Klara Svendsen and Ask Hybel were hiking in the mountains of Corsica not long after becoming a couple when they realised that they had forgotten to take contraception with them.
“We were forced to have that conversation about children – and we were like, let’s just go for it,” says Klara about their whirlwind relationship.
As the couple eats breakfast in their Frederiksberg apartment, 27-year-old Klara has their eleven-month old son on one knee while their two-and-a-half year old daughter plays in the adjoining living room.
“I always thought of myself as wanting kids early, but I am also a person that wants everything at the same time. I suffer from high self-esteem, so I thought I would be able to cope with working and being a mum. I would just put the baby on my arm and I’d continue working, but I quickly discovered that’s not possible,” she says, laughing.
Klara – who currently works in digital business development – returned relatively quickly to work after having each child, handing their care over to Ask after just six months.
“It was great to take time off,” says Ask, who started his own digital agency Cope after his first paternity leave. He also took six months with each child.
“I was used to having five weeks’ holiday a year, and now I was walking in the streets in the middle of the day. I had the freedom to go where I wanted, and it was fantastic.”
Klara’s decision to spend only six months away from the labour market may have contributed to her career success. There is plenty of research demonstrating the relationship between maternity leave and lost earnings – and the longer women stay out of the labour market, the greater the impact.
For example, a 2015 study from Cornell University found that because “women are more likely than men to reduce their hours of work during childrearing years, firms will invest less in women early in their careers, leading to a gender gap.”
The gender wage gap is present in economies around the world. In Denmark, women earn on average six percent less than men, while the OECD average is around 15 percent. Parental leave policies may be a contributing factor, according to Pew Research Centre, which found that countries with longer paid parental leave also had higher gender wage gaps. For example, New Zealand offers 18 weeks of paid parental leave and has a gender wage gap of only 5.6 percent, while the Czech Republic offers almost 40 paid weeks and has a wage gap of 15 percent.
Tackling the gap
Over a lifetime, the gender wage gap results in a considerable loss of earnings for women. But the losses increase exponentially over time, as women end up occupying senior, well-paid positions for fewer years of their career than men do.
As a result, with lower lifetime earnings and fewer years of pension contributions, women are more at risk of poverty in old age than men. According to the OECD, ten percent of female retirees in Sweden live in poverty, compared to five percent of male retirees. The Swedish gender wage gap is around 15 percent.
So the challenge facing progressive societies – especially those struggling with low birth rates – is how to support families with children while not harming the career advancement of women.
One widely-acknowledged solution is to get men to take more leave and women to take a little less. The hope is that if women end up taking less time off work, the effect on their career progression – the so-called motherhood penalty – will be minimised.
The argument is this: if parental leave is more equally shared, women will be perceived as less of an investment risk relative to men.
“The fact remains that it is primarily women who take advantage of family-friendly policies like flexible working arrangements, so perpetuating the idea that family responsibilities are a woman’s affair,” writes the OECD in the executive summary of its 2012 report, Closing the Gender Gap: Act Now.
The OECD argues that one of the best tools to encourage a better sharing of parental leave is to reserve a portion of paid leave exclusively for fathers. And there is good evidence that this policy is effective in getting more men to take time off with their children.
For example, Norway introduced a four-week “father’s quota” in 1993, which was gradually increased to 14 weeks in 2013. Although it was subsequently cut to ten weeks in 2014, the proportion of parental leave taken by men increased from 5.8 percent in 1995 to 21 percent in 2015.
Notably, the OECD reports that Norway’s gender wage gap has dropped from 10.2 percent in 2000 to seven percent in 2013.
Similar policies exist in Sweden and Iceland, where, according to the Nordic Council, men take 26.8 percent and 29.6 percent of parental leave, respectively.
In Denmark, however, where no portion of leave is reserved for fathers, men take only 8.6 percent. Statistics Denmark figures from 2013 show that 45 percent of men took only two weeks off after having a child, and 18 percent took no leave at all.
Danish fathers choose not to take leave despite the fact that it is their right. Danish parents are entitled to 52 weeks of leave in total. 18 weeks are reserved for the mother – four weeks before birth and 14 weeks after – and fathers get two weeks directly after birth. The remaining 32 weeks can be divided between the father and mother as they see fit.
