apPARENTly Unequal Leave: Analyzing Parental Leave Policy for Greater Gender Equality

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Across the globe, women are performing a disproportionate amount of care work, whether it is paid or unpaid. Care work is work that is traditionally done in the home or place of residence. This includes cleaning, meal prep and cooking, childcare, and elderly care amongst other tasks. The expectation that women should provide this work in their homes free of charge generates two disadvantages. First, as Kathi Weeks explains in The Problem with Work, unpaid labor done in the home obscures “the wage system” by allowing the labor to be devalued, unrecognized, and fall squarely on the shoulders of women within this space.i The second disadvantage is that women receive lower salaries, job opportunities, and leadership positions because of the assumption that they will be too engaged with work done in their homes. These disadvantages are at the heart of persistent gender inequality.

To address these issues, Sweden has implemented gender-equitable parental leave, equal parental time off for both parents, and in doing so, has begun to unravel these elements of the gender division of work. Evaluating the parental leave policies in Sweden reveals that these types of policies could have a meaningful positive spillover effect on gender equity in the United States, which still has no paid leave policy at a federal level. This analysis of maternity and paternity leave outcomes in the two countries shows that greater gender equality in the US can best be achieved through a gender-equitable paid leave policy at a federal level.

Framing of the Issue

Wage and opportunity discrimination are still readily prevalent in the United States.

Women, on average, make 20% less than their male counterparts.ii Additionally, women struggle to move into managerial or senior roles despite higher levels of education. In 2015, while they made up 46.8% of the labor force, women only occupied 39.2% of managerial positions, and in 2016, women set a record by making up just 23% of senior roles, the highest since 2007.iii

This contrast becomes starker when disaggregated by women with children versus women without them. According to a Government Accountability Report, childless women earn 0.94 dollars to a man’s 1 dollar and mothers earn 0.6 dollars to a father’s 1 dollar.iv  Shockingly, a recent report by Thirdway, a research group which advocates for moderate policies, found that men with children see a 6% increase in earnings, when they live with them.[1] Known colloquially as the “Mommy Tax,” the rate at which women’s wages are garnished for having children varies. Some studies indicate a 3% reduction of pay after accounting for reduced hours, shifts to more family-friendly jobs, and lost experiences due to time off.v Others note that the cut in wages increases based on the number of children a woman choose to have, with 7.5% lower earnings for the first child and 8% for the second. Although some research has indicated that this wage gap can be entirely explained if job benefits were taken into account in the documentation of wages, the fact that women must choose between a salary and perks which may make raising children more possible, simply does not appear to be something men are equally forced to do.

The reality of this stems from the fact that men do not do an equal share of housework. Since the 1970s, women have made huge strides into the labor market, making up 39.7% of all workers in 1970 to 47.21% between 2006 and 2010. However, this movement, especially in the United States, has not been supported with an equal understanding that men should do more of the care work for families that women had long been doing for free. A recent Bureau of Labor Statistics report finds that 83% of women versus 65% of men spend time on housework each day; women do 2.6 hours per time versus men’s 2.1; on a given day, 49% of women versus 19% of men do cleaning and laundry; and 68% of women versus 42% of men do food prep or clean Additionally, 22% of men do most or all of the housework versus 54% of women.vii Coined by Arlie Hochschild as the “second shift”, these added hours of work often force women to leave the labor force.viii Compounded by the lack of childcare or services for families in the United States, women are often forced out of waged labor.

However, there are policies that could help mitigate this. Research on parental leave shows that there is a positive correlation with men taking leave or time off to spend time with newborns and later more gender equitable housework outcomes.x Astoundingly, the United States is still one of the only developed nations that does not mandate paid maternity leave at the federal level. The Federal Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) does permit up to 12 unpaid weeks, but employees are left to the whims of employers for paid benefits or paternity leave. These benefits often fluctuate with the economy. Estimates show that only 11 percent of civilian workers and 3 percent of low-income workers have access to paid leave.xi

Although California, New Jersey, and Rhode Island have each recently passed paid maternity leave laws, research has shown that these policies may actually increase pay inequity between women and men and create further gender unequal distributions of care work.xii If these policies are going to be enacted to support families in the United States, there must also be a careful consideration of how they are constructed to promote a better division of housework through a more equitable division of leave.

