For a country that prides itself on its progressive values, the United States has one of the worst maternity leaves in the world. Juxtaposing this to Sweden’s extensive parental leave makes it seems almost dystopian. Women in the United States receive twelve weeks of unpaid leave following the birth of a child; women in Sweden, however, receive 480 days off with up to 80 percent of their usual pay. Sweden’s generous maternity leave is commonly associated with the many benefits it conveys to Swedish women. In 2015, the World Economic Forum ranked Sweden fourth in the Gender Gap Index, and the country’s impressive rate of 87.5 percent of women participating in the workforce is one of the highest in the world. Still, it remains that only 1.5 percent of top senior management positions are held by women—a striking fact which can perhaps be explained by these seemingly progressive, feminist policies.
The problem with having 480 days of paid maternity leave per child is that women who take a majority of this time off work will suffer from human capital depreciation. Even if they are qualified for their jobs, their skills will not be as honed as someone who has spent this time working. This leads to fewer and fewer women being able to work their way up their way up the corporate ladder. As a result, 75 percent of women work in the public sector in Sweden which generally pays less and requires less qualifications. Logically speaking, it makes sense that women who take significant time off to take care of their children would not be as valuable to a company as someone who is there training and learning every day. Once these women fall behind in their career, it is hard to catch back up to the status which men have obtained.
The issue in not inherently built into the policy. It is not as if these days are prohibited to fathers. In fact, it is the opposite; 60 of the days off are given to fathers and the rest can be divided as the parents wish. Yet, it persists that women are taking, on average, about 76 percent of this time off. In choosing to make full use of maternity leave, women may not consciously decide to forgo career advancements, but the result of their decision is just that, as evidenced by the fact that a woman’s salary will decline by about four percent for every child that she has, while the salary of a man will increase by approximately six percent.
This appears to result in a trade-off. Though it may be assumed that the women in Sweden are better off because of paid maternity leave, this policy does not serve to increase Swedish women’s career achievements. Contrasting this is the policy of the United States where a lack of maternity leave forces women to return to work shortly after birth. This results in an increased number of women in positions of power. The U.S. policy, too, has its drawbacks as it can be costly for parents who must now find a way to provide childcare, and such a policy could prove detrimental for a child who will not see either of its parents as much as a result.
By no means is parental leave a horrible policy based on anti-feminist ideals; rather, it has all the best intentions in mind. Paternity leave, in particular, advocates for gender equity by offering and encouraging men to take some time to participate in childcare. The use of which benefits women greatly. Every month of paternity leave that a father takes results in around a seven percent increase in salary of the mother. Yet it goes to show that even well-intended policies cannot completely eradicate gender inequality. It also serves to question how far a government should go about controlling the details of such a policy. Sweden’s government could require that more of the allotted time be solely allocated for paternity leave. Many argue that Sweden’s government should demand 50 percent of parental leave be given to the father or lost completely. While limiting free will, this policy would help achieve further societal gender equality which will have positive externalities for the country as a whole. Taking away, slowly, the assumption that women must be the caregivers while men must work could provide for more gender equality in society. If gender equity in childcare had predominated, to begin with, then maybe 76 percent of the parental leave would not be taken by the mother but rather evenly shared.
Critics of evenly split parental leave argue that it restricts the freedom of choice for a couple in deciding who will provide childcare. In a progressive world, one could easily argue that, while equality in the workforce and more women in managerial positions would be ideal, the government of Sweden has done all that it can, and the rest relies on its constituents to determine what is most important to them individually. Perhaps the issue will resolve itself, and, as time progresses, more men will want to have a larger role as caregivers for their children and more women will want to obtain high up positions at private firms, but as of yet this scenario seems unlikely to happen anytime in the near future.
Before praising the generous parental leaves given by Sweden, consider that there is an average pay line, above which the salaries of 80% of Swedish men fall; below which lie the salaries of 80% of Swedish women. It seems that in Sweden, women must choose either to have ascendant careers or to be mothers, and the majority are choosing the latter. The fate of these women is often seen in workplace inequality where many will return from maternity leave only to become poorly paid, low status career in the public sector where wages lie far below that of Swedish men. This stark gender-divided landscape does not have to be a reality for Sweden, if only they reconsider, reinvent, and redistribute their paternal leave.