Saturday, November 30, 2013

Mamas and papas

Until quite recently, Sweden had many of the same problems with gender equality as the US; men and women were confined to traditional roles when it came to working and raising kids. Although the country offered more than a year of parental leave, mothers were traditionally the only ones who stayed home with the baby. Women made less money than men, and the 6% of fathers who did take time off were derided with a Swedish term that means "velvet dads" and stigmatized at work for being unmanly.

In what turned out to be a bureaucratic stroke of genius in 1995, the Swedish government created financial incentives for men to take paternity leave. If the father didn't take time off, the family lost one month of subsidies. Soon dads took off a month, two months, even longer. Men got a taste of what it was like to be the primary parent. They became more confident in their role at home, assuming those responsibilities traditionally left to the moms. Dads started craving more time with their kids. Today, 8 in 10 fathers in Sweden now take a third of the total 13 months of leave.

Studies show that when fathers spend time taking care of infants, they are more likely to become involved parents as their children get older.

As everyone got used to the idea that dads would take time off, the culture at work began to change, with flextime becoming more common. The pay gap between men and women started to close. One study showed a mother's future earnings increased about 7% for every month the father took off.

Divorce rates started to go down in Sweden, at a time when they were rising in other countries. For the couples who did divorce, shared custody became more common. A "new definition of masculinity" began to emerge. Birgitta Ohlsson, European affairs minister, put it this way: "Machos with dinosaur values don't make the top-10 lists of attractive men in women's magazines anymore."

"Now men can have it all — a successful career and being a responsible daddy. It's a new kind of manly. It's more wholesome."

This simple little change — giving dads incentives to take parental leave — had a profound effect on employees, employers, women, men, and families.

Germany (population 82,000,000) decided to try a similar experiment in 2007. In just two years, the number of fathers taking parental leave jumped from 3% to more than 20%.

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