Women in the workforce: How one country has made paid parental leave work well for women, for men and for society

Posted by Julian Nowland

In our previous blog post we discussed how anomalies in Australian policies and business practices are making it tough for women to stay in (or return to) the workforce.

Now let’s see what could happen if we gave women more flexibility and made things more equitable for them.

Sweden has one of the most generous paid parental leave system in the world. Its citizens get 480 days of paid parental leave per child. But what makes it so different is those 480 days can be used by either parent, in any combination they choose.

In 1974, the first year of their gender-neutral paid parental leave scheme, 0.5% of fathers took parental leave. Now almost 90% of all Swedish fathers take some paternity leave. And one in four of them take it exclusively.

Admittedly the scheme needed carrot and stick policies to get it to where it is today. But once it reached critical mass there was a mind shift, and it’s now a social norm.

And the result for the women? Studies have shown that for each month the father stays on parental leave, the mother’s earnings increase by 7.5%.

Giving fathers the opportunity to take parental leave meant the women spent less time out of the employment market. Not only did this increase their participation in the workforce, it also increased productivity and GDP.

Splitting parental leave more equally (both economically and personally) naturally rebalances the positive effects of women participating in the workforce. Their long-term income potential increases, as does diversity in the workplace. And we end up with a more egalitarian, progressive and successful society.

So why isn’t it happening here in Australia? Maybe we need a similar mind shift to the one in Sweden. It may even need to happen before the government and businesses can act. Perhaps men rely on their job title and seniority level for their self-esteem and sense of worth. And, consciously or subconsciously, they’re not willing to give that up to help their partner.

But if we’re ever going to achieve equality for women, their partners need to be equally prepared to take parental leave so they can return to work. And hopefully the change in mindset will lead to a change in policies and business practices that will make it all possible.

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