A version of this article was previously published on The Huffington Post.
In Norway 97% of fathers take daddy leave. The expectations are high, but is it a panacea for gender equality?
As a feminist family researcher from Norway, doing research on egalitarian men who worked part time and shared paid work and care, I often find myself trying to dissuade other family researchers and policymakers, both at home and abroad, from the high hopes they place in this particular policy measure as a tool of gender equality. This piece is the result of many encounters with daddy quota enthusiasts, and my efforts to bring some evidence and critical perspectives into the discussion.
As the first country in the world, Norway introduced a non transferable paternal quota of parental leave in 1993. It was then four weeks and came with a substantial expansion of parental leave to forty-two weeks. Parental leave is state-paid with full wage compensation up to a fairly high ceiling. In recent years the quota for fathers has been further expanded. It is now twelve weeks of a total of forty-seven. In addition to their share of parental leave, Norwegian fathers are entitled to a two-week paternity leave following the birth of a child. This leave is unpaid, but many are compensated by employers, as part of collective agreements.
Researchers into family and gender equality, as well as many policymakers world-wide, look with envy to Norway and to the other Nordic countries’ family and gender equality policies. Among these 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 career model, and as an important move towards more egalitarian patterns of work and care.
The underlying expectation is that fathers’ leave will have a lasting effect on the sharing of household work within families, thereby allowing women to increase their labour market participation, and leading to men taking a greater responsibility for everyday care in the long term.
The paternity leave is further expected to lead to a redistribution of the “care penalty” in the labour market and to lessening the gender pay gap, based on the idea that men, too, will increasingly be seen by employers as both parents and workers, reducing the discrimination against mothers in the labour market, and/or leading to men being equally discriminated against. In conclusion, the expectations are high as to what paternity leave should achieve in relation to gender equality, both within and outside of the family.
So what is the evidence after almost twenty years of paternal quota? As a policy intervention, the paternal quota has been a spectacular success; within a few years after the introduction of the quota, 85% cent of fathers used their rights. In 2008, 97% of men who were entitled to leave took (some) leave. Some fathers take more than the parental leave reserved for them, and there has been an increase in the number of fathers who take more than the quota, but mothers still take most of the remaining weeks. The share reserved for mothers was increased from six weeks to twelve this year.
With the latest expansion of the father’s quota, partly funded by reserving part of the common parental leave to fathers, the total leave available to mothers is now less than in 1993. The degree of sharing of the remaining parental leave is to a large extent class related, and highly educated fathers take more leave. Many studies content themselves with cross-country comparisons of uptake rates, and in such comparisons Norway is very successful. But measured against the stated aim of the quota, the promotion of more egalitarian patterns of work and care, and a lessening of the gender pay gap, the expectations by far exceed the evidence.
Cultural norms of masculinity have changed in the Nordic countries, and being an involved father, including taking parental leave, has become part of what constitutes a positive masculinity. While these countries stand out in international comparisons as relatively egalitarian, there is little evidence of paternity 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, women still carry out the lion’s share of the more mundane tasks in the home. Swedish researchers have been warning that men’s greater interest in children and the emergence of a child oriented masculinity is not necessarily the result of a dedication to gender equality.
Some studies have found correlations between fathers’ leave and the degree of gender equality in the family, but it is generally acknowledged that these are mainly due to selection effects. Middle class families where both partners work full time and who share an ideal of gender equality tend to share household 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 the introduction of daddy leave led to more equal pay. Rather the opposite, according to the most recent research findings: a large, longitudinal study of the effects of paternal leave at the University of Oslo, recently found that fathers’ leave had had an adverse impact on mothers’ earnings and employment. The study concludes that the introduction of daddy leave has not led to the expected shift in gendered responsibilities of work and care, although the daddy quota was found to slightly reduce men’s future income.
One reason may be that the extension of benefits only to a certain extent modifies behaviour, and although most Norwegian men take parental leave, parents do not always use their entitlements as intended by authorities. In 2009 half of Norwegian mothers stayed at home too, during fathers’ leave Swedish research has shown that the mother does not necessarily go back to work any sooner than she would otherwise have done, when fathers take parental leave. Studies on parents’ care adaptations have found that mandatory sharing of leave conflicted with a working class parents’ family model.
The rapid expansion of the paternal quota since 2009 has not been subject to evaluation, and data are lacking on how people have adapted to the extended quota. Studies carried out for an association of child care centres, however, found that an increasing number of fathers sent their children to daycare while staying at home on paid parental leave, which led to a discussion on abuse of paid parental 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 leisure, such as hunting, were among the reasons fathers gave for sending the child to day-care during his share of parental leave. It is also not uncommon for Norwegian families to spend paternal leave on a prolonged vacation for the whole family in exotic destinations.
Following the last expansions of fathers’ share of parental leave, political controversy over the issue has increased. The conservative parties now want to abolish the quota, while others advocate an even more radical mandatory sharing, reserving even more of parental leave for fathers. Among the Norwegian population, there has been a growing popular resistance against the quota, and in a survey carried out for one of the largest newspapers in the autumn of 2010, 66% said it should be abolished. Since then, a further increase from ten to twelve weeks has been implemented.
Returning to the question: Does daddy leave lead to gender equality? Despite the hopes and expectations of the wonders this policy measure might achieve, both in Norway and by envious on-lookers abroad, the honest answer is: the evidence that it does is weak, and there is also evidence of unintended and adverse effects.
Should other countries stop looking to the Nordic countries as models of gender equality? Not necessarily, but maybe other elements of the Nordic family policies are more important than the conspicuous and highly symbolic daddy leave. There is probably more to learn from the generous, state paid and long parental leave and the provision of state sponsored child care facilities, as well as the ample rights for working parents, such as the right to work reduced hours, paid leave to care for sick children and time off to breastfeed.
Paternity leave might be insignificant compared to the general level of benefits and facilities available to working mothers. Rather, the relative success of the Nordic countries, combining high labour market participation of women with high birth rates, is probably the outcome of fairly universal welfare states, providing the conditions for women to have both work and children.
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, which started with egalitarian marriage laws in the first decades of the 20th century , more than half a century before the rest of the world. In other countries where parental leave is still short or lacking, and/or gender norms are more traditional, the reallocation of leave to fathers might have even larger unintended and negative effects that may outweigh the hoped for effect on gender roles.
However, the major concern should probably not be its possible lack of effects, or fathers’ creative use of parental leave for elk hunting or garage building, but rather its effect as a token policy and a substitute for more substantive gender equality policies involving the redistribution of money, power and privilege.
—Photo credit: sidewalk flying/Flickr