Norway, the fatherland
Paternity leave law helps to create more equal households
In France, Audun Lysbakken would probably pass for a rather offhand politician. Last autumn after the birth of his daughter, the Norwegian minister of childhood, equality and social cohesion took four months' paternity leave.
Lysbakken changed nappies, did the shopping and cooked for 16 weeks while his wife went back to work.
"I wanted to spend time with my baby and show that important though work is, it does not justify shying away from family responsibilities," he said. "Being at home means taking care of little things and big ones, knowing when the baby has eaten, knowing her habits, putting away her clothes, being there when she smiles for the first time."
Lysbakken is not especially original in this. A few weeks after he left on paternity leave, the justice minister, Knut Storberget, also took three months' paternity leave to take care of his baby, Ingrid. "A few years ago this would have been fairly controversial," said Lysbakken with a smile. "But today it's quite the opposite. Now not taking paternity leave would be controversial. In 20 years people's mentality has really changed.
"Norwegians think it normal for fathers to spend time with their children. If we want women to have equality in the workplace, we have to share the responsibilities in the home better."
In Norway this family revolution has a name: pappapermisjon. After every birth, the parents both benefit from a two-week leave and then divide up the 46-week parental leave paid at 100%, or alternatively, 56 weeks paid at 80%. In this way Norwegian babies spend their first year with both their parents. To encourage men to take care of their children, a special 10-week quota is reserved for them. If they are reluctant to take pappapermisjon, they lose the 10 weeks, since the time can't be transferred to the mother and the whole family loses out. The results have been spectacular. In Norway, 90% of fathers take at least 12 weeks' paternity leave.
Before the law was passed in 1993, only 3% of fathers took paternity leave. Grete Berget was minister for childhood and the family when the pappapermisjon law was passed by a Social Democrat government. She remembers the smirks the Swedish-inspired reform caused, and smiles. "But our observation was simple," said Berget, adviser to the equality mediator. "We lived in a society where the distribution of roles was clear-cut: the men worked and the women took care of the family. Now that women have entered the labour market the men must take on their share of the family responsibilities. That's equality."
It is not the cost that bothers the few critics of pappapermisjon. For the Conservative party it's the quota principle itself that is a problem. "Each family is unique, and it's for the family to decide how it wants to organise its children's day to day lives, not the state," said Julie Brodtkorb, a leader of the rightwing party Hoyre. "With pappapermisjon, politics has entered family life. The system is too rigid. We prefer the rightwing feminist incentives, notably tax ones, rather than the imposed obligations of state feminism. You've got to trust the families."
But the Labour prime minister, Jens Stoltenberg, intends to pursue the path taken with the 1993 law. At the beginning of this month, the time quota reserved just for fathers increased from 10 weeks to 12 and it intended that it reach 14 weeks in 2012. Leftwing unions want to go further. They are asking for parental leave to be divided into three, one-third for the mother, one-third for the father and one-third to be chosen by the couple. "That's a bit rigid," said Lysbakken. "We want each family to sit around a table to discuss it and share the leave in the way it suits them best. A real cultural transformation is under way. It's not necessary to divide the leave into three for the father to spend more time with his children."
Of course pappapermisjon alone will not eradicate all gender inequalities. In Norway there is still a 15% wage discrepancy between men and women and women make up the majority of involuntary part-time workers. "We live in a society with 'light' equality," said the mediator, Sunniva Orstavik.
Nevertheless, the Norwegian quota system did spark a small revolution that is gaining ground in Europe. Iceland, Germany and more recently Portugal have decided to set aside part of parental leave for the father. According to a preliminary report from a gender equality roundtable in Paris, chaired by the minister for solidarity and social cohesion, Roselyne Bachelot, France may well follow suit.
This article originally appeared in Le Monde