Childcare and Getting More Women into Work

14 June 2013

Slate magazine reported this recent conversation.

The parents began talking.

“How old is your child?"

"Nine months. She just started crawling yesterday."

"Yes, Oscar started at eight months. But now he is not sleeping well. His teeth are coming in. Oscar, you have to share that toy. Oscar, I said give the toy back."

"How long are you going to be on paternity leave?"
"Three more months.”

That was a conversation at a pre-school in Stockholm.


While glossy magazines on motherhood gleam out from supermarket shelves everywhere proclaiming the traditional  role of women as the more involved parent, the Swedish magazine Pappa is aimed at “ the modern and dedicated father and the people around him.

"The men who seek to invest time in their children, their relationships and their careers. “




Anna-Lena Almqvist writes of changes in how Swedish society looks at the role of men and masculinity .

“Hegemonic masculinity” (power, physical strength, status defined by job) is being gradually displaced by the “nurturing, involved father”

Scandinavian countries such as Sweden have invested substantially in childcare to encourage gender equality in sharing responsibilities and to retain the skills of women in the workforce.

Currently there is little difference in the percentage of men and women in employment in Sweden – 76 and 72 per cent respectively, suggesting a very good degree of success in addressing the gender employment gap.

The example set by our neighbours in the North is one reason why high quality childcare that is available to all parents has emerged as a major political issue that will not go away in this country.

Let’s begin at the beginning, with maternity leave and paternity leave .

Sweden was the first country in the world to roll out paternity leave in the 1970s, and it remains one of the most benevolent and considerate available. 

Maternity leave and paternity leave have now amalgamated as parental leave.

It lasts for about 16 months (480 days) and is shared between the parents, with each having a minimum of 60 days.

Maternity leave and paternity leave have now been amalgamated as joint parental leave.

It lasts for 16 months (480 days) and is shared between the parents, with each having a compulsory minimum of 60 days.

For 390 days , parental leave pay is worth 80 per cent of each of the parents’ employment earnings  (up to a maximum of just over £2,500 per month) with the other 90 days set at a minimum rate of £16 per day.

In contrast with the generous Swedish parental leave arrangements, in the UK, statutory maternity pay lasts for 39 weeks, with 6 weeks paid at 90 per cent of the average weekly earnings.

The remaining 33 weeks are paid at a flat rate of around £140 per week.

The pre-school period in Sweden covers the years aged 1 to 7 with the option of a “pre-school year” at aged 6.

Government investment in this sector of education ensures that all children can participate.

Furthermore, its cost to the parents is capped at a maximum of just over 7 per cent of the average wage.

In the UK, typical childcare fees cost around 45 per cent of the average wage.

Hence, the percentage of working mothers in Sweden is 76 per cent.

In the UK it is 66 per cent. (2011 figure) , but expect that number to fall as the UK Coalition Government’s  spending cuts take their toll on the number of women employed in the public sector and changes to tax credits.

On the broader international front , last  December, Michelle Obama quoted a UN Women conference the findings of a OECD report :

“(These studies) point to the same inescapable conclusion: Removing barriers to women’s role and participation fuels economic development. Unleashing the potential of women pushes countries to higher levels of enrichment and achievement.

“All nations have much to gain from women’s participation – and this includes gains not just for women, but also for men and for children—gains in the economy, in health and well-being.”

Hence, Sweden’s position as the second safest country in the world for a child to be born, according to Save the Children last month, where the risk of the woman dying from pregnancy –related causes was 1 in 14,000. (Finland came top, Norway third and Denmark sixth . The UK came 23rd. and the US 30th.)

Further, last month Sweden came second in the OECD’s Better Life Index , with Australia coming top. 

Yet another OECD finding is that greater numbers of people in Sweden vote, and participate in politics than elsewhere – which suggests that politics there delivers more for women.

For example, the last Scottish Parliament election campaign managed to persuade  just 50 per cent of the electorate that it was worthwhile voting.

In contrast, the average  turnout in recent elections in Sweden has been 84 per cent , and there is virtually no difference in the numbers voting according to where voters are on the income scale.

89 per cent of those in the top 20 per cent income bracket voted while 83 per cent of those in the lowest 20 per cent income bracket voted.

Michelle Obama also referred to studies which have shown that “nations with high rates of women workers have high rates of economic performance

In the OECD, Scandinavian countries come out best for female employment while the UK is lagging behind in 15th place. 

The Resolution Foundation think-tank has estimated that raising women in the UK’s employment rates to Scandinavian levels would result in another 1 million working women in Britain, boosting the economy  and providing welcome tax revenue.

High levels of female employment in these countries has been accomplished by large-scale government investment in childcare provision.

Scotland and the UK need to follow this trend to achieve results.

The advantages to society and the economy of prioritising childcare has been well  demonstrated elsewhere.

 As Slate magazine reports in The Happy Life of a Swedish Dad

“Swedish dads of my generation and younger have been raised to feel competent at child-rearing. They simply expect to do it, just as their wives and partners expect it of them.”


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