Economic Woman

Econometrics, gender, equity and more.

Human development and paternity leave

with 5 comments

Marginal Revolution pointed me towards this lengthy Guardian feature on Iceland, which has topped the UNDP’s Human Development Index ranking.

Iceland’s economy defies the conventional wisdom – they maintain a generous social welfare state with relatively low tax rates and only 1 per cent unemployment. It probably doesn’t hurt that Iceland has no armed forces. (This is a good reminder of how much of the world’s resources go into defences, and how much surplus we have to gain from building a stable and peaceful international system…)

This tiny arctic country is also a bit of a riddle when it comes to women’s rights. Iceland has the highest birth rate in Europe, and the highest divorce rate, and it is apparently not uncommon for women to have their first child at 21 or 22, while still in university. None of these things would seem to lead to women’s empowerment, but Icelandic women work outside the home in higher rates than anywhere else in the world, including in positions of influence.

Part of this might stem from Iceland’s unique Viking background, Carlin suggests. While the men went abroad to pillage and conquer, women were left in charge. That’s interesting, but not something that, say, Canadian women can put into practice. I’m often discouraged by how few of these success stories seem replicable. There is one lesson here, though, about the importance of universal child care and paternity leave:

…if you are in a job the state gives you nine months on fully paid child leave, to be split among the mother and the father as they so please. ‘This means that employers know a man they hire is just as likely as a woman to take time off to look after a baby,’ explained Svafa Grönfeldt, currently rector of Reykjavik University, previously a very high-powered executive. ‘Paternity leave is the thing that made the difference for women’s equality in this country.’

Of course, paternity leave can’t have this effect unless large numbers of men take advantage of it. But creating that option is a first step.


Written by Allison

21 May 2008 at 11:56 am

5 Responses

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  1. Minor comments:

    1) 1% unemployment? Do they count unemployment like the U.S. counts unemployment?

    The 1% figure is just mind-boggling. And, if it’s that tight, does that imply that the labor market isnt’ that dynamic?

    2) Agreed regarding parental leave and child care.


    21 May 2008 at 12:46 pm

  2. To answer the unemployment question, yes they basically do count unemployment like other countires. However, the figure has changed recently. With the current economic problems the unempoloyment figure has gone up a bit but has stayed around the 1% mark. To put this in real figures in April there were 1717 people unemployed in Iceland…. which is of course very low. What this figure represents is the tiny population and the use of immigrant labout to fill the gaps. Labout is begning to leave iceland now as the economy ha gone down hill but that in itself keeps employment boyant. Also as the east european economies are picking up that has drawn people home…


    21 May 2008 at 4:52 pm

  3. Donal,

    Thanks for your comment. My follow-up question is – is 1 percent unemployment indicative of a problem? That is, would it be preferable to have 3 or 4 percent?

    At any time, there should be some unemployment in an economy due to people switching jobs, careers and graduating from school. Transition related unemployment. With a level of 1 percent, does that mean that people don’t often switch careers? Is it hard to switch careers?


    21 May 2008 at 9:47 pm

  4. […] is also the problem with Sweden…suicide, anyone?).  But hey, check out this awesomeness:  nine months of paid maternity leave to be split between the mom and dad as they choose. YES!  Standing O, Iceland!!  (Although, […]

  5. So to answer your follow question as best I can…

    The labour market in Iceland is much more flexible than most of the other scandinavian labour markets. Generally speaking in Iceland people are able to move between jobs without having periods of unemployment.

    The system is fairly flexible and designed to keep people in work since it is expensive for the state when people are unemployed because of the rather generous state benifits.

    There is a slow down at the moment so keep eye on Icelands unemployment rates, i imagine it will start creeping up after plenty of foreign labout leaves the Island.

    In some circumstances I suppose it could be difficult to change carrers what with all jobs requiering union membership, and certain unions setting basic education requierments, which is rather differnet to the US i guess?

    Sorry i know that was all a bit rambling but I hope it managed to help answer your question to some extent!


    22 May 2008 at 6:16 pm

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