Analysis on Swedish Leave Policy

Paternity leave is not uncommon amongst the Organization for Economic Co-Operation and Development (OECD) countries. At least 50 countries provide paternity leave worldwide, and most members of OECD offer some form of paternity leave.xiii In the European Union, paternity leave averages 12.5 days with a range of one day in Italy to 64 in Slovenia.xiv This analysis centers on the Swedish parental leave for its specific focus on providing gender-neutral policies, which, at the same time, advocate for a gender equitable distribution of leave.xv

Starting with their first iteration in 1974, a long history of Swedish policies on paid parental leave provides a rich space for analysis on women’s job opportunities and pay equality. Initially, the policy allowed for a six-month paid parental leave at 90% of previous earnings, though this amount dropped to 80% in the 1990s due to the recession.xvi In the 1980s, the timeline was expanded to 12 months at 80% pay and three additional months at a flat rate for everyone. Most notably, in 1995, reforms required each parent to receive one month of the leave each. Parents forfeited that month of leave if the allotted parent chose not to use it, exceptions being made for parents not living together or in the case of sole custody.xvii

Additionally, written consent was required if one parent chose to use more than half of the leave.xviii In 2002, a second reserve month was assigned to each parent, and in 2008, the government passed certain bonuses for families that equitably distributed their leave.xix Currently, the policy allows for 60 days as part of the “‘mother’s quota’,” 60 days as part of the “‘father’s quota,’” and 360 days to be divided equally if not deliberately transferred from one spouse to another.xx The leave can be used up until the child’s eighth birthday.xxi

Outcomes for the policy have showed an overall positive relationship between leave quotas and men’s participation in parental leave. Since its introduction, Swedish men have increasingly taken on a larger share of the parental leave.xxii Between the first and second reserved months, men’s average days off increased from 26 to 36 days, and the percentage of men taking leave before the first quota increased from 46% to 82% just two weeks after the quota enactment.xxiii

Research on Swedish child- and home- care outcomes is slightly more mixed. In a study of 4,000 children born in 1993, Ann-Zofie Duvander and Ann Christin Jans found that men who took parental leave, on average, worked fewer hours outside of the home afterwards. There was also a negative correlation between the length of the leave and the hours worked outside the home later in life.xxiv This seems to indicate that men who took more leave time with their children may have shifted their focus from paid work to care work. Hwang Haas confirmed that parental leave promoted a positive participation in childcare, and numerous qualitative studies have replicated this finding.xxv Although research done by Ekberg et al. (2008) did not find a positive long-term correlation between parental leave sick days taken to care for children with paternity leave, there still seems to be a preponderance of evidence that paternity leave has had a positive influence in the work men continued to provide within the home. In other words, there is most likely a positive correlation between a father taking parental leave and a long term increase of men’s participation in childcare.

Interestingly, the impact on income indicates that men also may suffer from the same wage discrimination as women for taking time off. In her work “Parental Leave Ad Careers: Women’s and Men’s Wages After Parental Leave”, Marie Evertsson found that men’s and women’s wages both suffer as a result of taking leaves, and this wage decrease is negatively correlated with the number of leave days one takes. However, women’s wages are more linearly related to leave whereas men’s appears more as a sudden drop.xxvi This sharp drop-off indicates a signaling to employers about men’s priorities. That is, unlike women, who are assumed to care for housework, taking extended paternity leave could be seen as a sign that these men will be more invested in care work, thus less dedicated to paid labor and therefore less deserving of the same pay.

Women in Sweden who take a greater amount of the leave still suffer disproportionately despite the gender equal policies. Some research has even found that Swedish women are siloed into lower-paying work where there are fewer full-time positions and less mobility, whereas men work in areas with more career possibilities and higher pay.xxvii However, the effects on pay vary from study to study and often find an increase in income for low-income women.xxviii Additionally, some research has found that wage reduction only happens after they take at least three and a half months of leave.xxix

In the end, while the leave policy does have varying effects, there seems to be a consensus that there is an overall positive effect on men’s participation and overall assistance in the home. At the same time, the body of work on wages shows that a reduction in salary is seen across genders based on the signals to employers that a worker will be more invested in unpaid care work.

