European countries have been striving to increase paternal involvement in parental leave, but their efforts have resulted in unintended consequences and sparked debates about the most equitable way to divide leave between mothers and fathers.
In 2018, when the Norwegian government announced plans to extend fathers’ parental leave by five weeks, it triggered excitement among many Norwegians. However, for mothers like Nina Mikkelson, who had a one-year-old child still breastfeeding at the time, this change was concerning. In Norway, paid parental leave is divided into portions allocated to the mother, father, and a discretionary bucket that can be used by either parent. Increasing the father’s share meant reducing the sharable portion, effectively decreasing the amount of leave available to mothers by over a month. Furthermore, there were discussions among government officials about eliminating the discretionary bucket entirely.
Mikkelson expressed her frustrations in a breastfeeding-support Facebook group and found solidarity among other women. She established a new group called “Permisjonen Burde Foreldre Fordele” or “Leave Should Be Shared by Parents,” advocating for the freedom to divide parental leave according to each family’s preferences. The group actively engaged in the comment sections of articles reporting on the reform, and their movement gained attention, eventually becoming known as “Permisjonsopprøret” or “Leave Rebellion.”
Paid parental leave has a rich history in Europe, originally designed to protect the health of both mother and child. However, in recent decades, encouraging fathers to take leave has become a priority in many countries. The objective is to promote gender equality in the labor market by balancing household responsibilities. Studies show that mothers are more likely than fathers to leave their jobs or reduce their working hours after having children, resulting in reduced lifetime earnings. The hope is that if more fathers take leave, employers will be less inclined to discriminate against women in hiring and promotions, and men will contribute more to household tasks, allowing mothers to dedicate more time and energy to work.
However, convincing fathers to take paternity leave has proven challenging. Merely making parental leave gender-neutral is not sufficient. In European countries, Canada, and Australia, where leave can be shared or transferred between parents, the majority of leave is still taken by mothers. This issue does not stem from fathers’ lack of desire to take leave. Anecdotal evidence suggests that many fathers fear professional repercussions for doing so, and societal norms reinforce the notion that women should be the primary caregivers. To address this, several countries have introduced the father quota, which designates a specific amount of leave exclusively for fathers, encouraging families to deviate from traditional gender roles. Norway pioneered this approach in 1993 by implementing four weeks of paid parental leave exclusively for dads, leading to a significant increase in uptake. Sweden followed suit, and many other countries have since adopted similar policies.
Nevertheless, there is no consensus on how much leave should be reserved for fathers. Some advocate for an equal and non-transferable division of all leave between parents, emphasizing the importance of shared responsibility for care. The European Union mandated that member states provide both mothers and fathers with four months of parental leave, with two months being paid and non-transferable. While equalizing parental leave seems like a straightforward solution for achieving gender equality, reserving leave for fathers comes with trade-offs. Couples have limited flexibility in dividing their leave, which can pose challenges, particularly for women. Not everyone supports such a rigid approach.
The Nordic region, including Norway, Sweden, and Iceland, is often hailed as a model of gender equality in Europe. These countries boast high rates of female labor-force participation, a trend that predates the implementation of the father quota. While it is difficult to measure the exact impact of the quota on women’s career advancement and earnings, experts believe it has played a role alongside other family policies. Nonetheless, the father quota’s success has been less evident in other countries. Spain, for example, introduced a two-week father quota in 2007, which has been expanded to grant both parents 16 weeks of fully paid and non-transferable leave. While the quota has led to increased paternal involvement in childcare, it has not significantly impacted women’s employment. Mothers still tend to take unpaid leave or work part-time once their paid leave ends, while fathers resume work at their previous pace. Moreover, the expansion of paternity leave has had unintended consequences, with couples who availed longer paternity leave having fewer children and higher divorce rates.
Expanding the father quota does not necessarily alleviate the challenges faced by mothers. Not all men utilize their allocated leave, particularly in countries where leave is poorly compensated or traditional gender norms persist. Even in the gender-egalitarian Nordic countries, a significant number of men do not take their paternity leave. This is especially true for those with lower education and income levels. Increasing paternity leave can even make things harder for mothers if it comes at the expense of leave they would otherwise take. Some mothers prefer to take that time themselves, especially if they are recovering from childbirth or nursing. In Spain, some mothers argue that the government should prioritize lengthening paid leave available to mothers to enable exclusive breastfeeding for the recommended six months. They believe that focusing on overhauling the economic system to value and support caregiving, and addressing discrimination against caregivers, is a better approach than targeting parental leave allocation.
The father quota has become a contentious issue among feminists with different perspectives on equality. Although Leave Rebellion did not reverse Norway’s 2018 leave reform, it succeeded in curbing momentum towards splitting parental leave evenly. However, the father quota continues to be a divisive factor among mothers in Norway and elsewhere.
In conclusion, the pursuit of gender equality in parental leave allocation has raised complex challenges. While efforts to involve fathers in caregiving are commendable, the unintended consequences and varying perspectives among feminists highlight the complexity of achieving an equitable solution. Balancing the needs of birth mothers and promoting equal leave uptake by both parents necessitates providing a substantial amount of leave, which may pose budgetary constraints for governments. Furthermore, a perfect 50-50 split may not be the ultimate goal for everyone, as the unique needs and responsibilities of birthing mothers during the postpartum period are distinct. Respecting each couple’s autonomy in deciding how to divide parental leave, alongside comprehensive economic and social reforms, seems to be the path toward a more equitable society.