Change takes time… but in Denmark things are going markedly slower than in our neighbouring countries when it comes to making it easier for men to go on paternity leave and take care of their children.

On Friday Danish daily Berlingske presents some likely explanations to why Danish men do not use up all of the 25 and 32 weeks of fully paid paternity leave offered at Novozymes and Novo Nordisk, respectively.

I think it is far more important to take note of the fact that the men who are offered these leave schemes end up taking double the time off with their children as the national average.

“In my view, it does not serve the cause to continuously reinforce the existing stereotypes of the uncommitted father and the dominant mother…”

In my view, it does not serve the cause to continuously reinforce the existing stereotypes of the uncommitted father and the dominant mother as some kind of genetically and culturally determined premise.

Nor does it reflect the real world when we look at other Nordic countries where long-term paternity leave has become the norm in the labour market and for families.

A survey of a representative group of 1,000 Danes aged 20-45 shows that 82% of the women and 75% of the men would like men to have the opportunity to take longer paternity leave. 

In other words, the polarised family/paternity leave gender debate does not match reality which is that fathers want to take part in their children’s lives on an equal footing with women. And in which young men to an even greater extent than women prefer to work for family-friendly companies. According to a survey published this year by a Danish centre for work life balance (Center for Balance mellem Arbejdsliv og Familieliv), more men than women find it important that their bosses show consideration for employees with small children when planning work.

The factors keeping the current patterns intact are rather complex structural barriers such as lack of equal pay and actual statutory rights to paternity leave. When men are given the opportunity such as in the case of Novozymes and Novo Nordisk, cultural expectations for both men and women still keep alive the stereotypes and undesirable and unequal work life balance and family patterns.

Our neighbouring countries have typically chosen to extend the overall parental leave to avoid the many potential dilemmas of splitting the time off work between the parents. The Danish Health Authority recommends that women fully breastfeed their babies for the first six months and then partly until they are at least 12 months old. This can be hard to live up to if the father uses 32 weeks of the period, leaving only about four months for the mother. I commend the initiatives in Novo Nordisk and Novozymes as solutions that aim to strike a balance between various needs and opportunities. 

But if we want men to take longer paternity leave, we must follow in the footsteps of the other Nordic countries and extend the parental leave period.

“…if we want men to take longer paternity leave, we must extend the parental leave period.”

In Denmark we have so far been unable to make the necessary structural changes to support equal parenting opportunities throughout the child’s first year of life. We must simply acknowledge that gender equality, including paternity leave, has not featured high on the political agenda.

According to research done by The Danish Institute of Human Rights in 2014, Denmark is trailing the other Nordic countries in terms of fathers’ use of paternity leave, and their right to paternity leave is the weakest in the Nordic region.

Another conclusion from the research was that we need good role models but at the same time if society wants to motivate more fathers to assume an active parenting role, this message must be signalled clearly in all public administration and communication in the family area.

There are still many challenges concerning parental leave. One such challenge was revealed when Gallup at the beginning of the year asked a representative group of 1,589 men and women if they had experienced discrimination in connection with pregnancy and maternity/paternity leave. 45% of the women and 23% of the men had experienced some degree of discrimination. All in all, every third respondent had felt some form of discrimination in connection with pregnancy and maternity/paternity leave. When asking only women, almost every second had experienced discrimination, poorer working conditions and/or negative reactions.

Pioneer companies try to support women and acknowledge that becoming a parent and taking leave is a very important personal development journey rather than “punish” women and men who fulfil their roles as parents.

In 2004 global brand and marketing company Prophet introduced a company policy which in career terms gave equal status to maternity/paternity leave as an MBA from an Ivy league university as part of its efforts to improve gender equality in the company.

It makes sense in every possible way to regard becoming a parent and taking leave as an enriching experience – also in relation to the competencies in demand at the workplace. 

That is also the conclusion in the book “If You’ve Raised Kids, You Can Manage Anything” by Ann Crittenden, award-winning journalist, author and lecturer at MIT and Yale. Drawing on research and interviews with nearly 100 parents, she describes how parenting skills are transferable to the workplace as child-rearing

  • calls for multitasking and the ability to function amidst constant distractions
  • enhances interpersonal skills, including win-win negotiation
  • develops skills in motivating and encouraging others to excel
  • teaches a keen sense of fair play and integrity.

Moreover, there is no doubt that empathy and patience are also strengthened.

“In 2004 global brand and marketing company Prophet introduced a company policy which in career terms gave equal status to maternity/paternity leave as an MBA from an Ivy league university…” 

Parental leave is a very brief period of a long working life. But a crucial time for the children and parents and for creating a balanced family pattern with equal parenting skills. A time when habits and routines are formed concerning the children and the allocation of responsibilities between the parents.

Parental leave during the child’s first year should be seen as a resource – a time of invaluable development and learning. A period of time that we should invest more in as a society. It’s good news that more and more companies realise the need to do something extra to improve the conditions for parental leave also for men. But if these efforts are to make a real difference both in the individual companies and nationwide, a favourable leave scheme should not only be accessible for the few lucky men who work for one of these companies. Everybody should have the opportunity. Parents working in the private sector and public sector alike.

There is no doubt that the Nordic countries have set the direction towards gender-balanced parenting with both parents taking equal responsibility. And that is a good investment for everybody. The question is just how long Denmark is going to wait to create the formal framework to support this change process? Are we again going to content ourselves with being the laggard Nordic country in terms of gender equality?