Swedish paternity leave and the power of policy

Fascinating article this week in the Times about how Swedish paternity leave policies have truly transformed their society (it’s going into my coursepack next time I teach Gender & Politics).  Here’s the rub:

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.

Obviously, I’m a fan of more gender equality and more paid time off for parents.  What we see here is the real power of policy– in Sweden it is shaping perceptions of masculinity and gender roles (for the better, in my opinion).

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.”

This is why policy matters.  Here is a case where the right policy is not only leading to clearly more optimal social and economic outcomes, but it is actually changing domestic life and gender roles in a manner which is benefiting all Swedes (except the Troglodytes, of course).   One of the reasons I absolutely love my job is the great work-life balance it affords (almost the Swedish model, shall we say).   Anyway, good for Sweden, too bad we cannot get paid maternity leave for American mothers as a matter of public policy (unlike the rest of the developed world), much less fathers.

About Steve Greene
Professor of Political Science at NC State http://faculty.chass.ncsu.edu/shgreene

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