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 »
By KATRIN BENNHOLD
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.
Previous Articles in the Series »
Follow the The Female Factor on Facebook »
The Female Factor: Conversation
The Child Care Conundrum
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
"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
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."
[Non-text portions of this message have been removed]