Fathers’ Day: Parental Leave, Labor Market Flexibility and the Definition of Maleness

BillBarclayChicago.jpg     Bill Barclay

In 1909 Sonora Smart Dodd began to campaign for a Fathers’ Day holiday. She later got assistance from the Father's Day Council (founded by the New York Associated Men's Wear Retailers). The campaign culminated with President Lyndon Baines Johnson’s 1966 designation of the third Sunday in June as the holiday, followed by President Nixon’s signing that date into law in 1972.

Dodd thought of Fathers’ Day as a recognition of men’s parenting. The Associated Men’s Wear Retailers saw it as a chance to sell more goods to (or for) men. But both men as parents and men as consumers are roles that differ from that of breadwinner, the primary participant in the world of work. Breadwinner is the male role definition that patriarchy’s intersection with capitalism assigns men. Paid work, subjecting one’s time and skills to the demands of the job, is supposed to be integral to the definition of maleness, just as family, subjecting one’s time and efforts to the demands of parenting, is to the definition of femaleness.

But are maleness and femaleness as different as the ideology says? Or, is it possible to build societies in which parenting and the world of paid work are not alien to each other? And what kinds of social policies would be necessary to create that kind of society?

Some countries have sought this goal through use of parental leave policies. Probably the first such policy was Sweden’s parental leave system, enacted in 1974. Both mothers and fathers were free to take leave – as much as a year – after the birth of a child. But, the formal gender equality of treatment in the law was not sufficient to counter the substantive gender inequality of the world of work. Women usually made less money than their male partners, so families usually decided – an economically sound choice – that women would take the parental leave. By 1991, only six percent of fathers were taking parental leave.

So in 1995 the law was changed. “Daddy leave” was instituted. No father was required to stay home, but the family lost one month of leave if the father did not take it – and in 2002 the “daddy leave” portion was raised to two months. It was as if a dam dividing two worlds had been broken: soon more than 80 percent of fathers took leave.  And, interestingly enough, increasingly fathers have not only taken the two months but have also moved their share of parental leave above the minimum, particularly in the cities and among college-educated couples. Although Sweden was the pioneer, others, including Norway, Germany, Iceland and Portugal have also designed parental leave policies that require fathers to use part of the leave if the family is to get the whole leave package.

So far, it’s an interesting story about social policy – but there is more here. Shared parental leave has implications for labor market flexibility and, maybe, for what it means to be a male.

Companies initially resisted the use of the leave by men, much more so than when women were taking all or most of the leave. Once the incentive of male “use it or family loses it” was in place, however, that resistance was overcome. Class and traditions of male identity still matter. Senior executives, whether male or female, are less likely to take all or most of the leave, and the same is true for the self-employed and growing immigrant population.

However, the widespread use of parental leave by both sexes has required adjustments in the labor market. Some businesses have responded by urging use of the leave in long periods, arguing that planning is easier if it is known that an employee will be out for an extended period of time. But as the head of Human Resources at Ericsson in Sweden pointed out, new employees used to look first for big paychecks but “now they want work-life balance. We have to adapt.”  A study by the Swedish Institute of Labor Market Policy Evaluation found that when fathers take parental leave, mothers’ earnings increase. 

And the adaptation is not just in the workplace or the individual family. Birgitta Ohlsson, Swedish minister for European affairs, sums up the change when she says, “Now men can have it all – a successful career and being a responsible daddy. . . . It’s a new kind of manly.”  Or, as another Swedish mother said, she found her husband, a game warden, most attractive “when he is the forest with his rifle over his shoulder and the baby on his back.”

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Bill Barclay is on the Steering Committee of Chicago DSA and serves as DSA National Member Organizer.


1.  On Sweden see “The Female Factor: Paternity Leave Law Helps to Redefine Masculinity in Sweden,” NYT 6/15/2010;
For Iceland see D. Gunn, “How Should Parental Leave be Structured? Ask Iceland.”

2.  OECD Family Data Base

3.  “The Female Factor.”

4.  The effect of own and spousal parental leave on earnings

5.  Both quotes from “The Female Factor.”

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