Tackling gender inequality by extending paternity leave

The Norwegian state budget proposal for 2009 made public the government’s intentions to extend the part of the parental leave period reserved for the father from six to 10 weeks from 1 July 2009. The purpose of this extension is to facilitate greater equality between parents with regard to childcare responsibilities in the home. Indeed, further recommendations have suggested that fathers should be entitled to at least one third of the total leave period.

In its state budget proposal for 2009, the Norwegian government presented its plan to increase the part of the parental leave period reserved for the father from six to 10 weeks. The new provisions will take effect from 1 July 2009. The rationale behind the proposal is – according to the Minister of Children and Equality, Anniken Huitfeldt – a wish to help parents to become more equal in terms of their role in work and family life. Minister Huitfeldt emphasises that sharing the statutory parental leave period provides an important basis for a further sharing of childcare responsibilities after the formal parental leave period is over.

Current situation and proposed changes

At present, Norwegian parents are entitled to leave of absence from work for parental purposes not exceeding 44 weeks with 100% pay compensation or 54 weeks with 80% compensation. Of these, six weeks are reserved for the father and will be forfeited if the father fails to use them. Meanwhile, nine weeks are reserved for the mother. The remaining part of the period may be shared between the parents as they wish.

Surveys show that about 90% of the fathers who are entitled to paternity leave make use of this right, and 17% would like to take more leave than stipulated in the formal rules. Thus, the government now wants to increase the father’s leave period by four weeks; this will be achieved by extending the total leave period by two weeks to a total of 46 weeks – or 56 weeks with 80% compensation – and by reducing the unallocated part of the leave period by two weeks.

Allotting more leave to fathers

The issue of equality of parental leave has been on the agenda for some time in Norway (NO0308103F, NO0503101N, NO0510103F). Although parents have long been able to share the parental leave period between them, men first began to take parental leave when parts of the period became earmarked for the father. It is, however, still the case that mothers take most of the parental leave.

In the spring of 2008, the Norwegian Equal Pay Commission (Likelønnskommisjonen), appointed by the government in 2006 (NO0607019I), presented its recommendations in a report entitled Gender and pay (summary, 200Kb PDF) (Kjønn og lønn (in Norwegian, 4.2Mb PDF)). It proposes to reserve one third of the parental leave period for the mother and one third for the father; the final third would be made optional for either parent (NO0804029I). The rationale behind this suggestion, according to the commission, is to introduce a scheme that would help to stop women from lagging behind men in terms of pay developments due to leave of absence from working life.

In December 2008, the government presented a report on men and their role to the Norwegian parliament (Stortinget). This report (in Norwegian, 2Mb PDF) also considers future goals with regard to fathers and parental leave. The government does not want to reform the leave distribution to quite the same extent as the Equal Pay Commission. Rather than reserving a third of the parental leave period for the father, it recommends earmarking 14 weeks for the father within an overall framework of 48 weeks of parental leave or 58 weeks on 80% pay.

Fathers’ right dependent on employment of mothers

The father’s right to leave is still dependent on the child’s mother having been employed prior to birth in at least a part-time position amounting to half of a full-time job. This practice may be considered rather discriminatory; therefore, the government wants to undertake a study to examine the possibility of an independent right of fathers to leave of absence.

Views of social partners

A more balanced distribution of the parental leave period has received support from most organisations in working life, all of which consider this measure as a way of improving gender equality. Some, such as the Confederation of Norwegian Enterprise (Næringslivets Hovedorganisjon, NHO), favour the proposed division of the parental leave period into three equal parts. However, many trade unions have taken the view that an increase in the father’s share must be combined with an extension of the total parental leave period. The views of several interest groups are available from the Hearing on gender and pay – Comments from the affected parties (in Norwegian).

Kristine Nergaard, Fafo Institute for Applied Social Science

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