One of the nice things about being the Placement Co-Ordinator for Research Abroad students is reading cultural reports written by Imperial students to reflect some aspect of the local culture that has struck them. Here’s one that fits into the very frequent category of “I did not know that”. It’s written by Justine Courty who did her placement at the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm and I thought it was rather good.
“Can I see your ticket please?” asks the man at the entrance, toddler in one arm and barcode scanner in the other.
After this 8am Creative Morning lecture among Stockholm’s hipster crowd, I head to the climbing wall for half an hour of exercise before work. Four toddlers are crawling across the bouldering mat. Surprised, and a bit worried for their safety, I am later reassured by the view of four fathers sitting in a circle taking care of them in between attempts at climbing problems.
Later at work, a men in a suit bends down to tie his young daughter’s shoelaces during a lunch buffet where other employees have bought their kids as well.
In the tunnelbana (tube) on the way home, I see endless variations of men with babies/toddlers/grown children sitting on their laps/in their arms/in the pram they are pushing, sometimes with the mother at their side, sometimes not.
As I turn the key in the door lock, I hear a child crying. I turn around to see a man tending to a child in a pram.
During my first weeks in Stockholm, I was surprised at the never-seen-before huge amount of men (presumably the fathers) taking care of kids in the public space. Even further, I was shocked at how surprised I was by this, showing how uncommon this is in the two countries I have lived in so far (France and the UK).
While I knew some men would like to care for their children, I had never experienced it so obviously. While I knew Sweden is one of the world leaders in gender equality (as reported in the Global Gender Gap Report from 2010), I had never had such striking visual evidence that such a society could exist already so early in the 21st century.
I understand this to be in direct correlation with the unique parental leave system Sweden has. The parents can take up to 480 days of paid parental leave per child , . The first 390 days taken are paid up to 910 SEK per day (maximum 80% of the usual salary) while the last 90 days taken are paid at 180 SEK per day. This cost is shared between the employer and the state. So each parent has 240 days and can transfer their days to the other parent. During the child’s first year, the parents can also choose to take 30 days of their parental leave together.
The interesting twist is that, out of those 240 days per parent, 60 days are non-transferable. Therefore, if the parent does not take these days of parental leave, they are lost and the partner cannot take them. This obviously creates an incentive for the “minority parent” (the parent who ends up taking less parental leave overall) to take the parental leave.
In practice, fathers tend to be the minority parent and take 3 months on average (statistics from 2008). Fathers (or other parent of the child) also get 10 extra days to their parental leave specifically for the birth of the child (“tillfällig föräldrapenning”, the temporary parental benefit).
It gets better: the system also pays 50 SEK per day to each parent if the minority parent takes more than 60 days of parental leave. This is called the “jämställdhetsbonus”. The gender equality bonus.
Sweden’s commitment to give people of either gender the choice to take time off to raise children without compromising their careers continues throughout childhood. The parental leave can be taken until the child’s 8th birthday and is very flexible in how it is taken: in months at a time, as individual days or even by the hour.
When the parents cannot take time off, the “dagisplats” (day care) takes over. People I have asked at work report that you can drop off children as early as 6am in the mornings, making it easier for working parents to not worry about arriving to work late.
If the child is sick, parents can receive “temporary parental benefit for care of children” for at most 120 days per child per year.
This generous system is unique internationally, to the point that employers bank on it to attract potential employees; I have heard a PI ask another PI with children to drop a word about the unmatched parental benefits to a potential postdoc.
Aside from providing work/life balance, the system is striking because it has managed to also bring balance to who takes care of the child, overturning traditional gender roles that seem to be so entrenched in other more patriarchal societies like France.
Traditional western gender roles claim that men do not possess the mythical, “natural”, uniquely “feminine” qualities to take care of children. Would they be able to, they would not want to.
A day in Sweden’s cities shows how outdated these ideas are. By specifically giving fathers reserved days to take care of their children as early as 1974, Sweden has got rid of the stigma that stay-at-home dads report to feel in other countries. Here, taking care of your child as a man is the norm [4–6].
Encouraging men to become full-time stay-at-home dads is considered to aid parental harmony and avoid the state’s investment in women’s education going to waste. Men are less likely to consider child rearing as “someone else’s task”. They realize how exhausting and time-consuming being a stay-at-home parent is, as opposed to “the easy way out”. Despite the difficulty, latte pappas report on how rewarding the feeling is of their child being “just as comfortable with [them] as with [their] mum”, .
