The Female Factor
In Sweden, the Men Can Have It All
Ludde Omholt with his son, Love, in Södermalm, a bohemian and culturally rich 
district in Stockholm. From Swedish capital to the villages south of the Arctic 
Circle, 85 percent of Swedish fathers now take parental leave. More Photos »

Published: June 9, 2010

SPOLAND, SWEDEN - Mikael Karlsson owns a snowmobile, two hunting dogs and five 
guns. In his spare time, this soldier-turned-game warden shoots moose and 
trades potty-training tips with other fathers. Cradling 2-month-old Siri in his 
arms, he can't imagine not taking baby leave. "Everyone does." 

The Female Factor
Twenty-First Century Fathers
In a series of articles, columns and multimedia reports, The International 
Herald Tribune examines where women stand in the early 21st century.

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Daddy Leave in Sweden

  a.. The Father of Sweden's Fathers' Leave (June 10, 2010) 

More Photos » 

>From trendy central Stockholm to this village in the rugged forest south of 
>the Arctic Circle, 85 percent of Swedish fathers take parental leave. Those 
>who don't face questions from family, friends and colleagues. As other 
>countries still tinker with maternity leave and women's rights, Sweden may be 
>a glimpse of the future. 

In this land of Viking lore, men are at the heart of the gender-equality 
debate. The ponytailed center-right finance minister calls himself a feminist, 
ads for cleaning products rarely feature women as homemakers, and preschools 
vet books for gender stereotypes in animal characters. For nearly four decades, 
governments of all political hues have legislated to give women equal rights at 
work - and men equal rights at home. 

Swedish mothers still take more time off with children - almost four times as 
much. And some who thought they wanted their men to help raise baby now find 
themselves coveting more time at home. 

But laws reserving at least two months of the generously paid, 13-month 
parental leave exclusively for fathers - a quota that could well double after 
the September election - have set off profound social change. 

Companies have come to expect employees to take leave irrespective of gender, 
and not to penalize fathers at promotion time. Women's paychecks are benefiting 
and the shift in fathers' roles is perceived as playing a part in lower divorce 
rates and increasing joint custody of children. 

In perhaps the most striking example of social engineering, a new definition of 
masculinity is emerging. 

"Many men no longer want to be identified just by their jobs," said Bengt 
Westerberg, who long opposed quotas but as deputy prime minister phased in a 
first month of paternity leave in 1995. "Many women now expect their husbands 
to take at least some time off with the children." 

Birgitta Ohlsson, European affairs minister, put it this way: "Machos with 
dinosaur values don't make the top-10 lists of attractive men in women's 
magazines anymore." Ms. Ohlsson, who has lobbied European Union governments to 
pay more attention to fathers, is eight months pregnant, and her husband, a law 
professor, will take the leave when their child is born. 

"Now men can have it all - a successful career and being a responsible daddy," 
she added. "It's a new kind of manly. It's more wholesome." 

Back in Spoland, Sofia Karlsson, a police officer and the wife of Mikael 
Karlsson, said she found her husband most attractive "when he is in the forest 
with his rifle over his shoulder and the baby on his back." 

In this new world of the sexes, some women complain that Swedish men are too 
politically correct even to flirt in a bar. And some men admit to occasional 
pangs of insecurity. "I know my wife expects me to take parental leave," said a 
prominent radio journalist who recently took six months off with his third 
child and who preferred to remain anonymous. "But if I was on a lonely island 
with her and Tarzan, I hope she would still pick me." 

In 1974, when Sweden became the first country to replace maternity leave with 
parental leave, the few men who took it were nicknamed "velvet dads." 

Despite government campaigns - one featuring a champion weightlifter with a 
baby perched on his bare biceps - the share of fathers on leave was stalled at 
6 percent when Mr. Westerberg entered government in 1991. 

Sweden had already gone further than many countries have now in relieving 
working mothers: Children had access to highly subsidized preschools from 12 
months and grandparents were offered state-sponsored elderly care. The parent 
on leave got almost a full salary for a year before returning to a guaranteed 
job, and both could work six-hour days until children entered school. Female 
employment rates and birth rates had surged to be among the highest in the 
developed world. 

"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," said 
Mr. Westerberg, 67. "But I gradually became convinced that there wasn't all 
that much choice." 

Sweden, he said, faced a vicious circle. Women continued to take parental leave 
not just for tradition's sake but because their pay was often lower, thus 
perpetuating pay differences. Companies, meanwhile, made clear to men that 
staying home with baby was not compatible with a career. 

