Visitors to Norway often remark on the number of men pushing prams around its streets. This summer, those pram-pushing days are growing longer, and not just because of the endless sun. Fathers of children born on or after July 1 will get 15 weeks non-transferable parental leave, rather than the already-generous 10 previously available.
Norwegian men haven’t always been so doting. Before a four-week, “use-it-or-lose it” paternal quota was introduced in 1993, under 3% of men took paternity leave.
Now, the notion of mandatory paternal leave, sometimes called “the daddy quota,” is catching on in policymaking circles as a way to help women return to the workforce, and encourage fathers to share in caregiving and bonding during a child’s first year. A June European Council draft directive would introduce a minimum paternal leave of 10 days, irrespective of marital status. So could Norway’s experience blaze a trail for the daddy quota overseas?
From gender equality to father-child bonding
Norway’s original rationale for its paternal leave policy was to promote gender equality by encouraging more women to return to the labour force, said Line Anita Schou, from the country’s Directorate of Labour and Welfare.
Before the introduction of a quota, men took very little leave, which disadvantaged women in the workplace —a phenomenon known as “the motherhood penalty”. In 1990, the share of women 15 and older in the workplace stood at just 62.4%.
Today, discussion of the paternal quota is less around leveling the playing field between the sexes at work. Instead, it has shifted to the importance of father-child bonding, and the benefits to children and society when men participate more equally in household and caregiving work.
“It was a policy success,” in that respect, said Margunn Bjørnholt, sociologist and a Research Professor at the Norwegian Centre for Violence and Traumatic Stress Studies (NKVTS) in Oslo, Norway. “Fathers started taking leave, and it has probably had an effect in terms of the cultural norms around parenting… in Norway today, it would be very hard to insist on just being the breadwinner and not caring about the children.”
Under Norway’s current policy, effective as of July, mothers also get 15 weeks of non-transferable leave, plus three weeks before birth. Couples then receive 16 weeks of unallocated leave to share as they see fit. Women take the majority of the shared leave.
Men hew to the quota; women return to work
Studies show that the paternal quota works, as measured by how many men take leave. In the years after the first reform, the share of eligible fathers taking leave soared to over 70% by 1997, up from 2.4% in 1992. And as the amount of non-transferable leave grew, so did the amount of leave taken by fathers.
The reverse is also true: between 2014 and 2018, when a Conservative government reduced the quota of non-transferable leave from 14 weeks to 10, many men subsequently decreased their leave along with it. “What fathers are taking off is following the quota very closely,” said Schou.
Today, about three-quarters of fathers take the exact amount stipulated in the quota, and one in five take a few weeks more than the quota, said Schou, who recently published a study (in Norwegian) on the policy.
The effects of more men at home show up in Norway’s employment data. The gap in labour force participation has narrowed in the past few decades, with 67.3% of working-age women in the labour force, compared to 73.3% of men, figures that were closer to 60% and 80% in the 1980s.
“The retention of women in the labour force has contributed as much to Norway’s national wealth as its sovereign wealth fund”
The Minister of Finance noted in 2012 that 83% of women with small children were working, thanks also to the expansion of child care facilities in recent decades — around the same level as women without children.
This is often seen as too expensive for other countries to replicate. But the Ministry of Finance has calculated that increased tax revenue from the retention of women in the labour force has contributed as much to Norway’s national wealth as the massive sovereign wealth fund built off its oil resources. Former finance minister Sigbjørn Johnsen credits Norway’s array of policies intended to make work and family life compatible for this economic surplus.
Employers support the quota too, and are even pushing to extend it. Rasmus Eiternes Guldvik, a senior advisor for the Confederation of Norwegian Enterprise (NHO), the country’s main business lobby, said the organisation supports a 2017 government proposal to split parental leave evenly between mothers and fathers. As well as promoting gender equality, this would help employers better predict workers’ expected absenteeism, since women still take the majority of the shared leave and are more likely to work part-time.
Women are still the default caregivers
Schou’s research has found that very low-income men are less likely to take leave, as are some immigrants, men with only a basic level of education, and those who were self-employed or working for businesses with fewer than five or fewer employees. A small share of men, around eight or nine percent, take no parental leave at all.
Furthermore, the current policy still leaves women as the default caregiver, because men have to fill out extra paperwork if they want to take more than their allotted quota. As in other countries, men’s typically higher earnings are another key reason fathers are more likely to return back to work after their quota is up.
“Maybe it’s not the work — it’s the gender”
Both Bjørnholt and Schou were quick to point out that parental leave on its own is not enough to get women back to work or ensure a healthy family life, and highlighted Norway’s extensive subsidised child care system, which children are eligible for as soon as they reach their first birthday.
Although Norway consistently ranks near the top of global gender equality indexes, all of these family friendly policies haven’t led to true parity. Norway still maintains a highly gender-segregated workforce, and men still dominate in management. The gender pay gap stood at 13.3% in 2017, a slight improvement from 16.5% in 2000. One recent study found that among high-earners, the gender pay gap expands significantly after the birth of a child.
Bjørnholt’s early research, a longitudinal follow-up study of an experimental qualitative research project in Norway in the 1970s, which involved both spouses working part-time and sharing childcare and household work equally (known as the “work-sharing couples” study), offers a clue as to why. Men suffered virtually no setbacks in their career for investing in their home lives. Instead, their household and parenting labour was viewed by their colleagues and bosses as endowing them with “management skills,” she found.
The persistent unequal labour market outcomes suggest that an egalitarian family policy won’t be enough to dislodge strongly rooted perceptions about the value of women and men’s contributions.
“It has to do with deeply gendered structures of valuation,” said Bjørnholt. “It’s not [clear] that men will be punished in the same way if they do the kind of work that women do, because maybe it’s not the work — it’s the gender.” — Anna Louie Sussman
(Picture credit: Flickr/Daniel Johnston)