During regular business hours on almost any given day you will cross paths with dozens of men strolling the streets of Stockholm with a coffee in one hand, pushing a stroller with the other. While I knew Sweden had one of most generous maternity and paternity leave programs in the world, I had also been led to believe that Canada's program was right up there as well. Yet, I have never witnessed a sea of men pushing strollers back home. So, what's so special about Sweden....?
(Photo from New York Times)
In the 1960's the Swedish labour force faced a shortage of workers. Instead of opening borders to immigrant workers, the Swedish government opted to further incorporate Swedish women into the workforce. Consequently, in 1974 maternity leave was replaced with "parental leave," allowing fathers to take off work for as long as 240 days with government support. The new legislation was a first step, but flawed in its design. It was assumed that more men would take the parental leave, allowing more women to work. While the number of women in the workforce increased slightly, women continued to dominate parental leave. This meant that while more women were working, they were also taking on "double roles" acting as the primary caregiver, and managing a full time career. As the number of women in the workforce increased, Sweden's population growth dropped drastically as women struggled to balance the demands of managing the double roles.
In 1995 the Swedish government attempted to correct the issue, introducing new legislation and an incentive too great for Swedish families to ignore. Now parents are entitled to a combined 480 days of parental leave, which may be shared in almost any way between the couple. Under the 1995 legislation no father was forced to stay home, however, if he chose not to, the family would lose one month of government subsidies. As a result, 8/10 new fathers began to take the leave, consequently taking on caregiver duties, and lessening the burden for working mothers. In 2002 the government introduced a second nontransferable month. In order to receive the government benefits, fathers must take at least two months leave before their child reaches the age of 8. Another interesting feature; parents may use their days however they wish. The leave can be split monthly, weekly, daily, even hourly, and can constantly transfer back and forth between parents.
The state money and flexibility in designing the leave appears to have been the incentive needed to bring about social change. From what I have observed there seems to be little to no negative social stigma attached to paternity leave. Furthermore, a recent study by the Swedish Institute of Labor Market Policy Evaluation found that for every month a father takes leave, a mother's future earnings increase by an average of 7%. And importantly, under the new legislation the Swedish population growth rate increased.
For 13 months, the government will provide up to 80% of a parent's salary, (capped at approximately $65,000), with many Swedish companies offering to pay the difference if an employee's salary is above the government salary cap.
The trend is catching on, and in 2007 Germany created similar legislation, reserving 2 of the 14 months of paid leave exclusively for German fathers. By 2009 the percentage of fathers taking leave was said to have increased from 3-20%.
The power of the parental leave program amazes me. Adjusting Swedish's parental leave has allowed the country to reverse their negative fertility rate, increased women's role in the workforce, and led to a more balanced disbursement of child care duties between parents. And yes, 3/4 of the strollers hold beautiful Swedish babies with blonde hair, blue eyes, and incredibly stylish outfits.