Symposium: The Contemporary Family

Balancing work and family: A Scandinavian perspective

Deborah Brennan, University of Sydney

Arnlaug Leira Working Parents and the Welfare State: Family Change and Policy Reform in Scandinavia, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2002 (182 pp). ISBN 0-52157-129-4 (hard cover) RRP $99.00.

Ever-growing numbers of families in western societies seek to balance paid work and family commitments. Consequently, the need for innovative social policy measures and radical transformation of the links between the welfare state, the labour market, and families has intensified. Australia remains mired in a debate about the introduction of fourteen weeks paid maternity leave. But Scandinavian countries, some of which instituted paid maternity leave in the nineteenth century, have moved on to pioneer a range of innovative ideas—including guaranteed rights to childcare, shared access to parental leave, ‘daddy leave’ and cash payments for home-based care. Arnlaug Leira, Professor of Sociology at Oslo University, examines these initiatives in her new book Working Parents and the Welfare State: Family Change and Policy Reform in Scandinavia.

Leira emphasises how Scandinavian men and women have leveraged their status as employees, carers, and citizens of welfare states to make new claims on government. She discusses both employment-based rights, such as maternity, paternity, and parental leave, which enable men and women to care for their own children and policies, and other social provisions like access to childcare, which make it possible for parents not to be full-time carers.

She explores in detail three types of policy that exemplify contrasting responses to combining paid work and family care. The first of these is government funding of childcare services, which primarily supports the ‘dual-earner’ family model in which both parents have substantial amount of paid work. The second policy is parental leave that, in Leira’s view, assumes a ‘dual-earner/dual-carer’ family in which both parents actively engage in paid work and childcare. The third policy area is cash assistance for childcare, which, despite the gender-neutral rhetoric, draws upon a gender-differentiated model of family life.

Not all these policies are in place across Scandinavia, and Leira is at pains to emphasise that there is no single ‘model’ of family policy in these countries. Sweden, Denmark, Norway, Finland, and Iceland each have distinctive traditions and policy histories regarding families, motherhood and fatherhood, and ideals about gender equality.


The politicisation of childcare is central to Leira’s analysis and provides several interesting points of comparison and contrast with Australia. In Scandinavian countries, responsibility for the care of young children is seen as a shared responsibility of parents (or perhaps, more realistically, of mothers) and the state. Further, the expansion of publicly supported childcare has been presented not simply as a parental entitlement but as having important educational, social, and developmental benefits for children.

The level of childcare provision varies significantly across Scandinavia. Denmark provides publicly funded care for almost half (48 per cent) of all children less than three years of age; Sweden and Iceland cater to 37 per cent; Norway to 22 per cent; while Finland trails behind at eighteen per cent. Comparisons between the countries are complicated, however, by the existence of other forms of assistance. Norwegian parents have access to a cash benefit that can be used to support parental care of under-threes on condition that the child does not use state-supported childcare, while Finnish parents can choose between a place in a publicly sponsored childcare service or a cash benefit. The introduction of cash benefits (discussed below) has reduced demand for childcare places for the under-threes, but unmet demand continues in both Norway and Finland.

Parental leave

'Daddy leave' establishes a new norm for being a good father.

The Scandinavian countries were the first to introduce parental leave as an extension of maternity leave, thereby establishing the preconditions for both mothers and fathers to be involved in the care of children. Although there are variations, parental leave is generally buttressed by wage-related income support. Such schemes, however, have proved ineffective in encouraging men to become involved in the day-to-day care of their children—even when wage compensation is high. While most fathers take some parental leave, men’s share of the total leave taken remains very low. Only in Sweden do fathers take more than ten per cent of the available leave days.

In response to fathers’ reluctance to take parental leave, Norway, Sweden, Denmark, and Iceland have instituted defined periods of leave reserved for fathers. Such ‘daddy leave’ has proved far more popular among fathers than access to parental leave—perhaps because it is non-transferable: if the father does not take it, the leave is lost. (The provisions that apply to sole parents are unclear.) According to Leira, ‘daddy leave’ not only provides an entitlement, it also establishes a new norm for being a good father.

Unfortunately, however, most fathers see the three or four weeks of ‘daddy leave’ as setting the outer limits of their full-time care giving responsibilities. Men’s take-up of gender-neutral parental leave remains low and the impact of children on men’s work opportunities is relatively insignificant. Thus, extended leave, interrupted careers, prolonged part-time work, and absence from work for family reasons are overwhelmingly associated with women.

