Increased flexibility for families 'may be a set-back for gender equality'

Since coming to office in late 2001, Denmark's new Liberal-Conservative coalition government has taken a number of initiatives aimed at creating a higher degree of flexibility for families with small children. It has proposed promoting part-time work, extending maternity/childcare leave and paying families to look after their own children. However, equality researchers and some trade unions claim that these measures may turn out to be a set-back for gender equality.

The new coalition government of the Liberal Party (Venstre) and Conservative People's Party (Konservative Folkeparti) has issued a number of controversial proposals since taking office in November 2002. First, it proposed that employees and employers should have the right to conclude an agreement on part-time work, with any direct or indirect obstacle to, or restriction on, this right - such as the provisions of a collective agreement, custom or practice - being rendered void (DK0112147F). In February 2002, it tabled a proposal for an amendment of the existing legislation concerning maternity and parental leave. Under the proposal, the maximum period of combined maternity/childbirth and paternity leave at the full benefit rate will be extended from 32 to 52 weeks (14 weeks of which is reserved for the mother); at the same time, the present childcare leave scheme will be abolished and the father's right to paternity leave will be cut from four to two weeks (DK0202104F). Most recently, the Minister for Gender Equality, Henriette Kjær (of the Conservative People's Party) submitted a proposal to give the municipal authorities the possibility of paying parents DKK 3,400 per month to look after their own children. The government proposals have brought criticism from equality campaigners and researchers and some trade unions.

A woman's place is in the home?

Some researchers, trade unions and employers are sceptical about several of the government's new initiatives in the labour market field; they fear that the government's avowed aim of bringing more freedom of choice and flexibility for families with small children contain the concealed message of sending women back to the home. According to Hilda Rømer Christensen, the coordinator for gender research in Denmark, the government's proposal to allow municipal authorities to pay parents for taking care of their children will mean that it will mainly be women who stay at home to look after their children. She states that all the research in this field shows that it is primarily women and those with the lowest skills and wages who will use these schemes. Ms Christensen sees the government's initiatives as a clear signal that 'women's place is in the home'.

Although this scenario is perhaps a little exaggerated, there is also a fear among trade unions that some women will in future feel under pressure to use the new extended maternity/childbirth leave, to work part-time, or to stay at home to take care of their children with a subsidy from the municipal authorities. This 'equality dilemma' has its origin not only in traditional views and practices, but also the fact that it is typically the woman who has the lowest income in a family. This means that for most families it will be less harmful for the household budget if it is the woman who takes leave, works part-time or stays at home to take care of children.

Concerns about extended maternity leave

It is interesting that it appears especially to be men who are in favour of extended maternity/chidlbirth leave period – but to be taken by women. It is not, it seems, women themselves – who typically take the maternity/childbirth leave – who want to have it extended. Improved maternity/childbirth leave is, for instance, a top priority for the General Workers' Union (Specialarbejderforbundet i Danmark, SiD), a majority of whose members are men. However, according to a study carried out by the Union of Commercial and Clerical Employees (Handels- og Kontorforbundet i Danmark, HK), only 10% of women in the 21-35 age group consider maternity/childbirth leave an important issue in comparison with matters such as wages, training or pensions.

The proposed extended period of maternity/childbirth leave has also created a fear that women will in the future be less attractive on the labour market. There is a general concern that small private sector employers will, to an increasing extent, choose not to recruit women in the child-bearing age groups because the long maternity/childbirth leave period will be an economic burden for the enterprises. Some trade unions also fear that the longer maternity/childbirth leave will tempt more employers to dismiss pregnant employees unlawfully. In 2001, HK and the Union of Salaried Employees (Firma-Funktionærerne) recorded an all-time-high number of cases where women lost their job in connection with pregnancy and they now fear that the new maternity leave will mean a further step in the wrong direction.

Both HK, Firma-Funktionærerne and the Union of Women Workers (Kvindeligt Arbejderforbund i Danmark, KAD) believe that the sanctions for dismissing pregnant employees should be made more severe in response to this negative development. They claim that it is currently too 'painless' for employers to dismiss pregnant employers: it is often cheaper for the employer to pay compensation of six months' wages in connection with unlawful dismissal than to give the employee concerned 12 months' maternity/childbirth leave and subsequently days off for reasons such as caring for sick children. According to the present rules, it is possible for the courts to order an employer to pay compensation for dismissing a pregnant employee corresponding to 12 months' wages, but typically the compensation awarded is only six months' pay or less. The compensation is so small that employers often, it is alleged, calculate that it is an advantage to dismiss pregnant employees.

The previous Social Democratic Party (Socialdemokratiet) and Social Liberal Party (Det Radikale Venstre) government had also placed an extension of maternity/childbirth leave on the agenda. However, its motive was to improve the rights of fathers by introducing a longer maternity/childbirth leave, of which some parts could be taken only by the father. The present government's initiative goes in a different direction. It seeks to extend the leave period, but does not earmark parts of it for fathers alone. Referring to freedom of choice for families, it does not want to introduce compulsory schemes such as special periods of leave reserved for fathers.

The idea of earmarking part of maternity/childbirth leave for fathers has also been discussed within trade unions, and notably by Tine A Brøndum, vice-president of the Confederation of Danish Trade Unions (Landorganisationen i Danmark, LO). However, she has not had the full-hearted support of rank-and-file union members. The reasoning behind the wish to reserve parts of the leave for fathers is a recognition of the fact that pregnancy and resulting leave may have a negative impact on the employee's career. This was, for instance, illustrated by a study carried out by the Danish Lawyers' and Economists' Association (Dansk Jurist- og Økonomforbund, DJØF) in the summer of 2001. Some 39% of the women interviewed stated from their experience that it could be problematic in terms of their career to be absent from work in connection with pregnancy and maternity/childbirth leave. If the maternity/childbirth leave period were to be extended, the majority of interviewees wanted – in the spirit of gender equality – men to shoulder a larger part of the 'burden' of having children.

In Sweden, it has, since the 1990s, been possible for parents to take 450 days of parental leave with benefit. This period of leave may be divided in any way between the parents, though 30 days are reserved for the father alone. It appears that it is typically those fathers who have chosen to take the leave who have been 'punished' in terms of their career more than the mothers. The explanation seems to be that parental leave for women is much more institutionalised at the workplace and thus seen as much more 'natural' than leave for men.

The Danish Employers' Confederation (Dansk Arbejdsgiverforening, DA) does not wish to participate in the general discussion about the consequences of the proposed extension of maternity/childbirth leave as it is, in principle, against such an extension. DA has, however, expressed a concern that the extended leave period will cut the size of the labour force.

Commentary

Today is has again become relevant to consider the situation in terms of equal opportunities for men and women on the Danish labour market. The government's recent initiatives to promote part-time work, extend maternity/childbirth leave and give financial support to families who look after their own children may turn out to have repercussions on women's labour market situation. Freedom of choice and flexibility for families with small children may be one way of describing the government's vision, but the question is whether there is actually in all cases a genuine free choice.

DA recently carried out a comprehensive wage analysis as part of its annual labour market report for 2001. The report reflected a wish to have a more nuanced debate about equal opportunities and equal pay, but – contrary to the motive for the study – the figures in the report seem to indicate that there is still reason to conclude that women's wages often lag behind those of the men, without objective causes. However, the parties seem to disagree as to whether this unjustified wage differential is 3% or 9%. (Lene Askgaard Hyldtoft, FAOS)

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