Location: Oslo, Norway.
The year is 2014.
36 years have gone by since the parental leave law was passed. Now, this once thriving society lies in ruins. Homes and businesses abandoned, as their former inhabitants fled to safer, more civilized grounds. The steady trudge of the government and its complacent sheep-people along the path to economic and social hara-kiri began a little over half a century earlier with the passing of the law on maternal leave. Rather than learning from the resulting economic crisis (thousands of employees had to be simultaneously hired and fired, first to fill the void left by new mothers and then to allow for the exorbitant compensation to new mothers demanded by the government) policy makers persisted in their blind stubbornness. First with a law allowing for fathers to take up to three weeks to spend time with and care for their newly born child and its mother. The straw that broke the camel’s back however was the government enacting a law permitting parents to have 52 weeks of individual paid leave, partitioned as the couple saw fit so as to allow the other partner to return to work or their studies. The effects were felt within months of the law coming into force. The monarchy, politicians, and certain well connected individuals were the first to jump ship. Shortly after, a great part of the population followed. Those left behind now live in the squalor and destitution that this once great nation has become.
Wait, no. That’s not quite right. Ah, yes. This never happened.
What in fact did happen goes a little like this:
In 1956 the right to maternal leave was concretised in law. In 1977 father’s obtained the right to take two weeks of leave to support and care for the new mother and child. The year after that shared parental leave was established in policy. A couple could divide the weeks between themselves as they saw fit or both take time off simultaneously and work part time. The father was given 14 weeks of leave that he was obliged by law to take before the child’s 3rd birthday. The cost of this was and still is covered for the most part by the National Welfare Office, although employers also contribute with individuals receiving between 80 – 100% of their salary. 36 years later, local businesses are not economically stunted, the economy has not collapsed, domestic duties have not transformed men into some strange testosterone drained third sex. Rather, the country has one of the highest standards of living in the world (at times the highest standard, depending on the year).
Norway is by no means the only country to have adopted these laws. Other Scandinavian countries have similar policies in place. Sweden for example also has a fixed minimum period of 60 days parental leave for each individual that if not taken, will be lost to the couple. Besides these Nordic nations in the UK as of April of next year fathers will have the right to share parental leave. German law does not accommodate paternity leave however it does allow for shared parental leave over the 3 year period following the birth of a child. Although practically all developed nations, with the exception of the United States in which there is no paid parental leave of any sort, have some policy requiring at least 2 to 3 months of paid maternity leave, most still lag behind when it comes to paternity and especially parental leave. In France for example, since 2002 fathers have between 11 and 14 days off (weekends included). The Swiss government passed a federal law on paid maternity leave following a referendum in 2005 but there is still no policy governing paid paternal leave despite the fact that a recent study mandated by L’Hebdo (2013) found that 78.9% of those surveyed expressed support for such a policy.
On the African continent, a number of countries include allowances for maternity leave in their legislation. In Nigeria for example, women are entitled to 12 weeks of leave. Furthermore employers are obligated to pay them at least 50% of their salary, although in practice many pay the full sum. There is no law concerning paternity leave. Several companies do allow short periods of leave for their employees to take care of personal or family situations though. Similarly in other countries, such as Cameroon, Ivory Coast, and South Africa men can also take time off work to deal with familial issues (10 days in the case of the first two and 3 in the case of South Africa).
Certain groups would have us believe that following the same path as countries that espouse paternity and parental leave would perhaps not lead to economic ruin, but would certainly put a massive dent in the financial health of the country’s businesses as well as the government coffers. Although each nation is different, those in which paid parental leave is a right are far from floundering economically. On the contrary, the long-term benefits on an economic as well as social level are manifold.
1. Both parental and paternity leave allow the father to support and assist the mother with domestic tasks and caring for the new born child.
2. Paternal leave encourages and facilitates the development of a healthy father-child relationship. A multitude of studies have shown that not only is the relationship with the mother important for the psychological well-being of a child, a healthy relationship with the father can contribute to increasing happiness, general life satisfaction, and reducing feelings of distress. Children of highly involved fathers in comparison to those that are less involved exhibit better social functioning in childhood and adulthood, higher IQ scores from the age of 3, and better educational performance later on.
3. The participation of fathers in the home promotes equity in the sharing of domestic duties, especially in situations in which both parents are employed.
4. Allowing both women and men to have parental leave allows the father to take a more active role in parenting, and consequently improves not only the position of women in the labour market, but of the entire family unit. Currently, many households require two incomes to make do. It is no secret, though that women are often considered less hireable than men, in large part because they are as seen as a costly liability to organisations for the very reason that they may take time off work to have and care for children. The raising of children, at least as our society has constructed it, is however a task for two
5. The cost of educating women in university for them to later not be employed is a social and financial cost that is often not taken into account, perhaps because it is somewhat difficult to quantify. Providing a university education in a number of countries costs the government tens of thousands of euros. The cost of educating medical professionals in Switzerland is approximately 1,000,000 CHF. Making such an investment and not exploiting it in the labour market to the fullest is the equivalent of flushing that money down the toilet.
But even so, giving men paid leave is one thing, convincing them to take advantage of it is a whole other matter. Even in Scandinavian countries that we so idealise, women still do the lion’s share of domestic work and are more likely to use up more of the couples shared leave. Norms and stereotypes that require women to be nurturing and men to be providers must catch up with the times if these policies are to truly have a significant and lasting impact.