Context and Limitations for the United States

The findings of these studies provide a clear picture that gender-equitable paid leave could have both positive effects on men’s participation in childcare as well as reduction of the discrimination that women exclusively face with paid and unpaid maternity leave. Although this push for policy change can seem utopian on some level, there has already been some shift in American men’s desire to spend more time with their kids. A survey conducted in 2010 of registered voters found that 76% supported policies, which would provide paid leave for families and

Amongst millennial men, some 13% expect to “‘interrupt their careers for children’” which contrasts with 4% of Generation X and 3% of baby boomers.xxxi Many companies have recognized this and have already started making policies to meet the growing expectation amongst mostly high-income men. IBM recently announced that it would double its paternity leave to 12 weeks, and many other tech firms are following suit by offering between 6 and 17 weeks of paid paternity leave.xxxii

However, male workers still face stigma taking time off. Even when offered, 36% of men in one Deloitte survey said they did not take paid parental leave because “they’re afraid it may jeopardize their position at work.”xxxiii At the same time, simply offering the option of paternity leave has dramatically increased the number of men spending time with their children. Just five years after the changes in the California paid parental leave policy, the likelihood men would take the leave more than doubled and claims for time to be with children increased from 17% to 26%.xxxiv This indicates that even before a mandate, men are becoming increasingly interested in participating in childcare if they are given the opportunity.

That is not to say that there are not cultural issues with implementing gender-neutral and pro-men childcare Swedish policies in the United States. First off, there is a very clear cultural relationship with the United States and the expectations of the government. Eileen McDonagh lays out in The Motherless State how the government in the US is mostly seen as a protectorate that should stay out of social issues and provisions. On the other hand, the Swedish government, as a social democracy, is much more associated with these types of social welfare provisions.

Sweden also has a long history of promoting gender equitable housework not just through policies like paternal care but also through ad campaigns, posters, and classes for authorities on antenatal and postnatal practices.xxxv One politician claimed the objective as “‘getting mom a job and making dad pregnant”. xxxvi Additionally, there are clear logistical and funding issues at the heart of paid parental leave in particular. Businesses have long fought against these laws as too expensive and detrimental to productivity. Anecdotal evidence from California and New Jersey paid leave plans have showed just the opposite or at least neutral effects on business “productivity, profitability, turnover, and employee morale” with small businesses showing an even smaller likelihood of negative effects.xxxvii While the reality of governmental cost is important, the soaring childcare prices and numerous reports on disruption and stress of having a child in the United States suggests that parental leave might be becoming too costly not to fund.xxxviii 


The Swedish policy thus provides a helpful model for when the time for paid parental leave in the United States at the national level does finally come. It shows that for this policy to be helpful – rather than harmful – to further gender equality, it must be both gender-neutral and promote equitable distribution of leave. This means the leave should be provided to the family as a unit, allotting a specific and equal amount of time per spouse, along with some flexibility in how the rest is used. In doing so, this parental leave would not only alleviate the burden of providing for a family in this country, it would also help promote women and men as equal partners inside and outside the home.

While at this current political juncture, it is very difficult to conceive of a concrete plan for pushing for paid paternity leave, let alone a gender-neutral policy, this analysis provides a platform from which to build a broad base of companies, pro-labor forces, and gender equality activists to work on this issue. We must both “be realistic [and] demand the impossible.”xxxix

i Weeks (2011) 121.

ii “The Simple Truth about the Gender Pay Gap.”

iii Cheryl (2012).

iv Budig (2010) 10.

v Budig (2010) 4.

vi Sifferlin (2014).

vii “Getting to Gender Equality Starts with Realizing How Far We Have to Go” (2017).

viii Livingston (2013).

x DOL Policy Brief (2015).

xi “US: Lack of Paid Leave Harms Workers, Children.”

xii Mundy (2014).

xiii “US: Lack of Paid Leave Harms Workers, Children.”

xiv Aslop (2017).

xv Duvander and Johansson (2015) 7.

xvi Duvander (2015) 7.

xvii  Ibid.

xviii  Ibid.

xix Duvander and Johansson (2015) 8.

xx Klinth (2008) 22.

xxi  Duvander and Jans (2009) 50.

xxii  Duvander and Jans (2009) 51.

xxiii  Duvander and Jans (2009) 51.

xxiv  Duvander and Jans (2009) 55.

xxv Haas (2008) and Duvander and Johansson (2015) 9.

xxvi Evertsson (2016).

xxvii Evertsson (2015) 47.

xxviii Duvander and Johansson” (2015) 10.

xxix Evertsson (2015) 32. xxx “Failing Its Families.” xxxi Coontz (2017).

xxxii Coontz (2017) and “DOL Policy Brief: Paternity Leave.”

xxxiii Sahardi (2016).

xxxiv “DOL Policy Brief: Paternity Leave.”

xxxv Klinth (2008).

xxxvi Klinth (2008) 20.

xxxvii “US: Lack of Paid Leave Harms Workers, Children.”

xxxviii Coontz (2017).

xxxix Weeks (2011) 175.

[1] Miller, Claire Cain. “The Motherhood Penalty vs. the Fatherhood Bonus.” The New York Times, 20 Dec. 2017.,