Can women have it all?

Photo: Christina @ on Unsplash

25 March 2020 15:17

Can women have it all?

Childcare, paid parental leave, and keeping women working.

A look to one of the world’s most gender equal countries, Norway, reveals that childcare for very young children is crucial for keeping women with families in the workforce, Astrid Kunze writes.

The Nordic countries are world leaders in terms of gender equality. In Norway, for example, women can work and have a family. In fact, Norway’s fathers have made the country world champions in the male take-up of paternity leave. Both female employment rates and fertility rates are among the highest in the world, with some 72 per cent of mothers with small children in paid employment.

Still, even in Norway, one of the world’s most gender equal countries, women earn 15 per cent less than men overall. Only seven per cent of chief executive officers in the county’s 200 largest corporations are women. On top of this, before the introduction of a gender quota on supervisory boards, less than 8 per cent of board directors in the country were women.

That women are still not doing as well as men on the career ladder in 2020 is a major concern to many politicians, think tanks, researchers, and managers in the private sector. One reason for that concern is the implied higher risk of poverty for women of old age and for single mothers and their children. The other reason is that societies need female innovation and human resources to sustain personal welfare and to solve urgent collective issues related to the environment, digitalisation, and equality.

In addition to anti-discrimination policies, government mandated parental leave after childbirth, public affordable childcare for pre-school children, and cash-for-care policies are those most often considered to improve work-family balance and increase female employment. Researchers in many countries have tested whether these policies, and reforms that have made them more generous, have positive impact on the position of women in the labour market.

The overall evidence indicates that virtually all mothers, if granted leave by governments, use its maximum duration. Fathers to an increasing extent use paternity leave, but not all fathers who could take paid leave seem to do so.

For example, in Norway all eligible fathers can now take 10 weeks of leave, while in Germany all fathers qualify for two months of paid leave. Interestingly, only a little more than 30 per cent actually take their leave.

Regional data on the take-up of childcare reveals large regional differences in the uptake of childcare, particularly among parents with very young children, from one to two years old. In parents of slightly older children, from three to six years old, high uptake rates have remained constant across the board.

- Prepare for maternity leave

The same old story in Norway? Women with children progress slower on the career path, than women who do not have children. Why is that surprising for a country known for its gender equality and a paid paternal quota of 10 weeks?

In the previous 10 to 20 years, several countries in Europe have expanded coverage dramatically for very young children, with Norway and Germany among the countries leading the way. Even though it seems that many parents want access to external childcare, countries define ‘full coverage’ very differently.

Norway defines full coverage as 80 per cent of children having access to a full-day childcare place, while Germany defines it as 30 per cent.

Conservative parties in Norway and Sweden have also pushed through alternative cash-for-care policies, which make parents who do not use public subsidised childcare eligible for benefits.

Uptake of these policies has varied considerably across time in Norway. In 2002 for instance, the uptake of cash-for-care was almost 80 per cent, at a time when childcare coverage was below 50 per cent, but as childcare coverage has increased in recent years, it has declined to 20 per cent.

Given the popularity of these policies among governments and parents, it is important to know whether these policies have actually helped to decrease the gender wage gap, particularly by helping women share their traditional role of acting as carers of infants and children.

When reviewing these policies, one must ask some key questions: does research show that these policies have increased the employment of mothers and their wages, and have women overall improved their position on the career ladders of firms?

Over several decades, it is clear that women have caught up with men in terms of education in these countries. Women are now more likely to obtain master degrees and get better grades at school, and gender convergence in employment rates is also pronounced in many OECD countries.

These are considerable achievements, and represent real improvement in gender equity. However, the empirical evidence on labour market outcomes for women is not as rosy. In response to new paid parental leave policies, the statistics show only moderate, if any, increase in maternal employment after childbirth. Further, even with parental leave rights, women with children still earn less on average than women without children.

In terms of childcare policies, evidence on the influence of childcare coverage for parents of three to six year old children is mixed. Some suggest no positive effect for women in work from the policy, but others argue that the policy works.

Childcare coverage for very young children, aged one to two, however, has shown positive effects. This is compelling evidence that childcare for parents of very young children, not just for those above three years old, is a core policy to enable women to both have children and work.

As for cash-for-care, some evidence exists showing that the policy actually has counter-active effects and tends to decrease maternal employment. This effect seems pronounced in women who are from migrant backgrounds or are low skilled.

In Norway, all of these policies are in place, but they are under permanent debate and reform.

Recently, the conservative government cut the extensive father quota from 14 weeks to 10 weeks, citing its desire for parents to have more choice. Critics say that the 14-week quota is important to give fathers time off and employers a good reason to grant a new father leave.

Norway should abolish cash-for-care policies, but instead, recent governments have simply opted to make their benefits more generous. Cash-for-care is rarely used and, when it is, can be counter-productive. It seems clear that what parents in Norway need is full-time childcare for their very young children and the chance to take parental leave.

It remains uncertain which of these family policies, if any, directly lead to gender equality and closing the pay gap. To improve family policies, policymakers need to divert focus from mother stereotypes and gender to including modern, and more involved, fathers and parents. Policymakers must challenge companies to create a diverse and inclusive work life that seriously incorporates career benefits for all parents, and considers the costs of poor family policy.

The article was first published in Policy Forum, 16 March.