In almost all European countries, parental leave is an extension of, not an alternative to, maternity and paternity leave. This is particularly interesting in the context of Australian debates about the appropriate name for leave given at or around the time of childbirth. Some submissions to the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission in 2002 argued that such leave should be labeled ‘parental leave’ and should be available to both men and women. Others argued that women should be entitled to a specific period of leave in recognition of the physical and emotional rigours of childbirth.

In all the countries discussed in this book (and indeed throughout Europe) maternity leave is the foundation upon which other policies are built. Indeed, the right of mothers to a period of paid leave at the time of the birth of a child predates women’s right to vote in several countries. Australian campaigners who have pursued ‘parental leave’ as an alternative to ‘maternity leave’ might wish to re-examine their strategy in the light of the Scandinavian experience—especially if their goal is to encourage fathers’ involvement in the care of their children. Men, it seems, are more likely to take up father-specific rights such as paternity leave and ‘daddy leave’, than to claim a share of gender-neutral entitlements such as parental leave.

Childcare allowances (cash benefits for childcare)

Cash benefits for childcare have been controversial in Finland and Sweden.

Maternity, paternity, and parental leave accompanied by generous wage-linked benefits are generally available for the first ten to fifteen months of a child’s life. Since the mid–1980s, several Nordic countries have introduced a further period of leave, usually called childcare leave. This leave is accompanied by cash benefits which provide some assistance but which are not nearly as generous as wage-related benefits.

Finland, for example, introduced childcare leave in 1985. Childcare leave cuts in when maternity, paternity, and parental leave have been exhausted. Leave is accompanied by a benefit equal to about 40 per cent of a female process worker’s wage. Finnish parents can elect to take childcare leave until the child turns three, or to access a place in a municipal childcare centre. Take-up is high: around 80 per cent of families use some part of their childcare leave. Most, however, take only a short period—generally returning to work when their child is twelve to eighteen months old. Only fifteen per cent of parents remain on leave until their child is three years old—overwhelmingly, these are poorly educated mothers in low-income families. Further, although the leave is, in principle, available to both women and men, it is used almost exclusively by mothers—no doubt because of the impact on family finances in gender-segregated labour markets.

Cash benefits for childcare have been controversial in Finland and Sweden. They are perceived—particularly by feminist groups and women in the Social Democratic parties—as undermining publicly subsidised childcare and implicitly encouraging a gendered division of labour within the household. Social democrats and feminists have generally argued for the extension of childcare services and paid leave, while parties of the centre and right have promoted direct financial subsidies to parents, usually under the rubric of encouraging choice. A centre-conservative government in Sweden introduced an entitlement similar to the Finnish childcare allowance in 1994 during its brief period in power. However, the Social Democrats abolished it on their returned to power. In Norway, the Social Democrats also opposed cash payments for childcare prior to their introduction in 1997.

Do such schemes increase the options available to families? Leira shows that, in practice, there is no simple answer: childcare allowances are underpinned by a variety of motivations and rationales. Some require or presume that a parent will provide care in the home, while others insist on the continued economic activity of both parents (or one in the case of sole parents) and require that the benefit be used to buy private childcare—as is the case with the French Allocation de garde d’enfant à domicile. Enabling parents to provide care for their own children is one reason offered, but not the only one. In Finland and Norway, for example, eligibility is not related to employment status, but there is a requirement that the child in respect of whom payment is made does not attend state-sponsored childcare.

Leira’s discussion of cash benefits for childcare is especially interesting for Australian readers given the ongoing debate about the most appropriate ways to support parents with very young children. As she points out, any form of leave that encourages women to withdraw from the labour force for extended periods of time is likely to have serious long-term consequences which need to be carefully assessed.

Depending upon how it is managed and what policies surround it, extended withdrawal from the labour force can have a major impact upon women’s skill retention, confidence, and employability. There are likely to be effects upon lifetime earnings, economic independence, and retirement income. As Leira notes, ‘motherhood tends outlast marriage or cohabitation’ and an ever-growing proportion of women will experience a period as sole providers. Such withdrawal—although easy to present as a simple matter of ‘choice’—has the potential to become an economic and social trap for women.

Working Parents and the Welfare State is an important book for all those with an interest in work and family. More generally it will be of interest to anyone concerned with the redrawing of the boundaries between the welfare state, the market, and the family. It would be good to see an affordable paperback edition of the book produced without delay.

Deborah Brennan is Associate Professor in the discipline of Government and International Relations and is an experienced analyst of Australian social policy. She is currently researching European maternity, paternity, and parental leave schemes.

View other articles in this symposium: