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

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Alexandra Feldhausen provides lessons from Swedish parental leave policy, underscoring how the United States should design its own such federal policy if it is to truly tackle gender inequality.

Across the globe, women perform a disproportionate amount of care work, whether paid or unpaid. Care work is work that is traditionally done in the home or in a place of residence, including cleaning, meal prep and cooking, childcare, and elderly care–– among other tasks. Care work within one’s own home is the subject of this paper, for the expectation that women should provide this work in their homes, free of charge, generates two particular 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.[1] 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, or 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 the 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 the federal level. 

Background

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

Women, on average, make 20 percent less than their male counterparts.[2] Additionally, women struggle to move into managerial or senior roles despite higher levels of education. In 2015, while women made up 46.8 percent of the labor force, they only occupied 39.2 percent of managerial positions, and, in 2016, women set a record by making up just 23 percent of senior roles, the highest since 2007.[3]

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 one dollar and mothers earn 0.6 dollars to a father’s one dollar.[4]  Ironically, a recent report by Thirdway, a research group which advocates for moderate policies, found that men with children see a 6 percent increase in earnings, when they live with them. [5] Known colloquially as the “Mommy Tax,” the rate at which women’s wages are garnished for having children varies. Some studies indicate a 3 percent reduction of pay after accounting for reduced hours, shifts to more family-friendly jobs, and lost experiences due to time off. [6] Others note that the cut in wages increases based on the number of children a woman choose to have, with a

7.8 percent penalty per child.[7] 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 1950s, women have made great strides into the labor market, from a 33.9 percent participation in 1950 to a peak of 60 percent in 1999.[8] 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: 83 percent of women versus 65 percent of men spend time on housework each day women do 2.6 hours per day versus men’s 2.1; on a given day, 49 percent of women versus 19 percent of men do cleaning and laundry; and, 68 percent of women versus 42 percent of men do food prep or cleanup.[9] These extra hours have been coined by Arlie Hochschild as the “second shift.”[10] Compounded by the lack of childcare and services for families in the United States, women are often forced out of waged labor to conduct this work at home.

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.[11]  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.[12]

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.[13]  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 of Swedish Leave Policy

Paternity leave is not uncommon among 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.[14]  In the European Union, paternity leave averages 12.5 days with a range of one day in Italy to 64 in Slovenia. [15] This analysis centers on Swedish parental leave due to its specific focus on providing gender-neutral policies, which, at the same time, advocate for a gender equitable distribution of leave.[16]

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 percent of previous earnings, though this amount dropped to 80 percent in the 1990s due to the recession.[17] In the 1980s, the timeline was expanded to 12 months at 80 percent 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.[18]

Additionally, written consent was required if one parent chose to use more than half of the leave.[19]  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.[20] 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.[21]  The leave can be used up until the child’s eighth birthday.[22]

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.[23] 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 percent to 82 percent just two weeks after the quota enactment.[24]

Research on Swedish child- and homecare 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.[25] 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’ research confirmed that parental leave promoted a positive participation in childcare, and numerous qualitative studies have also replicated this finding.[26] 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 leave, 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 appear more as a sudden drop.[27] 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 lower mobility, whereas men work in areas with more career possibilities and higher pay.[28] However, the effects on pay vary from study to study and often find an increase in income for low-income women.[29] Interestingly, some research has found that wage reduction only happens after they take at least three and a half months of leave.[30] 

In the end, while the leave policy does have varying effects, there seems to be 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 reduce discrimination that women exclusively face with paid and unpaid maternity leave. Although this push for policy change can seem utopian on some level, there have already been shifts in American men’s desire to spend more time with their kids. A survey conducted in 2010 of registered voters found that 76 percent supported policies, which would provide paid leave for families and childbirth.[31] 

Among millennial men, some 13 percent expect to “‘interrupt their careers for children’” which contrasts with 4 percent of Generation X and 3 percent of baby boomers.[32] Many companies have recognized this and have already started making policies to meet the growing expectation among 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.[33] 

However, male workers still face stigma when taking time off. Even when offered, 36 percent 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.”[34] 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 to 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 percent to 26 percent.[35] 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.[36] One politician claimed the objective as “‘getting mom a job and making dad pregnant.’”[37] 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.[38] 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.[39]

Conclusion

Swedish parental leave policy thus provides a helpful model for eventual parental leave policy in the United States. It shows that for this policy to be helpful, and not 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 the US, but it also 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 support among companies, pro-labor forces, and gender equality activists. That is, “‘Be realistic, demand the impossible.’” [40]


References

[1] Kathi Weeks, The Problem with Work: Feminism, Marxism, Antiwork Politics, and Postwork Imaginaries (Durham: Duke University Press, 2011), 121.

