“In Sweden, term “housewife” doesn't exist anymore”: Niklas LÖFGREN and Tiina BRUNO talk about paid parental leave and gender equality

18.04.2021 (Caucasian Journal). Is it good for the babies to stay at home with fathers? What are the benefits of gender equality? How generous are benefits paid to Swedish parents by the government? How are private companies motivated to contribute?

Within the framework of Caucasian Journal’s Best Nordic and Baltic Practice Program, our guests today are Niklas LÖFGREN, Spokesperson for family economics at Swedish Social Insurance Agency (Försäkringskassan) and Tiina BRUNO, a senior advisor and lecturer in methods for increasing gender equality, social sustainability and inclusion in companies and societies, CEO of the consultancy firm Föräldrasmart Sverige and founder of the concept Parentsmart Employers. 

 ქართულად:  The Georgian text version is here

Alexander KAFFKA, editor-in-chief of Caucasian Journal:  
Sweden was the first country in the world to introduce a parental leave giving both parents the same possibilities of staying at home with their child. I believe this happened in 1974, correct? In a few years you will mark 50th anniversary of this reform, which seems revolutionary even by the today’s standards. How effectively did it perform over the years?

Niklas LOFGREN: The first years after the 1974 reform was introduced men in Sweden were reluctant to use parental benefit even though they could. The right was equal but you could also give away that right to the other parent, and most fathers wanted to do just that. The first year 99,5% of all days were paid out to women and only 0,5% were paid out to men. The development towards an equal usage went slowly, and after 20 years it still was only a 90/10 split. That’s why the government introduced 30 days that you had to use yourself as a parent. It was “use them or lose them” 30 days. This was a small kick in the butt for the reform which increased the speed towards a more equal usage. From one year to another, more children got more fathers staying home with parental benefit, and also for a longer period of time. 

AK: Do you think that the Sweden’s goal was to reach equality in parenting, or just to raise the birth rate? To which extent have those goals been in fact achieved? What social outcomes have been reached?

NL: The main goal was to make it possible for both parents to combine working life with family life. I think the outcome is that we have a large proportion of women attending the labor market - maybe the highest in the world, actually. Society has also changed over this period of time, so today the norm is that all fathers stay at home, using some parental leave.

 Fathers in Sweden use most days in the world with parental benefit - about 120 days per father. About 90% of all fathers use some parental benefit

We introduced parental benefit in Sweden for both parents in 1974, and the idea was from the start that men and women should share this equally, that fathers should also be at home with small children, and mothers should also work. In the beginning it was almost just mothers using the parental insurance but this has changed over time. Today we have like 70/30 split where mothers use 70% of the days and fathers - 30%. So, the development goes in the right direction, but maybe kind of slow. Fathers in Sweden use most days in the world. With parental benefit they use about 120 days in average per father, that's really the highest figure. About 90% of all fathers use some parental benefit.

In result of reforms, Sweden has one of the Europe’s highest fertility rates - about 1.9 births per woman

In countries with where there is generous parental insurance system or an economic family policy that aims at gender equality, we see that it's positive for both birth rates and also labor market participation. So we have a high level of women working in Sweden, and we also have fairly high fertility rates - one of the highest in Europe, about 1.8-1.9 births per woman.[For reference, fertility rates in Caucasus are:  Georgia 2,0,  Armenia 1,8, Azerbaijan 1,7 – CJ]

The situation was much worse, when this reform started. In the 50-s and 60-s, the norm was that men worked, and women stayed home with children. In the late 1950-s we had about 1 million housewives in Sweden. Now, the term “housewife” in Sweden doesn't really exist anymore.

AK: Going back to today’s specifics, сan you sum up for our readers, what are the terms offered to the Swedish parents now? I know that the period of parental leave in Sweden is the world’s longest, and the level of salary compensation is 100%.

NL: I wouldn’t say it’s the world’s longest, and not even the most generous either. But it is a generous part of our economic family policy that aims at gender equality. The parental benefit in Sweden contains of 480 days of paid leave. 390 of the 480 days are related to your income and give you approximately 80% of salary in compensation. 90 days are paid out at a low flat rate level. The days are per child, but as a custodian of a child you get 240 days each. 90 days of the income-related days are also reserved for each parent, so they are non- transferable days.