In the workplace, this translates to more gender equality: a PI told me that she wouldn’t distinguish between genders when looking for an employee, since at that level of education, a man is just as likely as a woman to take their full parental leave. Light years away from the idea that a woman should lie and never mention in an interview that she plans to have children (a question not usually even asked of men).
Instead of backhanded insults questioning their “masculinity” (whatever is meant by this sexist and archaic term), men can often even feel encouraged to take time off, especially when their employers are doing the same. Some firms are even reported to help their employees, regardless of gender, to stay home after the parental leave is over, by allowing work part-time or from home.
However, while it seems that the most vicious gendered insults are not heard in Sweden when the father takes the majority of the parental benefit, more subtle but cutting gendered remarks are still passed around.
Men who choose to take more time to parent are viewed in a more positive light, and latte-pappor (“Cappucino dads”, in reference to the sheer amount of dads with prams in Swedish cities’ numerous cafes) is a term used affectionately, while latte-mammor can be considered negatively as their prams take up space in cafes.
Lastly, either gender still faces limits in certain professional sectors: “an ever so brief hiatus in your career is unfortunately regarded by some as an obstacle” in very competitive careers.
To speed up the process of changing mentalities, some left wing Swedish political parties argue that the parental leave should be divided equally, with days being non-transferable between partners. This suggestion, while widely talked about, is not the most popular, as some say the state would be infringing too much on personal choice.
Some relevant ways to extend a study on the parental leave and its effects on gender equality:
How does Sweden’s situation compare to its Scandinavian neighbors, also known for their gender equality and extensive social welfare systems?
How does it intersect with matters of class, race and education?
How far do these benefits extend to same-sex couples and other non-traditional variations of the nuclear family?
Has this raised awareness of how gender roles are simply a social construct? If so, how have other feminist issues been impacted?
How did the Swedish cultural environment in the 70s help these gender equality ideas to get traction? Would the same measures would have equivalent effects in countries with different ideological and cultural starting points?
I realize that I have written this essay from a heavily hetero-normative (ie. focusing on a mother and a father as partners and parents) point of view. This was in order to highlight the gendered consequences of the parental leave.
I have also not mentioned how the parental benefit changes slightly in the case of adoption and the additional days given in the case of twins.
References and further reading:
The background picture on the first page is from the Facebook photos of the Creative Mornings lecture of 13/02/08 in Stockholm (the toddler in the picture is the toddler from the first sentence!)
 “Gender equality: The Swedish approach to fairness.” [Online]. Available: http://www.sweden.se/eng/Home/Society/Equality/Facts/Gender-equality-in-Sweden/. [Accessed: 21-Mar-2013].
 “For families with children (Barnfamiljer).” [Online]. Available: http://www.forsakringskassan.se/sprak/eng/for_families_with_children_(barnfamiljer). [Accessed: 20-Mar-2013].
 “Ecole « maternelle », sexisme et patriarcat : y a toujours plus important, c’est jamais le moment. Luttons malgré tout ! | A contrario.” [Online]. Available: http://www.acontrario.net/2013/02/01/ecole-maternelle-sexisme-patriarcat-lutte/. [Accessed: 22-Mar-2013].
 “All dads together: my new life among Sweden’s latte pappas | Money | The Observer,” The Guardian, 2012. [Online]. Available: http://www.guardian.co.uk/money/2012/nov/18/swedish-latte-pappa-shared-childcare. [Accessed: 20-Mar-2013].
 “Rise of London’s lattepapas,” Evening Standard, 2012. [Online]. Available: http://www.standard.co.uk/lifestyle/health/rise-of-londons-lattepapas-7618155.html.
 “Här stannar papporna hemma mest – Metro.” [Online]. Available: http://www.metro.se/stockholm/har-stannar-papporna-hemma-mest/EVHmby!Vcg97tqdDcYM/. [Accessed: 22-Mar-2013].
 “Explore West Sweden » Blog Archive » Swedish Latte Dads.” [Online]. Available: http://www.explorewestsweden.com/?p=1450. [Accessed: 22-Mar-2013].