Swedish gender paradise, or not?

According to the NYT, Sweden’s parental leave policies is something to be desired and imitated.  A thoroughly interesting and somewhat surprisingly read.  For some background on my previous thoughts on fertility rates and interventionist policies on getting women back into the work place full time, here.

But scrolling down to second half of the article, the rosy picture decidedly darkens.

Some, however, worry that as men and women both work and both stay home with kids, a gender identity crisis looms. “Manhood is being squeezed” by the sameness, argued Ingemar Gens, an author and self-described gender consultant.

So is the Swedish taxpayer. Taxes account for 47 percent of gross domestic product, compared with 27 percent in the United States and 40 percent in the European Union overall. The public sector, famous for family-friendly perks, employs one in three workers, including half of all working women. Family benefits cost 3.3 percent of G.D.P., the highest in the world along with Denmark and France, said Willem Adema, senior economist at the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

Bodil Sonesson Gallon, head of sales at Axis Communications, an IT company that specializes in video surveillance, admits that parental leave can be disruptive — for careers and companies. She laments that with preschools starting at 12 months and little alternative child care, there is huge pressure for parents to take at least a year off.

Small businesses find it particularly tricky to juggle absences, said Sofia Bergstrom, social insurance expert at the Confederation of Swedish Enterprise, which represents 60,000 companies. Worse than parental leave, she says, is the 120-day annual allowance for parents to tend to sick children, which is impossible to plan and which is suspected of being widely abused.

When women and men used to be able to split their shared parental leave time however they wanted, women usually took the majority of allotted time off, because their pay was usually lower, thus the economic impact on the family unit as a whole was less.

For more dynamic businesses that want to avoid missing key personnels for too long, there’s a decided shift towards hiring men ahead of women so as to minimize the disruption of its workforce.

In effect, this sort of chess-play has resulted in women mostly confined in public-service works with lower pay and less exciting career trajectories than their husbands.

Fathers take on average only 20 percent of the 16 months of paid parental leave offered in Sweden to either mums or dads, according to Statistics Swede—a skimpy average that has sparked a broad debate over how to encourage more fathers to take the paid time off and reduce inequalities in the home. In most cases it is mothers who invoke their legal right and stay home with the kids.  Women are over-represented in low-income jobs, such as teachers or nurses, and on average earn 84 percent of the average male salary, according to Statistics Sweden.

Now to remedy this situation, the government is considering mandating parental leave for both members of the family in a way that is not transferrable.  That is to say, if a man does not take his share of parental leave benefits, it’s lost.

This at first sounds like a good knee-jerk reaction to remedy the still-pending gender inequality issue in child-rearing, but it is certainly interventionist. Good intentions, in this case, in keeping women in the workforce even after they bear children, seems to have an adverse effect on the more natural distribution of women in leadership positions in the country.  There are some serious trade-offs made here.

I leave you with a critical look on the state of female work place participation in Sweden.

“What is more, the glass ceiling problem is larger in family-friendly Sweden than it is in the hire-and-fire-at-will US, and it has also grown as family-friendly policies have expanded. In Sweden 1.5% of senior management are women, compared with 11% in the US.”

And that’s not all. Take another barometer of equality – the gap between men’s and women’s pay – and Sweden puts on another poor show. It is difficult, says Hakim, to get accurate figures, but she reckons that Swedish women are paid around 20% less than Swedish men – a similar pay difference to the one that exists in the UK. Interestingly, other EU countries with a lower pay gap don’t show a correlation with better family-friendly packages: Italy has a 15% pay gap, Spain a 12% gap and Belgium and Portugal an 8% gap. None of these countries is held up as providers of great family-friendly packages – indeed, some of them, including Portugal, have systems in place that are not only a great deal less generous than that of Sweden, but also a lot less accessible.

75% of Swedish women are working in the public sector – traditionally the lower-paid, lower-qualified end of the employment market – while 75% of men are working in the racier, more demanding private sector. What has happened through the years of family-friendly policies, she says, is that private companies have reduced their number of female employees because they can’t afford the cost of the generous maternity packages.

[T]he story of Sweden over the past two decades is the story of a country whose small industries couldn’t foot the bill for the ideological parental-rights packages being embraced, and who have largely taken avoiding action when it has come to employing women of childbearing age.

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