmark, parents can take a total of 52 weeks of maternity, paternity and parental leave. The Danish daddy quota was abolished in 2002, at the same time as the parental leave was extended to 32 weeks which can be shared between the parents. At 480 days Sweden has the longest legally granted parental leave period among the Nordic countries. In 2016, earmarked paternity leave was increased to three months. Since 2013, Finnish fathers are entitled to nine weeks of parental leave until the child is two years old – three weeks together with the mother and six weeks reserved for the father which cannot be transferred to the mother.
Level of parental benefits
The Nordic countries have given high priority to the issue of compensation levels and allocate significantly more public funds to parental leave allowances than the OECD average. How much parental leave people take is related to how much compensation they are entitled to. In all Nordic countries, parents are compensated financially for the income they lose during their parental leave. The compensation can be income-related or a fixed amount. The exact level of income-related compensation varies greatly. Norway and Denmark have the highest level of compensation, and Finland the lowest. All Nordic countries except Finland have put a limit on the compensation that can be paid to a parent. There is an apparent correlation between the level of compensation and the amount of parental leave fathers take; fathers in Iceland, Norway and Sweden, where they enjoy among the highest compensation levels, take more parental leave than fathers in other countries. Conversely fathers take the least amount of parental leave in countries like Australia, France and South Korea, where compensation levels reach less than half of pre-leave income. The Nordic countries have given high priority to the issue of compensation levels and spend more tax money on parental leave allowances than the OECD average.
Parental leave, attitudes and level of education
The share of parental leave taken by men varies across the Nordic countries. Iceland tops the list with just over 29 per cent. Sweden follows closely behind with 28 per cent, and in Norway the figure is just over 19 per cent. Finnish and Danish men account for 11 per cent of all parental leave.
So, which men are most likely to utilise their right and go on parental leave? While the earmarked paternity leave is taken up by men in all sectors of the labour market, fathers are more likely to go on longer-term parental leave when both parents have high levels of education, or when the father has lower or the same income as the mother. The same is true when the father works in the public sector and the mother works in the private sector. Self-employed men and men in management positions have a relatively low prevalence of going on long-term parental leave.
Research shows that attitudes to paternity leave are becoming increasingly positive among parents, the general population and the social partners in all Nordic countries. Many differentactors in the labour market are taking initiatives to encourage men to go on parental leave. For example, some employers offer employees more weeks of paternity leave and higher compensation levels than required by law. In Denmark, several trade unions have included the right to paternity leave where the respective employers have agreed to pay fathers their full salaries if they choose to take the weeks of parental leave that are reserved for them in collective agreements. At present, around 75 per cent of Danish workers benefit from a collective agreement with a built-in earmarked paternity leave, and the Norwegian trade unions and employer associations are strongly in favour of an expanded daddy quota.
Families outside the norm
Revising the parental leave schemes to make them more inclusive of non-traditional families is a challenge that remains to be solved across Nordic countries. People in the Nordic countries live in a great variety of family constellations, including lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer (LGBTQ) families and single-parent households. However, for the most part, Nordic family benefits systems are built around the notion of heterosexual, nuclear families, and this can have unintended effects on families that do not conform to this norm.
In Sweden, the system is based on the idea that parents are willing and able to cooperate with each other, which may become problematic if they disagree on important issues. In cases of joint custody, each parent is entitled to half of the parental leave. If one of the parents does not want to take the allotted days of parental leave, the remaining days can be transferred to the other parent, but if the days are not transferred and the daddy quota is left unused, eight months of parental leave are automatically cancelled. This in turn means that the total parental leave taken for a child may not be enough to cover the period until the child starts in childcare, which may in turn affect the single parent financially. In Finland, only fathers who live with the child are entitled to parental leave. Thus, the system is not adapted to parents who do not live together.
Although the Nordic countries have come a long way when it comes to paid parental leave for all new parents, several important challenges remain. The Nordic region wants to invite others to a discussion on how these challenges can be effectively dealt with.
• Involved fatherhood. Although the Nordic countries are moving in the right direction, mothers continue to take much more parental leave than fathers. The right to long and flexible periods of parental leave can become a gender equality trap if only women utilise it. How can men be encouraged to take more parental leave and become more involved in the care of children?
• Care of parents and other family members. The ability of parents to combine parenthood with a career has been a central aspect of the Nordic welfare model. One issue that has not received the same attention is that many adults (women in particular) take on the bulk of caring responsibilities for their ageing parents or other family members, in addition to their own children. What are the implications of this dual care role on women’s participation in the labour market, particularly in the light an ageing populating and increasingly longer life expectancy?
• Make the parental leave equally useful for non-traditional families. People in the Nordic countries live in a great variety of family constellations, including LGBTQ families and single-parent households. What are the unintended effects of current parental leave schemes on families that do not conform to the heterosexual, nuclear norm?