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GOVT SERVICES, INTERNATIONAL, THE ISSUES

Sweden Asks If Two Months Is Enough For Paternity Leave

via Jens Hansegard, The Wall Street Journal

Jim Butcher’s decision to join Sweden’s army of “latte dads” last year didn’t win him any popularity contests with family and friends back home in the U.K.

“When I told my friends in England, they spat up their tea,” said the 35-year-old head of communications for digital-music company Spotify Ltd., which is based in Stockholm.

“They thought my out-of-office reply—that I was gone for six months—was a joke.” His father, a self-employed bricklayer, was concerned his son was jeopardizing his career.

But Mr. Butcher had a serious agenda for his half-year hiatus: Spending uninterrupted time with his newborn daughter.

Sweden’s paternity-leave benefits, enjoyed by citizens and foreign residents alike, are the most generous in the world—and a debate is under way nationwide over whether to extend them even further. Sweden should require men to take a minimum of three months’ leave, instead of the current two months, some politicians argue.

Fathers currently can take off work for as long as 240 days with a government-backed paycheck. Even if a father decides to take a more modest leave than allowed, he must take at least two months before the child is 8 years old to receive the government benefits.

Scores of dads can be seen during typical business hours strolling the streets of Stockholm, Gothenburg and other big cities pushing a stroller with one hand and nursing a cup from Espresso House or Wayne’s Coffee in the other. It isn’t uncommon to see men feeding babies and changing diapers in Stockholm’s famous Djugarden park island, which is within view of some of the city’s biggest companies and financial institutions.

Since being instituted in 1974, the paternity-leave policy has evolved from being a mechanism to encourage women to join what was a depleted workforce in the 1970s, to serve as a tool for gender equality and home stability today.

The Swedish government will pay 80% of a parent’s salary—up to a cap of about $65,000—for 13 months. One parent can sign over all but two of these months to the other.

Government statistics show the vast majority of fathers take off at least the minimum two months. And about 72% of working-age women living in Sweden are employed at least part time, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. This is more than in most other countries. Iceland and Norway—Nordic nations which also grant generous leave benefits, have more women in the workforce.

“If only women stayed home with children, women would be at a considerable disadvantage compared with men,” says Johanna Noren, a mother of one who works as a systems developer at Sweden’s Royal Library. Although she supports the idea of fathers taking a third month of leave, “it’s better if people make decisions on what they want and believe, rather than on what they feel forced to do.”

Her husband, Marten, returns to work as a computer-systems developer on Wednesday, after going on paternity leave in October. Their son, Elis, was born in November of 2010.

In addition to allowing him to share a lot of time with his son, “it also felt important for me and my wife to share the parental leave equally,” says Mr. Noren. “We said we wanted to split it evenly from the get-go and that’s what we did.”

The generosity comes at a cost. Exact figures aren’t available, but a report published by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development estimates public spending on parental leave cost 0.8% of gross domestic product, or the equivalent of $3.7 billion in 2007 alone.

Nevertheless, many Swedish politicians are arguing for even stiffer paternity requirements, including requiring dads to stay home a third month.

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