Work-life balance: Finding the Swede spot

by Katrina on July 26, 2010

A quiet revolution has been taking place in Sweden for 15 years, affecting everything from the gender pay gap to workplace culture to relationships between parents and children. It all started at home.

Here’s a link to the fascinating New York Times story about this phenomenon. Now here’s my distilled version—with original illustrations!

Note: The dad should be holding a Swedish kronor instead of a dollar sign, but most of us wouldn't know what "kr" meant.

This Swedish family doesn’t look very happy. That’s because for decades Sweden has had the same problems we have in the U.S., with men and women seemingly confined to traditional roles when it came to working and raising kids.

Although the country had paid parental leave, mothers were the ones who stayed home with the baby. Women made less money than men, and the few men who did take time off were stigmatized at work. (They were called “velvet dads,” which is maybe like telling a guy he’s a “woos.” Any Swedish readers care to translate?)

In 1995, in what turned out to be a bureaucratic stroke of genius, the Swedish government created financial incentives for paternity leave. If the father didn’t take time off, the family lost one month of subsidies.

Suddenly it was like, Who cares if they call me a “velvet dad?” I’m not giving up free money!

Soon it became the norm for dads to take off a month, two months, maybe longer. They got a taste of what it was like to be the primary parent and they became more confident in their role at home, assuming responsibilities traditionally left to the moms, such as clipping the nails. (I did not make that up.)

Dads started craving more time with their kids. Today, 8 in 10 fathers now take a third of the total 13 months of leave.

As it became the norm for dads to take time off, the culture at work began to change, with flex-time becoming more common. The pay gap between men and women started to close. One study showed a mother’s future earnings increased about 7 percent for every month the father took off.

And that’s not all. Divorce rates started to go down in Sweden at a time when they were rising in other countries. For the couples who did divorce, shared custody became more common. This is from the same Times story:

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.”

See how happy they are?

So this simple little change—giving dads incentives to take parental leave—had a profound effect on employees, employers, husbands, wives, and families.

And lest you think this is something that could only happen in a little Scandinavian country, Germany (population 82 million) decided to try a similar experiment in 2007. In just two years, the number of fathers taking parental leave jumped from 3 percent to more than 20 percent.

Here in the U.S. we have a long way to go, of course. American families work longer hours and have less public policy support than just about any developed nation in the world. We seem to have a life-threatening allergy to taxes—many Americans choke and turn red in the face when the word is mentioned, even though our taxes are low compared to most developed countries. We don’t even have paid maternity leave for mothers. We scoff at comparisons to countries like Sweden, presumably preferring the company of places like Papua New Guinea and Swaziland, which are among the few countries that do not provide some type of national paid parental leave.

The list goes on. Here at home, women still make 77 cents on the dollar compared to men. Mothers make 73 cents on the dollar. Single mothers make far less. Experts say the pay gap between mothers and non-mothers is actually growing worse. And the last few decades of “family values” have done nothing to create economic stability for families.

But the Swedish revolution gave me hope that change is possible, and solutions to these intractable problems may not be nearly as complicated as we expect.

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