Why the Danes and the Swedes Do it Better

Article published on Jan. 14, 2004
community published
Article published on Jan. 14, 2004

This article has not been vetted by an editor at Paris HQ

Only in Scandinavia can women combine work and family so well.

The death of the Swedish Minister for Foreign Affairs, Anna Lindh, an event seen as Sweden’s September 11th , towards the end of the summer last year, , not only provoked discussion about opening up Nordic society and domestic terrorism, but also highlighted to the rest of Europe, if such a thing were necessary, the example of Scandinavian women.

Anna, as everyone called her, the mother of two children, David (13) and Filip (8), had not only managed to become a successful politician but had also managed to combine her career with her family obligations, a rarity in other European countries. The figures are well-known: the proportion of female MPs in the Swedish Parliament is approximately 44%; in Denmark it is about 38%; the average in EU countries is 23% (with France and Italy at respectively 10% and 11%). Half the Swedish Government is female, double the EU average.

Employment and fertility rates

Even outside the world of politics, the figures speak for themselves: in 2001 70.4% of Swedish women between 15 and 64 worked – just below the number of men (73%). In Denmark, it climbed to around 72%. On average, female employment in the European Union was 54.9% (against 73% for men), with even worse levels in Spain (41.9%), Italy (41.1%) and Greece (40.9%). Despite the fact that in other countries the situation has improved, both in terms of training and employment, the birth rate is in decline in these countries. In 2002, when there were 8.8 births per 1000 inhabitants in Germany, in Denmark the figure was 11.9 per 1000 and in Sweden 10.6. According to a study by the German Institute for Economics in Cologne, published in August 2003, 70 year old women today gave birth on average to 2.2 children. At the time, not even half of them had worked between the ages of 30 and 40. Thirty years later, almost three-quarters have a job, at the cost of the number of births falling to an average of 1.5 per woman.

Scandinavia: parents’ paradise?

Why is the world of work in Scandinavia more favourable to children, families and women? Surveys by the OECD show that it is the State and businesses which prevent work from becoming an obstacle to procreation. For this to work, the existence of a well-organised child-care system is determinant. The Swedish State has created a system where day care for children between 1 and 12 within the so-called ‘pre-schools’ (förskolo), specialised centres called ‘familijedaghem’ (‘day centres for families’) and ordinary schools are available for families. Around 78% of 2 year olds and 86% of four year olds are looked after by carers paid for by the State, whether in institutions or at home. In order to make the decision to have children easier, there are also generous maternity leave systems. In Denmark, paid maternity leave has been increased from 30 to 52 weeks. Swedish legislation offers 480 days of family leave, 60 of which are dedicated to fathers. For 390 of these days the employee receives 80% of his or her salary.

It’s all in the mind

However, it is not only State initiatives and legislative provisions which make it possible for Scandinavian women to combine work and family life. It is also dependent on the good will of employers, colleagues, and fathers. And this attitude towards children by society certainly cannot be fixed in law. Children, in Scandinavian society, have a different value and position than in other European countries. This is obvious not only because of Lego, Pippi Longstocking or the IKEA ‘games paradise’. In Danish or Swedish businesses it is accepted that employees have children who they have to look after. Where possible, when children are ill or off school, parents can stay at home and work from there. Therefore, as most people have children, it creates a certain amount of solidarity between colleagues. In addition, men can take parental leave without appearing like they are slacking or being fearful of jeopardising their careers. In Sweden, surveys have shown that 43% of days taken because of a child’s illness are taken by fathers. And 80% of male Swedes take their paternity leave immediately after the birth of a child. It remains to be seen whether, if the same legislation existed, we would witness the same results in Mediterranean countries.

In the meantime, it is becoming imperative for European societies to develop a system of part-time parenting to replace the current system of early retirement and part-time work for older workers. This would allow young couples to work part-time for longer without receiving financial compensation but remaining in active life. Even if this would be costly in the short term, in the long term this model would have a beneficial double effect on the employment market and demographic evolution: women would enter the employment market or would continue their previous activities which would increase the employment rate. At the same time, it would guarantee a renewal of the population and would be affective in fighting the ageing of society. It would also preserve a certain amount fairness in society.