AK: What happens if parents are separated or divorced after the child is born, and the load of childcare is to be carried by a single parent? I guess she or he cannot get a double allowance from the state? 

NL: He/she will get double maintenance from the other parent or from the state if he/she fails to pay. 

AK: Apart from parental leave, what are the other forms of support to families or single parents with children? That would be particularly interesting to readers in our region, where the governments do not offer much to stimulate parenting.

NL: We have benefits like housing allowance, child allowance, maintenance support and child care allowance. For single parents they are all important, but maybe maintenance is extra important. If the divorced father fails to pay to the mother then she can apply for maintenance support from us, and we pay out in advance and then we will try to get it back from him.

AK: And a connected question – what are the ways to make the divorced parent support his child? 

NL: They will pay since we pay it out in advance and then collect it later if they do not pay to us. The child should not suffer just because one of parents fails to pay. And if it is hard to collect we go the tax authority and they will take it from the other parent’s salary immediately, so one cannot “escape”.

AK: Would you like to touch upon other important forms of support to families or single parents with children? 

NL: In the beginning of the 70s not only did we get the parental insurance for both parents, we also got individual taxation and we got also many more daycare centers built out, which were was also an important piece of the puzzle, so to speak.  The daycare centers in Sweden are highly subsidized by the municipalities, so the parents themselves do not pay for the actual cost to have a child at the daycare centers - maybe 10% of the actual cost themselves, and the rest is financed through municipality taxes. The idea is that everyone should be able to afford to have their children in the daycare center, to make it possible to have both parents to have a job. 

AK: From which age are children taken to daycare center? 

NL: The earliest you can have them from is 1 – 1.5 year old, until the child is five years old and then they start schools. If you would look at, for instance, Belgium, you would see that they start much earlier– when they are half year old. But if you go to country such as Croatia you cannot start until they're 3 years old, so different countries have different ideas about this.

AK: Speaking about the generous allowances the Swedes receive from the social system, one must remember their source –the taxes. Without digging too deeply into that separate theme, can you share the current tax rates and, in particular, how willingly do the Swedes pay their high taxes? 

NL:  We have a system with high level of transfers which means that you pay a lot of taxes but you also get a lot of things back. We pay income taxes of 25-30%  net, the employer pays 31.42% extra in social fees on top of every gross salary. The social fees finance the parental insurance, parts of the pension system, the sickness benefits and more. 

AK: While among the younger generation the stereotype of male behavior is losing position, in many countries including our region, this traditional thinking is still strong. Is it completely a thing of the past in Sweden, or not yet? And what about the ethnic minorities and immigrant communities – does the significant share of Muslims, for example, make any influence on preservation of the “traditional” gender and family roles in society in general?

NL: I do not have statistics based on ethnicity or religious beliefs but I know that if both parents are foreign-born or if only the father is foreign-born, then the father uses a smaller share of the parental benefit compared to fathers born in Sweden.

AK: Could you tell us a bit about your agency – Social Insurance Agency (Försäkringskassan). What about its mandate, and what are the future prospects? 

NL: We administer cash transfers within the social insurance. We have 14,000 employees here for that purpose. If you live or work in Sweden you are insured, you cannot opt out of the system. Everyone is entitled to sickness benefit or parental insurance on the same level as everyone else.

AK:  Is the social support financed completely by taxpayers through the government, or is there a role played by the employers, such as private companies?

Tiina BRUNO: Yes, national policies will not have the desired impact without local employers supporting the same goal. Governments and companies must make creative efforts side by side to enable the combining of work with family in order to have sustainable impact in both companies and societies. However, this will not be prioritized by top management in the private sector if they don’t truly understand the benefits.

Many employers offer paid parental leave, adapted to local context and government levels of financial support. This is now a rapidly increasing trend, worldwide. Many employers realize the large wins it may give both individuals and the company - from increased attraction and inclusion to lower recruitment costs and lower sick leave figures. Most are convinced that it will lead to a more sustainable work life, also for employees becoming parents.

 Managers need to view working parents not mainly as a cost, but also an important asset for the company

However, the challenge is often how to engage top level management and reach the goals of this kind of investment. Managers need to promote parental leave and also act as role models themselves if they become parents. They need to view working parents not mainly as a cost, but also an important asset for the company. Without excluding non-parents, of course. Using the large group of employed parents as a concrete example makes it possible to develop support with benefit for all employees, like flexible working and changed leader attitudes. 

