International Debate: New Action on Women’s Rights

International Debate: New Action on Women’s Rights

The parental leave system is a public policy that profoundly influences gender dynamics and gender inequality...


29 September 2014

The parental leave system is a public policy that profoundly influences gender dynamics and gender inequality in most countries.

In this article Senior Researcher / Consultant Cristina Castellanos Serrano writes about some of the learning from the Nordiskt Forum 2014.

More and more we have found evidence of this in our work as researchers and evaluators and now we would like to disseminate information and stimulate debate about it. The parental leave system policy, not only affects fathers and mothers, but the whole of society is influenced by the creation of social norms and expectations which directly alter family life and the whole labour market.

The good news is that this public policy has proved to be quite easy to modify, at least in principle. For example, most EU countries have introduced paternity leave in their systems. Almost all countries have modified their parental leave system across Europe over the last few years and the impact of this is evident across European societies. People’s behaviour changes in a predictable way, according to the policy design. Most fathers take up well-paid and non-transferable parental or paternity leave. Mothers’ behaviours are more varied, but they tend to take as much leave as they can, including sharable leave and even poor or non-paid leave if the duration of leave is too short or if there are no alternative affordable and/or quality childcare options. Sweden started more than 40 years ago and it has demonstrated that sharable parental leave does not change trends which began at unequal starting points. Nowadays, most countries have much longer maternity leave than paternity leave and their protection is different. Resistance to change usually arise, especially when unbalanced situations are taken as natural.

The Tavistock Institute of Human Relations (TIHR) participated in the Nordiskt Forum 2014 this summer. The international conference objective was to use public policies to expand people’s opportunities and create a fairer society. This Scandinavian Forum expects fathers to be supported so that they can care for their children and mothers to be supported to be economically independent. The Nordic countries have proved to be leading in terms of gender equality in Europe, but there is still plenty of room for improvement.

Gertrud Åström, the ‘mother’ of gender mainstreaming in Europe, was part of the debate too and we shared with her evidence from our current evaluation and research. She said: ‘It was not a very smart move to make the parental leave transferable in 1974.’ They created equal and well-paid parental leave for mothers and fathers. However, by introducing the possibility to transfer the parental leave from one parent to the other, they reinforced the prevalent role of each parent. Fathers started to transfer their leave to mothers and politicians started to increase the length of the leave. So, the difference in the time spent with the baby from the birth by each parent and out of the labour market grew formally and with a public policy support. And, thus, social norms readjusted with each extension and with the introduction of the first ‘daddy month’ too. This month’s leave was for the father, this was not transferable and this also became a social norm. Nowadays, all Swedish political parties understand that the parental leave system has had a profound effect on the gender pay gap. In Sweden, the debate is no longer whether there is an effect, but how long the society can sustain this gender inequality and how fast politicians are ready to act.

Now, we want to further disseminate this learning and extend the public debate by making the international learning experiences available to all stakeholders, politicians including, in different countries. The Nordiskt Forum 2014 was a huge international event for learning, exchanging experiences and policies, but above all, it was an event to generate reflection and action. The female and male speakers inspired thousands of people there to act in favour of gender equality.


  • The videos from the conference can be seen here.
  • You can see the inputs and the whole debate on parental leave reform here.
  • You can read the final document with the conclusions of the Nordiskt Forum here.

You will find more information on Tavistock Institute’s projects which directly relate to gender equality soon..

For further information, please contact Cristina Castellanos Serrano.

This article is a small thank you to those wonderful speakers who Cristina Castellanos Serrano had the opportunity to hear to and learn from at the Forum. 

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