In Norway 97% of fathers take the leave. The expectations are high, but is it a magic remedy for gender equality?
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First published: 09/21/2011
As the first country in the world, Norway introduced a mandatory, non.transferable paternal quota of parental leave in 1993. It was four weeks and came with a substantial expansion of parental leave to a total of 42 weeks with full, state-paid wage compensation. In recent years it has been further expanded, and from the 1st of July it will be 12 weeks of a total of 47 weeks. In addition Norwegian fathers are entitled to two weeks paternity leave in relation to the birth of a child. This leave is unpaid, but the majority are compensated by employers. Many countries look with envy to Norway and to the other Nordic countries, and the paternal quota is by many seen as the most promising policy measure in the pursuit of gender equality based on a dual earner-dual carer model. Earlier this year, the European Women’s lobby submitted its response to the European Commission’s Stakeholder Consultation on possible EU measures in the area of paternity leave, arguing that paternity leave would be an important contribution to moving towards an equal share of care work between parents, to a more equal sharing of paid and unpaid work between women and men, and to the promotion of gender equality.
The underlying idea is that paternity leave will lead to a culture where both men and women are equally considered as carers and actors in the paid economy, and seen as part of consistent legislation and policy measures to achieve this. The underlying expectation is also that fathers on parental leave will have a lasting effect on the sharing of household work within families, as well as lessening the gender pay gap. The argument is that if men are seen as equally encumbered with caring responsibilities, they, too, will be seen by employers as both parents and workers, which is expected to lessen the discrimination against mothers in the labour market. In conclusion, the expectations are high as to what paternity leave should achieve in relation to gender equality.
So what is the evidence after almost twenty years of paternal quota? Firstly, in Norway, the paternal quota has been a huge success; after only a few years, 85% of fathers used their rights and took the mandatory leave. In 2008 97% of men who were entitled to leave took (some) leave. Many studies content themselves with comparisons of uptake rates, and in such comparisons Norway is very successful. But measured against the stated aim of the quota: promoting gender equality among men and women within families, as well as in the labour market, the high expectations are not backed by convincing evidence.
Although the introduction of mandatory parental leave for fathers definitely has changed the cultural norms of masculinity in the Nordic countries, and being an involved father, including taking the paternal quota of parental leave, has become part of what constitutes hegemonic masculinity, this has not translated into more gender equality in general. In international comparisons, the Nordic countries are the most egalitarian countries in the world, but so they have been for a long time. There is no evidence of fathers’ parental leave leading to men taking a more equal share of domestic work. Despite men having embraced an ideal of involved fatherhood and despite sharing child-care more equally, men seem to resist a more egalitarian responsibility for the more mundane tasks in the home. In the Scandinavian countries it is not as ususal as in many other countries to have paid domestic help, although this is changing and the number of au-pairs and paid domestic aid is on the rise. It is widely acknowledged that observed correlations between fathers’ parental leave and the degree of gender equality in the family are mainly due to selection effects rather than causal effects. Middle class families where both partners work full time and who share an ideal of gender equality tend to share child-care and domestic work more equally from the outset, and middle class fathers also take a longer parental leave, but the former is not the effect of the latter. Neither has paternity leave led to more equal pay, as it was expected to. A recent Norwegian study found that rather than reducing the gender pay gap, fathers’ parental leave had an adverse impact on mothers’ earnings and employment.. Swedish research also shows that when fathers take parental leave, the mother does not necessarily go back to work any sooner than she would otherwise. In 2009 half of Norwegian mothers stayed at home while fathers were home on leave Studies on parents’ care adaptations have found that mandatory sharing of leave conflicted with a working class parents’ family model. We do not have more recent evidence of how families have adapted to the substantial increase in mandatory paternal quota of parental leave since 2009. Studies carried out for an association of private child-care-centres, however found that an increasing number of fathers sent their children to daycare while at home during the paternal quota of parental leave, raising the issue of misuse of paternity leave as a state paid benefit, while at the same time taking advantage of state sponsored child-care. House renovation and building projects, as well as fathers going hunting were among the stated reasons for sending the child to childcare during the paternal quota of parental leave. It is also not uncommon for families to spend the mandatory paternal leave on a prolonged vacation in exotic destinations.
Since the last expansions, political controversy over the sharing of parental leave has increased. The two biggest conservative parties now want to abolish the quota altogether, while on the left side an even more radical mandatory sharing is discussed, and some suggest reserving 1/3, or even half of parental leave for fathers . Among the Norwegian population, there has been a rapidly growing popular resistance against the quota, and in a survey carried out for one of the largest newspapers in the autumn 2010, 66% said they wanted it to be abolished. Since then, the current red-green government has passed the last expansion from ten to twelve weeks to be implemented this summer, which might lead to increased resistance from those who find it hard to comply with this model. So the future is difficult to foresee.
Returning to the question: Does fathers’ parental leave lead to gender equality? Despite the hopes and expectations of the wonders this policy measure might achieve, the honest answer is: we do not know, and there is evidence of unintended and adverse effects which may reduce and counteract the effect. So, should other countries stop looking to the Nordic countries as models of gender equality? I think there is another important lesson to be learnt. Rather than the conspicuous and symbolic daddy quota, the generous, state paid and long parental leave, ample rights for working parents, and the provision of state sponsored child-care facilities, are more important in explaining the success of the Nordic countries. The combination of high labour market participation by women and high birth rates is the outcome of fairly universal welfare states providing the conditions for women to have both work and children. The sharing of parental leave might be insignificant compared to the general level of benefits and facilities available to working mothers. Finally, it is often forgotten that the introduction of the paternal quota in the Nordic countries came as a result of a long, path-dependent development towards gender egalitarian norms and practices, starting with egalitarian marriage laws in the first decades on the 1900th , more than half a century before the rest of the world. In countries where parental leave is short and/or gender norms are more traditional, the reallocation of leave to fathers might have unpredicted and negative effects.
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