Denmark’s position as the only Scandinavian country without a “use-it-or-lose-it” father’s quota looked to be coming to an end in 2011 with the election of the Social Democrats, who promised to set aside 12 weeks for fathers only.
But in 2013, they got cold feet and decided not to follow through, with one Megafon poll showing 28 percent of voters agreeing with the proposal and 55 percent opposed.
Momentum may be building in Danish society in favour of a father’s quota, however. A 2016 survey by Gallup for Berlingske found that 56 percent of Danes are now in favour of reserving 12 weeks solely for men. A number of political parties, such as the centrist Social Liberal Party (Radikale) and far-left Red-Green Alliance (Enhedslisten) support the measure, as do unions, which argue that employees would face less discrimination for taking time off.
Their concerns are not unfounded – 80 percent of 119 business leaders surveyed in Gallup’s 2016 poll were opposed to a father’s quota. If businesses create a climate where paternity leave is frowned upon, it could explain why 88 percent of the men who took no leave at all were employed in the private sector, according to a 2006 survey by SFI.
The same survey found that while 48 percent of working men are employed by the public sector, they accounted for 67 percent of parental leave-takers. This might be because they work in more gender-mixed workplaces, where taking parental leave is more common, or because the public sector offers better paid-leave programmes than the private sector.
These conclusions are supported by a 2011 DJØF survey, which found that 50 percent of men who took less than three months’ leave said they would have taken more if their employer had assured them that it wouldn’t affect their job situation, or if their workplace had a culture of male employees taking leave.
There are good economic reasons to get men to take more parental leave. A recent study from the Rockwool Foundation found that an extra week of parental leave taken by the father can increase household income by up to 14,000 kroner per year.
Instead of focusing on the impact of the length of father’s leave on household earnings, the study’s research leader and author, Signe Hald Andersen, tested the effect of the extent of the father’s leave relative to the mother’s.
She found that increasing the father’s involvement in childcare ultimately benefits the earning power of both father and mother, resulting in a higher total household income.
Andersen argues that when couples split parental leave more evenly, women are less likely to become specialised as primary caregivers, which can suppress their careers and earnings.
“The degree to which mothers become specialised reflects the extent to which the parents divide the leave – the absolute length of leave each takes doesn’t matter. If mothers take more leave than fathers, their specialisation as caregivers continues after leave ends, meaning they are more likely to take time off work to care for sick children, and so on,” Andersen explains.
This phenomenon is reflected in Ask and Klara’s relationship, where they found that the benefits of splitting leave extended beyond simply improving Klara’s career and earnings.
“I fell in love with the ambitious and hard-working Klara,” says Ask. “Instead of the split where I work more, and she does more household duties, we see ourselves as a team that gets things done.”
Their major source of conflict, then, is when the balance of household chores ends up skewed.
“We are both ambitious and want to do the fun things with our kids – neither of us is interested in doing all the cooking and laundry,” says Ask, adding that because both have stayed home and done the boring and dirty housework, they are better able to sympathise with each other.
“I understand Klara saying she will be home in 30 minutes and it takes an hour, because I’ve done that a hundred times. And she understands why I’m angry waiting half an hour with a screaming kid that’s been screaming the whole day.”
No change soon
If a father’s quota encourages men to take more parental leave, and increased parental leave increases household income, it seems like a no-brainer. But don’t expect the right-wing government to rally behind it any time soon.
“I know that there are many people who want a father’s quota, but it’s not the government’s position – we believe in freedom for the family,” said equality minister Karen Ellemann of the Liberal Party (Venstre) in March.
She argues that the issue is best tackled in the private sector by changing workplace cultures to become more accepting of men taking parental leave.
“My ambition is to challenge a culture where we see it as natural that parental leave is ‘maternity leave’. That’s why we are going to launch a campaign to encourage men to take more leave.”
To the government, then, the principle of freedom of choice weighs heavier than implementing a proven policy. But it’s an argument that even Ask identifies with.
“I don’t think the state should be so deeply involved in decisions such as these. I think that families know best what is good for them, and that the major issue is that businesses don’t provide enough flexibility for their employees,” he says, with a caveat.
“But I still don’t have an alternative solution for getting men to take more time off.” M