Okt 232012
 

 

Individual choices for Swedish parents to decide over their family duties is under threat. A new study that examine the distribution of parental leave and its impact on the parent’s sick leave undermines the parents’ freedom of choice. 

Krönika av Elizabeth Dacey-Fondelius

How would you like it if government legislation mandated the distribution of household chores in your home? Men must do the laundry and women must drill holes for shelves. What if legislation were to limit the frequency of those chores and levy a fine for lack of compliance? Preposterous, right?

A study coming out next week to examine the disproportional distribution of parental leave and its subsequent impact on the parents’ sick leave threatens to undermine parents’ individual choices to decide over their family duties.

Still struggling for equality 

Fighting for gender equality for women and men in Swedish society is admirable. However, it should never be at the cost of personal freedoms and the ability for the members of a family to make daily decisions in running their homes and lives. There must come a point when the benevolence of the do-gooder interferes with the integrity of the individual and the family.

Sweden has taken great strides to ensure that women enjoy some of the best conditions across the globe for equal opportunity at home and work.  However, Ulf Kristersson (M), the current minister is quick to pull back the praises, “We have been very good at increasing women’s participation in the workforce, but we have not increased men’s responsibility to participate in family life to the same extent.”

Within this context presumably he means staying home with an infant until entering nursery care or when a sick child stays home. Fair enough. Women still over-represent in that category. But that plays no role for the intended benefactor of generous parental benefits; the child.

Forgetting the child

While this reality may put women at a disadvantage professionally, studies that show a plus or minus for the developing child in relation to the spread of care by gender are rarely quoted. Most likely because the correct assessment is that either parent makes an equally competent caregiver for the child. So, back to the political will to mandate parental distribution.

The common justification to influence how parents share parenting relies heavily on the negative consequences for women in the workforce. Statistically, if we know that a female employee will be absent more often, then we may choose a man over a woman to fill a job. This is a sad reality but not a good enough reason to overstep into our private lives. The purpose of paid leave is to ensure the best care for children. We must remind legislators that the most competent people to determine the best care for their child are the child’s parents.

Gender divided workforce

The first part of Mr Kristersson’s statement, “we have been good at increasing women’s participation in the workforce” sounds superficially admirable. However, it glosses over a general acceptance that there is already a gender imbalance by job descriptions. Women dominate professions like nursing or teaching while men take up most of the firefighting or construction jobs.

The premise that women earn less than men is calculated in part knowing that men and women will seek different employment opportunities and that jobs dominated by women are paid lower wages across the board than jobs dominated by men. The fight for equal pay does not require that equal numbers of women and men should hold the same job, but that all jobs are valued equally. We thereby accept that we follow different interests when selecting the work we do. Provided of course, that it is outside the home.

While we are adamant to include housework and childcare in the general category of “work”, we do not easily allow for a free will to take on those jobs or share them at home. As a woman and a staunch feminist I implore our society to stay out of how I run my family. Provide me opportunities, tools and the environment to foster equality but do not dictate it.

In parents we trust

This is not to say that there should be no study or that we should dismiss its findings. The study will provide valuable information for analysis and opportunities to improve how we can encourage a more equal society including within the walls of our homes. However, I am greatly concerned about how politicians across the political spectrum will interpret, extrapolate and ultimately attempt to draft it into proposed legislation.

And so now we return to how we define and value the way care for our families and our homes. The need to even out professional opportunities encroaches on our private domain. It presumes that personal choices cannot always be better informed than societal definitions of equality. That should be overtly nonsensical. Sadly it is not. The evidence is found in the echo of political voices insisting that gender distribution for basic child care must be as close to parity as possible. Why? For equality in the workplace?

Forward with continued enlightenment

Men’s participation in caring for children has been steadily rising in Swedish society over the past several decades. Men take more and more time off from work either on parental leave or for caring for children who are ill. Statistically, the male to female ratio is still far below the 50:50 mark, but changes in social behavior takes time if not generations to evolve. Yet certainly it can be helped along.

Many would argue that the introduction in 1994 of the “pappamånad”, the reservation of 30 parental leave days for the father, is to be credited for this current uptrend. Undoubtedly, it has helped, but to not give more credit to a general and consistent “enlightenment” of men and women in Sweden over the decades would be misguided and unfair.

Sofie Cedstrand, an analyst for the Swedish Social Insurance Agency (Försäkringskassan) said in June 2012, ”If we are to reach the goal of equality, we need to impose additional mandated leave distribution.” This labor market rhetoric is counterproductive to the primary motivation for parental leave; to serve the best interest of the child. Caring for children is one of our society’s utmost priorities and using it as a political leveraging arm to affect “equality” does a disservice to the children it intends to serve. Do not hijack parental leave from the child.

It is all about the money

Equality for women and men through more balanced distribution of child care should be stimulated by incentive and not out of fear of a punishment. Equal parental leave would be better served by removing the financial cap for parental leave compensation. It is obvious that a family must make decisions based on money. Forced distribution to the “other” parent is currently 60 days with louder voices crying for a dead-even split between father and mother. However, that is motivated by fear and financial dependency. If the alternative is no money or less money then we force both parents to take time off. Some money is always better than no money.

Instead, the compensation should be as attractive for fathers to stay home as for mothers. Loss of combined income has long been a high-ranking explanation for why the lower salaried parent takes more time off. I would welcome this study to include the percentage of fathers who take parental leave when their employers offer to compensate the difference between the  income compensation ceiling set by Försäkringskassan and their true salary.

And now we come full circle. We accept that men and women unequally choose careers in the workplace, but we refuse to consider that men and women willingly and with agreement choose different chores and responsibilities in the partnership of parenthood.

By all means encourage men to take more hands on roles in caring for children, but do not presume you can negotiate better than we can ourselves.