Fathers take on average only 20 percent of the 16 months of paid parental leave offered in Sweden to either mums or dads, according to Statistics Swede—a skimpy average that has sparked a broad debate over how to encourage more fathers to take the paid time off and reduce inequalities in the home.
In most cases it is mothers who invoke their legal right and stay home with the kids.
“You have to ask yourself what it is that pushes most women to stay at home, and one of the reasons is that the person who earns the most is often the one who is going to stay at work,” Sweden’s Gender Equality Minister Nyamko Sabuni told AFP.
Women are over-represented in low-income jobs, such as teachers or nurses, and on average earn 84 percent of the average male salary, according to Statistics Sweden.
Charlotte Northman-Alm and Carl-Johan Alm are parents of two children aged seven and five.
Like many other couples, their professional and financial situation has prevented them from sharing the parental leave equally.
Carl-Johan runs his own architecture firm and was only able to stay home with his kids for 10 days each, both times just after the kids were born.
As a result Charlotte, a schoolteacher whose salary is significantly lower than her husband’s, ended up taking the rest of the parental leave because of economic considerations, even though the couple were aware of how important it is for a father to bond with his child in the early stages of life.
“We were worried about the problems he would encounter, in terms of signing new clients, if he were to go back to work after being absent for a year,” Charlotte said.
Carl-Johan often works from home and enjoys being close at hand as his children grow up, but he admitted that “it would obviously have been more fun to spend more time with them in the beginning.”
Attitudes have also shifted in the past decade or so, making it easier for fathers to take several months off work to care for their children without being met by angry stares from their bosses.
In Sweden it is now a common sight to see daddies pushing strollers on the street, giving babies bottles in crowded cafes or meeting up for playtime in the park with their toddlers.
Paid parental leave is currently 16 months, in addition to 10 paid days off right at the birth. Parents who stay home with their children receive 80 percent of their gross salary, with a ceiling of 307,500 kronor ($50,000) for 2008.
Fathers in the Scandinavian country have been entitled to take paid parental leave since 1974. In 1995 the system was adapted to reserve a month of the leave specifically for fathers, weeks that could not be transferred to the mother. If they did not take their month, they lost it.
In 2002, the system was changed again, and now two months of the leave are reserved for each parent and are non-transferrable. The remaining 12 months can be divided as couples wish—and that is one of the main criticisms of the system in the current debate.
“We can see that the father often transfers his days to the mother,” the ombudsman for gender equality, Anne-Marie Bergström, said.
“It’s a question of values and behavior,” she explained.
One of the most hotly-contested proposals being tossed around in the debate is that of an entirely individualized parental leave, one where each parent must take their days or lose them, without the possibility of transferring them to their partner.
Bergström is in favor of the idea, saying it would promote more equality between men and women.
But Gender Equality Minister Sabuni said that was not the way to go.
“Some say we should legislate, others say introduce quotas … but as a liberal, I want parents to be free to choose how they want to share” their parental leave, she said.
Opponents of an individualized leave often cite fears of a state that interferes with families’ private lives.
And Charlotte agreed.
“I think each person should be able to decide on their own,” she said.
Parental leave is time a mother or father can take off work in order to be with a young child, either paid or unpaid.
Provisions for parental leave vary enormously from country to country, and even where they exist they do not always cover all employees.
Here is the state of play in selected countries:
– European Union (recommended minimum under EU Social Charter): At least three months per employee, available up until a child’s eighth birthday. Payment left to the discretion of member states; partners may each claim the entitlement, but not at the same time.
– Sweden: 16 months on 80 percent of salary, until child reaches eight years old. Can be shared between father and mother, with an incentive specifying at least two months for father. Similar systems exist in the other Nordic countries.
– Germany: 12 months, up until age of three. Paid 67 percent of salary, to a limit of 1,800 euros (2,730 dollars) a month; incentive for fathers to take at least two months.
– France: 12 months, renewable twice up to child’s third birthday. Some parents can claim a basic monthly allowance, currently €536 ($815) per month. No incentive for fathers.
– Britain: Up to 13 weeks of unpaid leave, but no more than four weeks in any given year. No incentive for fathers.
– Switzerland: No parental leave at all.
– Australia: Up to 12 months unpaid, which can be shared between father and mother, but no incentive for fathers.
– Japan: One year, up to child’s first birthday. Available to both mothers and fathers, but generally unpaid and often at discretion of employer. No incentive for fathers.
– United States: A federal law provides for up to 12 weeks a year, unpaid, to look after a newborn child or meet certain other family contingencies. Only applies to firms employing over 50 people, and companies can claim exemptions. Both parents can claim, but no incentive for fathers.
Sources: Council of Europe, OECD, national governments.