In 1974, Sweden became the first country in the world to replace “maternity leave” with “parental leave,” a small change of words that laid the groundwork to make a world of difference for working mothers in Sweden. In 1995, a new law allocated one month of the 12-month parental leave, solely to fathers. The politician responsible for the law had a very specific goal in mind:
“I always thought if we made it easier for women to work, families would eventually choose a more equal division of parental leave by themselves. But I gradually became convinced that there wasn’t all that much choice… Society is a mirror of the family. The only way to achieve equality in society is to achieve equality in the home. Getting fathers to share the parental leave is an essential part of that.”
With the new law, it was still optional for fathers to take parental leave. However, the family would lose one month of their paid (at 80% of normal salary) leave from the government if he did not. Almost immediately, the paltry 6% of fathers taking parental leave jumped to 80%, as the financial incentive made it easier to face social obstacles at work.
In 2002, “daddy leave” was expanded to include two nontransferable “dad” months of the now 13 total months, a revision that “only marginally increased the number of men taking leave” but “more than doubled the amount of time they take.” The Social Democrats, vying for a victory in the Swedish elections on September 19th, plan to expand the law yet again, doubling nontransferable leave for each parent to four months.
Currently, 80% of fathers take a third of the 13 months leave. This has had profound impacts for women in the workplace. Prior to the 1995 law, mothers were still overwhelmingly taking the full leave time, “not just for tradition’s sake but because their pay was often lower, thus perpetuating pay differences.” A study by the Swedish Institute of Labor Market Policy Evaluation published evidence in March that “a mother’s future earnings increase on average 7 percent for every month the father takes leave.” Thus, fathers taking responsibility for child care significantly impacts women’s ability to succeed in the workplace.
Moreover, “understanding what it is to be home with a child may help explain why divorce and separation rates in Sweden have dropped since 1995,” even as divorce rates across the world have continually risen. For couples who do divorce, joint custody is becoming more common, an arrangement that, in most cases, benefits the children. Further, work-life balance has become a priority for job-seekers, and “a family-friendly work pattern has simply become a new way of attracting talent.” It seems that there are broader implications for increased quality of life for families who are legally allowed and even institutionally incentivized to share the duties of childcare.
Germany has a similar system in place, with 20% of fathers taking advantage of the benefits of the 2007 law that reserved 2 of the 14 paid, parental leave months for fathers. Iceland allocates 3 months each for both mother and father of its 9 parental leave months. Portugal stands out as the only country to require paternity leave, though only for one week.
When we leave aside gender neutral language, and just look at paid maternity leave internationally, the United States’ current policy seems shocking. Worldwide, 177 countries, including Djibouti, Haiti and Afghanistan, “have laws on the books requiring that all women, and in some cases men, receive both income and job-protected time off after the birth of a child.”
In contrast, the United States’s Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993, guarantees just 12 weeks of unpaid leave for employees. And the gaps in this coverage are astonishing. Many women aren’t covered by the Family and Medical Leave Act, since it doesn’t apply to the more than 50% of workers who work for companies with fewer than 50 employees or who have work fewer than 1,250 hours in the past year. Further, because the leave is unpaid, many parents are financially unable to take time off work. The National Bureau of Economic Research reports that “women who return to work soon after the birth of a child are more likely to get depressed than other mothers,” and “longer maternity leaves are associated with improvements in mothers’ overall health.”
Juxtaposing Swedish and U.S. law sheds a harsh light on the state of our parental leave laws in the United States. Hopefully the recent attention that international policies have received in the American media will raise awareness about the issue and potentially effect change for the better.
(emphasis added in all quotes throughout this post)