"Society is a mirror of the family," Mr. Westerberg said. "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." 

Introducing "daddy leave" in 1995 had an immediate impact. No father was forced 
to stay home, but the family lost one month of subsidies if he did not. Soon 
more than eight in 10 men took leave. The addition of a second nontransferable 
father month in 2002 only marginally increased the number of men taking leave, 
but it more than doubled the amount of time they take. 

Clearly, state money proved an incentive - and a strong argument with reluctant 

Among the self-employed, and in rural and immigrant communities, men are far 
less likely to take leave, said Nalin Pekgul, chairwoman of the Social 
Democratic Party's women's federation. In her Stockholm suburb, with a large 
immigrant population, traditional gender roles remain conspicuously intact. 

But the daddy months have left their mark. A study published by the Swedish 
Institute of Labor Market Policy Evaluation in March showed, for instance, that 
a mother's future earnings increase on average 7 percent for every month the 
father takes leave. 

Among those with university degrees, a growing number of couples split the 
leave evenly; some switch back and forth every few months to avoid one parent 
assuming a dominant role - or being away from jobs too long. The higher women 
rank, the more they resemble men: few male chief executives take parental leave 
- but neither do the few female chief executives. 

Parents may use their 390 days of paid leave however they want up to the 
child's eighth birthday - monthly, weekly, daily and even hourly - a schedule 
that leaves particularly small, private employers scrambling to adapt. 

While Sweden, with nine million people, made a strategic decision to get more 
women into the work force in the booming 1960s, other countries imported more 
immigrant men. As populations in Europe decline and new labor shortages loom, 
countries have studied the Swedish model, said Peter Moss an expert on leave 
policies at the University of London's Institute of Education. 

The United States - with lower taxes and traditional wariness of state meddling 
in family affairs - is not among them.Portugal is the only country where 
paternity leave is mandatory - but only for a week. Iceland has arguably gone 
furthest, reserving three months for father, three months for mother and 
allowing parents to share another three months. 

The trend is, however, no longer limited to small countries. Germany, with 
nearly 82 million people, in 2007 tweaked Sweden's model, reserving two out of 
14 months of paid leave for fathers. Within two years, fathers taking parental 
leave surged from 3 percent to more than 20 percent. 

"That was a marker of pretty significant change," said Kimberly Morgan, 
professor at George Washington University and an expert on parental leave. If 
Germany can do it, she said, "most countries can." 

If the Social Democrats win Sweden's election on Sept. 19, as opinion polls 
predict, they will double the nontransferable leave for each parent to four 
months, said Mona Sahlin, the party leader who would become Sweden's first 
female prime minister. 

Mrs. Sahlin, who had three children as a member of Parliament with her husband 
sharing the leave, knows that this measure is not necessarily popular. 

"Sometimes politicians have to be ahead of public opinion," she said, noting 
how controversial the initial daddy month was and how broadly it is now simply 

The least enthusiastic, in fact, are often mothers. In a 2003 survey by the 
Social Insurance Agency, the most commonly cited reason for not taking more 
paternity leave, after finances, was mother's preference, said Ann-Zofie 
Duvander, a sociologist at Stockholm University who worked at the agency at the 

Ann-Marie Prhat of the TCO employee federation said she had been determined to 
share the parental leave with her husband. After many discussions, "we 
practically signed a contract - six months for me and six months for him." 

Five months into the leave, she was enjoying her son. Could she stay home a 
couple of months longer, she asked her husband? "In the end," she said, "I 
negotiated one extra month." 

Eight in 10 fathers now take a third of the total 13 months of leave - and 9 
percent of fathers take 40 percent of the total or more - up from 4 percent a 
decade ago. 

The numbers tend to look more impressive in urban areas, like Stockholm, but 
there are some surprises. Owing to extensive government campaigns, the northern 
county of Vasterbotton, where the Karlssons live, has repeatedly topped the 
"daddy index" of average leave the TCO federation publishes every year, says 
its president, Sture Nordh. 

For Carlos Rojas, 27, a Swedish-Spanish entrepreneur who runs one of a host of 
new father groups campaigning for more paternal say at home, that is not 
enough. His 2-year-old twin sons, Julian and Mateo, call him Mama. He and his 
now former wife shared parental leave by alternating days at work and at home. 

Fathers at home "are still often second-class parents," since the mother 
usually stays home first and establishes routine, Mr. Rojas said. 

"How many dads cut their children's nails?" he asked, admitting that he does 
not. "I know she's going to do it and so I don't bother. We have to overcome 
that if we truly want to share responsibility." 

