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The Best Place for Mothers?


The Scandinavian countries are often seen as paragons when it comes to gender equality and support for parenthood. But does the myth live up to the reality? Next Wave Europe investigates the practices behind the policies.

In Sweden, there is full legal equality between the sexes, and the social security system supports parents regardless of sex (see box below, Swedish Parental Leave: the Basics). And yet women still lag behind men in almost all respects: in terms of salary, in terms of academic careers, and in terms of top positions in politics, business, and industry.

The fact that the law gives Swedish women equal status is sometimes used to blame women themselves for their lack of equality. Why do women still claim more than four- fifths of parental leave? Why are they often reluctant to apply for higher posts? Why don't they strive more actively for high political positions?

Swedish Parental Leave: the Basics

  • Either parent has the right to be absent from work until their child is 18 months old. You also have the right to reduce your workload by 25% (usually by working 6, instead of 8, hours a day) until your child is 8 years old.


  • A parental allowance is paid for 480 days.


  • The first 390 days of the parental allowance is based on a sliding scale according to your salary, from a minimum of SKr150 (?17) to a maximum of SKr635 (?71) per day. The last 90 allowance days are low-paid, only SKr60 (?7) per day.


  • Sixty of the 480 allowance days must be used by the other parent. In Swedish, they go by the name of pappamånader, "daddy's months."


  • When your child is ill, you have the right to a temporary parental allowance that enables you to stay home and take care of the child.

"Because of old social norms and attitudes!" says political scientist Marie Jansson at Linköping University. For her doctoral dissertation, she studied the Swedish social security system from a gender-equality aspect.

In her opinion, women seldom have a completely free choice. Their choices are made under pressure from their partners, from society, and from their own norms about being a woman and a mother. The old social norm making the woman responsible for the upkeep of home and family overrules the more recent political commitment to equality. And politicians are reluctant to interfere with family decisions on, for instance, which spouse should stay home with the children.

In 2002, men used 15% of the parental allowance, up from 12% in the year 2000. Employers negative to the idea of men's taking parental leave are often blamed for this low figure. But while this may be partly true, it's not the whole truth.

"The employer's attitude is an accepted reason for a man to refrain from going on parental leave. It wouldn't be accepted for a woman to use the same argument!" says Lisbeth Bekkengen of Karlstad University College.

In her dissertation work, she interviewed young parents and their employers, finding fewer negative attitudes among employers than expected. She also identified two types of young fathers, whom she calls the "child-oriented" man and the "in-theory" man.

For the child-oriented man, the decision to use his right to parental leave was often taken long ago, perhaps even before his present relationship. No employer could get him to desist from spending time with his child. The in-theory man is positive towards male parental leave in theory, but something (his wife's attitude, his employer's attitude, the necessity of his salary for the family) always seems to prevent him from practicing what he professes to believe.

A recent study by the Swedish National Social Insurance Board actually supports the in-theory man's first claim. According to this study, most mothers are happy with the current situation in which women take 85% of parental leave.

These women apparently don't realize what their absence from the labour market might mean for their own future salary and career. While women stay home with the babies, men are being promoted, leading to the present unequal labour situation. This has led to a recent political debate on earmarking a larger chunk of the total 480 days of parental leave for the exclusive use of each parent (see box on parental leave above). Despite meaning a legislative interference with family decisions, it might be a necessary push towards gender equality.

At the universities, serious efforts have been made to further gender equality (see box below, Engendering Equality in the University System). However, the problems facing young postgraduates still remain. While they are of the right age to start a family, they also need to get their dissertation work done in timely fashion, especially in science, medicine, and technology, where the success of research depends on publishing speed. Thus, in a recent study, 40% of postgraduates who were part of a couple said they have postponed trying to have a baby.

Money also plays a part. Postgraduates with a salaried position at the university get a reasonable parental allowance, but postgraduates on grants--a common situation--get only the very low basic allowance.

Then there's the postdoc problem: young scientists are supposed to go abroad for a postdoc period of at least 2 years. On their return, they have to work for a year in Sweden before fully reentering the social security system. By that time they are well into their 30s, and what if the postponed and eagerly awaited baby doesn't arrive?

Engendering Equality in the University System

All Swedish universities have committees or employees specially appointed to deal with issues of gender equality, and there are also gender-equality plans at various levels within the institutions. For example, the plan of Uppsala University's faculty of medicine and pharmaceutics states:

  • All institutions should feel responsible for giving younger female scientists support in creating their own research groups.

  • Time taken off for parental leave should not be a negative factor in the evaluation of scientific merits.

  • When an employee is expecting a child, the employer and the employee should discuss his/her future work situation so as to minimize the effects of parental leave on his/her academic career.

The plan was passed in March 2002, and according to equality committee chair Claes Linder it's too early to say whether it has had any concrete effects. "But our ideas seem to be taken seriously at all levels. I do believe we're contributing towards a new way of thinking," he says.

"This question was decisive for my part," states Sara Lindholm-Larsson. After her doctoral exam at the Karolinska Institute she had a postdoc offer at the U.S. National Institutes of Health. But, despite the fact that the offer was "extremely interesting," she decided to take a post with pharmaceutical giant AstraZeneca south of Stockholm. This post would be easier to combine with possible motherhood. Just as she hoped, Sara is now on parental leave with baby Agnes. She'll stay home for a year, after which time her husband will take over for another 6 months.

Lindholm-Larsson doesn't regret her choice. Still, she notes that it's been easier for her male postgraduate colleagues to combine research and parenthood. Some of them (married to women outside academia) started their families while doing their dissertation work, some went on postdoc studies together with their wives and started a family abroad.

There are, however, a few women who reverse the pattern. Physiologist Maria Gomez of Lund University is one. She had her first child while doing her postgraduate research, then went on postdoc in the United States when her second child was 5 months old.

"This would have been impossible if my husband hadn't taken equal responsibility for the children. He loved having a time-out from his career when we were in the United States, painting and spending time with the children!" she states.

The couple still shares parental duties. Maria's chemist husband works for a company with modern attitudes towards parenthood, and his 9-to-5 job enables him to take care of the children if Maria needs to work evenings or weekends.

Summing up, while there is no real equality between the sexes in Sweden, there is at least an awareness of the problem. And, it seems, the best thing you can do for yourself if you are a young woman who wants to raise a family is to marry a child-oriented man.

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