[2] “The Simple Truth about the Gender Pay Gap.” AAUW. Accessed April 28, 2018. https://www.aauw.org/research/the-simple-truth-about-the-gender-pay-gap.

[3] “Female Business Leaders: Global Statistics.” Catalyst. Accessed December 14, 2019. [3] “Female Business Leaders: Global Statistics.” Catalyst. Accessed December 14, 2019. https://www.catalyst.org/research/women-in-management/.

[4] Budig, Michelle. “New Evidence on the Gender Pay Gap for Women and Mothers in Management: Hearing Before the US Congressional Joint Economic Committee,” September 28, 2010, 10. https://www.govinfo.gov/content/pkg/CHRG-111shrg61713/pdf/CHRG-111shrg61713.pdf

[5] Miller, Claire Cain. “A Child Helps Your Career, If You’re a Man – The New York Times.” Accessed December 15, 2019. https://www.nytimes.com/2014/09/07/upshot/a-child-helps-your-career-if-youre-a-man.html.

[6] Budig, Michelle. “New Evidence on the Gender Pay Gap for Women and Mothers in Management: Hearing Before the US Congressional Joint Economic Committee,” September 28, 2010, 4. https://www.govinfo.gov/content/pkg/CHRG-111shrg61713/pdf/CHRG-111shrg61713.pdf 

[7] Budig, Michelle J. “The Fatherhood Bonus and The Motherhood Penalty: Parenthood and the Gender Gap in Pay – Third Way.” Accessed December 15, 2019. https://www.thirdway.org/report/the-fatherhood-bonus-and-the-motherhood-penalty-parenthood-and-the-gender-gap-in-pay.

[8] “Changes in Men’s and Women’s Labor Force Participation Rates : The Economics Daily : U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.” Accessed December 15, 2019. https://www.bls.gov/opub/ted/2007/jan/wk2/art03.htm.

[9] Sifferlin, Alexandra. “Women Are Still Doing Most of the Housework.” Time. Accessed September 21, 2017. https://time.com/2895235/men-housework-women/.

[10] Schult, Brigid. “‘The Second Shift’ at 25: Q & A with Arlie Hochschild – The Washington Post.” Accessed December 15, 2019. https://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/she-the-people/wp/2014/08/06/the-second-shift-at-25-q-a-with-arlie-hochschild/.

[11] “DOL Policy Brief: Paternity Leave.” 2015, pp. 1–5.

[12] Human Rights Watch. “US: Lack of Paid Leave Harms Workers, Children,” February 23, 2011. https://www.hrw.org/news/2011/02/23/us-lack-paid-leave-harms-workers-children.

[13] Mundy, Liza. “Daddy Track: The Case for Paternity Leave.” The Atlantic, February 2014. https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2014/01/the-daddy-track/355746/.

[14] Human Rights Watch. “US: Lack of Paid Leave Harms Workers, Children,” February 23, 2011. https://www.hrw.org/news/2011/02/23/us-lack-paid-leave-harms-workers-children.

[15] Alsop, Ronald. “Millennials See Paternity Leave as a Priority.” The New York Times, November 28, 2017, sec. Well. https://www.nytimes.com/2017/11/28/well/family/millennials-see-paternity-leave-as-a-priority.html.

16] Ann-Zofie Duvander and Mats Johansson. “Reforms in the Swedish Parent System and Their Effects on Gender Equity.” Swedish Social Insurance Inspectorate 2, no. 13 (2015). 1-34, 7.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Ann-Zofie Duvander and Mats Johansson. “Reforms in the Swedish Parent System and Their Effects on Gender Equity.” Swedish Social Insurance Inspectorate 2, no. 13 (2015). 1-34, 8.

[21] Roger Klinth. “The Best of Both Worlds? Fatherhood and Gender Equality in Swedish Paternity Leave Campaigns, 1976-2006.” Fathering 6, no. 1 (2008). 20-38, 22.

[22] Ann-Zofie Duvander and Ann-Christin Jans. “Consequences of Fathers’ Parental Leave Use: Evidence from Sweden.” Finnish Yearbook of Population Research 44, (2009). 49-62, 50.