In Sodermalm, Stockholm's trendy south island, the days of fathers taking only 
two months are clearly over. Men with strollers walk in the park, chat in 
cafes, stock up at the supermarket or weigh their babies at walk-in daycare 

Claes Boklund, a 35-year-old Web designer taking 10 months off with 
19-month-old Harry, admits he was scared at first: the baby, the cooking, the 
cleaning, the sleepless nights. Six months into his leave, he says, he is 
confident around Harry (and cuts his nails). 

"It's both harder and easier than you think," he said. 

Understanding what it is to be home with a child may help explain why divorce 
and separation rates in Sweden have dropped since 1995 - at a time when divorce 
rates elsewhere have risen, according to the national statistics office. When 
couples do divorce or separate, shared custody has increased. 

Fredrik and Cecilia Friberg both went part time soon after their daughter Ylva 
was born last Christmas Eve. He works Monday, Wednesday and every other Friday, 
his wife the remaining days. It helps that both are civil servants. "I wanted 
to be there from the start. So much happens every week, I don't want to miss 
out," said Mr. Friberg, 31. 

Every once in a while, former traditions surface. "I get complimented on how 
much I help at home, Cecilia gets no such gratitude," Mr. Friberg said. 

Some, however, worry that as men and women both work and both stay home with 
kids, a gender identity crisis looms. "Manhood is being squeezed" by the 
sameness, argued Ingemar Gens, an author and self-described gender consultant. 

So is the Swedish taxpayer. Taxes account for 47 percent of gross domestic 
product, compared with 27 percent in the United States and 40 percent in the 
European Union overall. The public sector, famous for family-friendly perks, 
employs one in three workers, including half of all working women. Family 
benefits cost 3.3 percent of G.D.P., the highest in the world along with 
Denmark and France, said Willem Adema, senior economist at the Organization for 
Economic Cooperation and Development. 

Yet Sweden looks well balanced: at 2.1 percent and 40 percent of G.D.P., 
respectively, public deficit and debt levels are a fraction of those in most 
developed economies these days, testimony perhaps to fiscal management born of 
a banking crisis and recession in the 1990s. High productivity and political 
consensus keep the system going. 

"There are remarkably few complaints," said Linda Haas, a professor of 
sociology at Indiana University currently at the University of Goteborg. With 
full-time preschool guaranteed at a maximum of about $150 a month and leave 
paid at 80 percent of salary up to $3,330 a month, "people feel that they are 
getting their money's worth." 

Companies, facing high payroll taxes and women and men taking leave in 
unpredictable installments, can be less sure. 

Tales of male staff members being discouraged from long leave are still not 
uncommon, although it is not fashionable to say so. Mr. Boklund said his office 
"was not happy" about his extended absence. 

Bodil Sonesson Gallon, head of sales at Axis Communications, an IT company that 
specializes in video surveillance, admits that parental leave can be disruptive 
- for careers and companies. She laments that with preschools starting at 12 
months and little alternative child care, there is huge pressure for parents to 
take at least a year off. 

Small businesses find it particularly tricky to juggle absences, said Sofia 
Bergstrom, social insurance expert at the Confederation of Swedish Enterprise, 
which represents 60,000 companies. Worse than parental leave, she says, is the 
120-day annual allowance for parents to tend to sick children, which is 
impossible to plan and which is suspected of being widely abused. 

"The key issue for business is planning ahead," said Ms. Bergstrom. 

But in a sign that the broader cultural shift has acquired a dynamic of its 
own, a survey by Ms. Haas and Philip Hwang, a psychology professor at Goteborg 
University, shows that 41 percent of companies reported in 2006 that they had 
made a formal decision to encourage fathers to take parental leave, up from 
only 2 percent in 1993. 

Some managers try to make the most of the short-term openings to test potential 
recruits. Others say planning longer absences is easier and encourage fathers 
to take six months rather than three. A system of flexible working hours has 
evolved. Even senior employees may leave at 4:30 p.m. to collect children from 
school, but are expected to log on at home at night. A growing number of 
employers top up the salary replacement the state pays parents to 90 percent of 
their salary for several months. 

For many companies, a family-friendly work pattern has simply become a new way 
of attracting talent. 

"Graduates used to look for big paychecks. Now they want work-life balance," 
said Goran Henriksson, head of human resources at the cellphone giant Ericsson 
in Sweden, where last year 28 percent of female employees took leave, and 24 
percent of male staff did. "We have to adapt." 

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