It’s not a quick fix, but there are keys to start moving both attitudes and behaviors in line with the initiatives implemented when employers support working parents. 
Focus on the following: 

1) Discuss the employer ROI – Return on Investment with the initiatives taken. Connect to overall business challenges that need to be solved in the company/organization within the coming years, like attraction, retention, employee engagement, sick leave absence, gender equality, diversity and inclusion. Identify concrete Key Performance Indicators (KPI) to follow up.

2) Identify, develop and spread local leader role models, leading the way with a strong belief in the wins with support to employed parents. Effective, sustainable employer support to working parents involves both concrete changes and shifts in social norms. It must be carried out with full awareness of differences in local culture, traditions and norms, in families, companies and societies. Experiences and best practices from other countries can inspire – but only local examples can truly affect change in local attitudes. It is thus key to cultivate leaders among high-level management at local companies to be role models. 

3) Discuss the competence development among employed parents – from parental leave to the development among working parents or grandparents. Parents develop lots of skills and capacities needed at work, like trust, empathy, patience, delegation and prioritization. It’s a hidden resource to the modern leadership needed right now and forward.

AK: While we were working on this interview, Volvo Cars announced it gives all the company’s  employees worldwide24 weeks paid parental leave, starting from April 1. I cannot help asking our guests to comment on this unique initiative, which in fact offers all-gender, paid parental leave to over 40,000 employees around the globe, in all plants and offices, with 80% of base pay. 

TB: It is fantastic. I have followed their steps during many years and Volvo Cars is a true role model employer, which is exactly what is needed to get the development moving faster in more countries. They not only launch this kind of support to employed parents, but also very clearly communicate their reasons. In that sense they are not only family-friendly but also what we call a "Parentsmart" employer - knowing and showing why they invest in support to working parents, not only considering it a cost.

Katarina Matson, head of culture, diversity and inclusion at Volvo says that it’s a big step forward towards an equal workplace where everybody can combine family life and career. And, like Hanna Fager, head of corporate functions and HR at Volvo says: “The gender gap narrows and we get a more diverse working force which will increase performance and strengthen our business”. Their CEO Håkan Samuelsson is sure that it will be worth every penny invested, since the company will be more attractive with both increased gender equality and a stronger brand.

AK:  How unique is the Volvo’s initiative – have there been anything like this done by other global companies’ before?  Will it remain unique, or you expect other companies to follow the trend to be set by Volvo?

TB: Yes, many companies have during the last decade tried different ways to become more supportive when employees become parents. Paid parental leave (PPL) has become a fast-growing trend, not the least among global companies that want to offer the same work place conditions for all employees at offices in different countries, so the level of government financial support will not make a difference. 

What is considered unique in for example the US and China is that Volvo Cars offer paid parental leave to both white and blue collar employees. They also offer longer paid leave at a higher financial level than most other employers. 

From my perspective, constantly identifying and following what we call Parentsmart employers, an important and unique part is that they are so convinced about their reasons and wins, their ROI (Return on Investment). And that their top level management communicates the wins so clearly both internally and externally during the PPL launch. If they now also get all managers globally to both promote the initiative to their employees with the same conviction, and act as role models themselves if they become parents, then the company will continue to be unique for a while. But – actually I hope that their initiative will NOT be unique so long. I hope that many employers will understand the wins and follow their example. That’s one of the important things needed now in the world, for more sustainable, inclusive and gender equal work places and societies, everywhere. I am sure that Volvo Cars will get wins forward by their open way of sharing initiatives and experience, adding to the “movement” that now is started.     

AK:  If there is anything that you would like to add for our readers, the floor is yours.

TB: I just really hope that many employers, no matter what local context they have, realize that they can do a lot to promote and develop a more gender equal and sustainable work life for their employees – through all stages of life. And that they start with discussing the wins with their managers, which is often the norm shifting key that makes a difference.

AK: Thank you very much!

Read the Georgian language version here

Caucasian Journal
 appreciates kind support of Royal Norwegian Embassy in Tbilisi in preparation of this interview.

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