Parental leave, social norms and the wage gap in Sweden
It’s difficult to legislate discrimination out of existence when that discrimination makes good business sense. As long as employers can reasonably predict that women will spend more time on childcare than men, we should expect some sort of wage and seniority gap in the workplace. (I do think that we probably overestimate the degree to which parenting hurts mothers’ job performance, while underestimating how much it affects fathers, actually, but that’s a whole other issue.)
The long-term solution is for men, in the aggregate, to take as much responsibility for child-rearing as women. That doesn’t mean that every family must split childcare 50/50 – in fact, for many families that wouldn’t make sense. But we need to make paternity leave socially acceptable.
Shifting from maternity leave to parental leave is a symbolic step in that direction, but on its own, we shouldn’t expect it to change care giving patterns. That’s one point I took away from this thorough and revealing Times piece about fatherhood in Sweden.
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 [Bengt] Westerberg entered government in 1991. […]
“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.
So Westerberg, as deputy prime minister, started phasing in some heavy-handed policies in 1995. Now two months of parental leave is reserved exclusively for men. This has substantially increased the number of fathers taking time off work, and that has had an impact on wages.
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.
That’s great, but I’m also interested in women who do not have children. If women who don’t intend to have kids or take maternity leave are being hurt by their potential children, by assumptions that come from other women’s behaviour (and the evidence suggests that they are) then this sort of broad social change should help.
Along those lines, the parental leave policy is apparently shifting gender norms for men:
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.”
I think we don’t say enough about how restrictive gender norms limit men’s choices, pushing them to, for example, focus exclusively on work when they might be happier spending time with their kids.
(Hat tip to kottke.)