This blog was featured on 09/01/2016
If Men Shared Half the Childcare, Would Women Achieve Equality?
Written by
State of the Art
February 2012
Written by
State of the Art
February 2012

Sarah Glazer Looks at Motherhood in the Norwegian Paradise and is Envious

How often do you call up a male economist to find out he’s too busy feeding his 11-month old and his kindergartener to come to the phone for an interview? I’m not just talking about helping out. This economist is in the 3rd month of his 6-month parental leave while his wife is back at work.

Ok it’s a trick question. This economist lives in the Nordic Nirvana of Norway. He and his wife were eligible for 13 months of parental leave at 80 percent of their pay as soon as their second child was born. After the first month of leave, which is reserved for the mother, that parental leave could be divided among the parents as they saw fit.

The economist’s wife took 6 months of parental leave to stay home with the kids while her economist husband worked. Now it’s his turn to take the remaining 6 months of the household shift. It wasn’t a matter of argument or tension that they decided to split the parental leave about equally, says Harald Dale-Olsen. As he points out, they earn about the same salary and have similar jobs as social scientists, so it makes economic sense.

To me, it seems like a dream to try to transpose this eminently sensible scheme onto my own American experience as a working mother. Back in the 1980s when my friends and I were having kids, the short maternity leave of a few weeks convinced several of my friends to give up their jobs so they could enjoy some semblance of motherhood. The idea that one of our husbands might step out of his job for a while was unheard of. But the result, as many of my friends realized too late, was that when they tried to go back to their careers they were seen as having been out of the job market too long to be serious job candidates.

Those generous Scandinavian maternity leaves –along with the guarantee of your job back when you return--have long been considered the key to allowing mothers to continue in careers. But some research now shows that long maternity leaves actually penalized women—at least when it came to promotions to the top.

When employers in countries like Sweden look at a single woman applying for a job, what they really see is an employee likely to take a year off work once she has a baby, costing the company money in lost hours invested in training her, two Swedish researchers found.

Women end up getting jobs that are less well-paid, with fewer opportunities for promotion to the top.

Some people, including economist Dale-Olsen, say there’s an easy fix to this: REQUIRE Fathers to take as much parental leave as mothers. That way when an employer looks at a female candidate he won’t just think how expensive she’ll be to promote compared to her male colleagues. Instead, he’ll realize the male candidate is likely to take just as much time off once he becomes a father.

Norway has a new requirement that goes part of the way to encouraging new fathers to take time off: fathers get 12 weeks of parental leave that’s just for them. But if they don’t use it before the child turns three they lose it. A new proposal in Norway would split the year-long parental leave into three equal chunks: one for the mother, one for the father, one to be divided among them as they like.

I know it seems like a pipe dream in individualistic America. Too expensive, I can hear the skeptics say. But it’s women who bear the cost. By doing the bulk of household chores, women subsidize men’s advancement in the public sphere, says Laura A. Liswood, Secretary-General of the Council of Women World Leaders.

For me it’s still a strange feeling to hear a man admitting he’s home with the kids. When I had to quit my job as a news reporter because of a child-care crisis and started free-lancing from home, I treated my work location as a shameful secret--only occasionally revealed to my interviewees by the screams of a child barging into my study. But I guess things are different in nirvana.

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