[23] Ann-Zofie Duvander and Ann-Christin Jans. “Consequences of Fathers’ Parental Leave Use: Evidence from Sweden.” Finnish Yearbook of Population Research 44, (2009). 49-62, 51.

[24] Ibid.

[25] Ann-Zofie Duvander and Ann-Christin Jans. “Consequences of Fathers’ Parental Leave Use: Evidence from Sweden.” Finnish Yearbook of Population Research 44, (2009). 49-62, 55.

[26] Hwang L. Haas. The Impact of Taking Parental Leave on Fathers’ Participation in Childcare and Relationships withChildren: Lessons from Sweden.” Community Work & Family 11, no. 1 (2008) 85–104.

[27] Marie Evertsson. “Parental Leave Ad Careers: Women’s and Men’s Wages After Parental Leave.” Advances in Life Course Research 29, (2016). 26-40. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.alcr.2016.02.002.

[28] Gupta, Sanjiv, Marie Evertsson, Daniela Grunow, Magnus Nermo, and Liana Sayer. “The Economic Gap Among Women in Time Spent on Housework in Former West Germany and Sweden.” Journal of Comparative Family Studies 46 (March 1, 2015): 181–201. https://doi.org/10.3138/jcfs.46.2.181.

[29] Ann-Zofie Duvander and Mats Johansson. “Reforms in the Swedish Parent System and Their Effects on Gender Equity.” Swedish Social Insurance Inspectorate 2, no. 13 (2015). 1-34, 10.

[30] Gupta, Sanjiv, Marie Evertsson, Daniela Grunow, Magnus Nermo, and Liana Sayer. “The Economic Gap Among Women in Time Spent on Housework in Former West Germany and Sweden.” Journal of Comparative Family Studies 46 (March 1, 2015): 181–201. https://doi.org/10.3138/jcfs.46.2.181.

[31] Human Rights Watch. “Failing Its Families | Lack of Paid Leave and Work-Family Supports in the US,” February 23, 2011. https://www.hrw.org/report/2011/02/23/failing-its-families/lack-paid-leave-and-work-family-supports-us.

[32] Coontz, Stephanie. “Opinion | Do Millennial Men Want Stay-at-Home Wives? – The New York Times.” Accessed December 15, 2019. https://www.nytimes.com/2017/03/31/opinion/sunday/do-millennial-men-want-stay-at-home-wives.html?partner=rssnyt&emc=rss&_r=2.

[33] Coontz, Stephanie. “Opinion | Do Millennial Men Want Stay-at-Home Wives? – The New York Times.” Accessed December 15, 2019. https://www.nytimes.com/2017/03/31/opinion/sunday/do-millennial-men-want-stay-at-home-wives.html?partner=rssnyt&emc=rss&_r=2 and Department of Labor. “DOL Policy Brief: Paternity Leave.” 2015, 1–5. https://www.dol.gov/sites/dolgov/files/OASP/legacy/files/PaternityBrief.pdf.

[34]] Sahadi, Jeanne. “Dads Get More of a (Paid) Break at Work.” CNNMoney, June 16, 2016. https://money.cnn.com/2016/06/16/pf/parental-leave-fathers/index.html.

[35] Department of Labor. “DOL Policy Brief: Paternity Leave.” 2015, 1–5. https://www.dol.gov/sites/dolgov/files/OASP/legacy/files/PaternityBrief.pdf.

[36] Roger Klinth. “The Best of Both Worlds? Fatherhood and Gender Equality in Swedish Paternity Leave Campaigns,1976-2006.” Fathering 6, no. 1 (2008). 20-38.

[37] Roger Klinth. “The Best of Both Worlds? Fatherhood and Gender Equality in Swedish Paternity Leave Campaigns, 1976-2006.” Fathering 6, no. 1 (2008). 20-38, 20.

[38] Human Rights Watch. “US: Lack of Paid Leave Harms Workers, Children,” February 23, 2011. https://www.hrw.org/news/2011/02/23/us-lack-paid-leave-harms-workers-children.

[39] Coontz, Stephanie. “Opinion | Do Millennial Men Want Stay-at-Home Wives? – The New York Times.” Accessed December 15, 2019. https://www.nytimes.com/2017/03/31/opinion/sunday/do-millennial-men-want-stay-at-home-wives.html?partner=rssnyt&emc=rss&_r=2.

[40] Kathi Weeks, The Problem with Work: Feminism, Marxism, Antiwork Politics, and Postwork Imaginaries (Durham: Duke University Press, 2011), 175.