Paid parental leave how Swedish mums and dads do it
Every other day, Luke Grindal packs up his desk at three in the afternoon and goes to the nursery to pick up his kids, Flora, aged four, and Finn, six. Once he gets there, he pulls on Flora's boots and overalls with military efficiency: a few years back, he took six months' paternity leave, so he's had his practice.
When Grindal left Melbourne for Europe in 2000 as an ambitious, newly qualified chartered accountant, he never expected to end up as some kind of gender equality pioneer. But then he met his Swedish wife Hanna, and before he knew it, he was in Malmo, the country's third largest city, living the life of one of Sweden's ''latte pappas'', as men on paternity leave are known.
''Breastfeeding is something I wasn't able to do, but it's one of the only things,'' he laughs, looking back at his six years of hands-on fatherhood.
''My mum thought it was very strange, because she brought up four kids with dad at work all the time. Her husband was off working from 7 o'clock in the morning to maybe 10 o'clock at night, every day, so for her and her generation, it's a huge change.''
In Sweden, though, it's not strange at all. Indeed, so ubiquitous are the designer-stubbled, trendily dressed men pushing prams through Sweden's cities that visitors from the US are reputed to ask about all the ''gay nannies''.
It wouldn't have been strange in Sweden in Luke's mother's day either. Sweden brought in generous paid parental leave in 1974, around the time Luke was born, and a full 41 years
before Prime Minister Tony Abbott plans to bring in his flagship scheme in Australia next year.
Luke Grindal takes the kids to the park in Malmo, Sweden. Photo: Anna Wahlgren
Swedish parents now receive a total of 480 days of leave per child, 390 days of which is paid at 80 per cent of salary (up to a maximum of $162 a day).
Two months of this is reserved for the man, and the rest can be shared between the parents however they prefer. As of 2012, Swedish men took 24 per cent of the leave, meaning each on average stays home and
looks after each baby or toddler for a little over three months.
During his six-month stint, Grindal's refuge most mornings was a free-of-charge, drop-in play group where the pappas often outnumber the mammas.
''I enjoyed it … I'd meet up with two or three other dads who I knew quite well and we'd hang out afterwards. It was a good chance to just hang out with other dads and meet people in the neighbourhood as well.''
Swedes claim that those three months of being the main stay-at-home carer give men a stronger bond with their child, make them more likely to do their share of housework, and mean they have a better understanding of what childcare involves.
Grindal agrees. ''It puts you in the situation where you learn to look after a kid,'' he says. ''You hang out with other young men and other young mums, and you realise that nobody really knows how to deal with it.''
Karin Hallback Stigendal, who runs the drop-in playgroup Grindal attended, says looking after babies isn't a ''naturally'' male or female activity.
''We have noticed absolutely no difference,'' she says. ''The difference is between the individuals. We can see the very concerned mother, very worried, and 'ooh, ooh, ooh'. But we can also find that kind of father. We can see a mother who is very 'let go' and 'you-can-take-care-of-yourself', but you can also find that kind of father.''
When the child is between a year and 18 months old, the country's heavily subsidised daycare system kicks in, and both parents return to work. Flora's daycare costs Grindal the equivalent of about $250 a month: a minuscule amount by Australian standards.
Then, every Swedish employee with a child under eight years old has the right to cut their working hours by up to 25 per cent whenever they want to. Swedish companies also normally offer employees the right to arrange their working hours how it suits them.
''You have these flexible working hours,'' says Misikir Elwert, an engineer at Swedish technology giant Ericsson. ''I can come in very early in the morning and leave early, or I can come very late in the day and leave very late. The only thing is that for five hours, between 10am and 3pm, everyone has to be there.''
Of course, the biggest impact of this is on women, not the men. Women in Sweden are far more likely to continue in their careers uninterrupted than their counterparts in Australia. According to OECD figures from 2013, about 80 per cent of Swedish mothers work, compared to just over 60 per cent in Australia.
And these figures underestimate the difference, because, according to a report from Australia's Workplace Gender Equality Agency, as many as 43 per cent of mothers who work in Australia work part-time.
''The Scandinavian model seems to be pretty consistent full-time work for women,'' explains Dr Leah Ruppanner, a sociology lecturer at Melbourne University whose international comparative study on work-family conflict, Blurred Boundaries, was published last October. ''But in the Australian model, you work a lot, and then when you have a kid, you reduce your work and then when your kids are school age, you come back. But, of course, after five years your job might no longer be there.''
Because parental leave is shared in Sweden - rather than going exclusively to a single primary carer, as in Abbott's scheme - employers are much less likely to be wary of employing women of child-bearing age. After all, there's nothing they can do to stop a 30-year-old male employee taking nine months off for paternity leave either.
That's a big part of the reason why Australia ranked 24th on gender equality in the World Economic Forum's most recent Gender Gap study, while Sweden came fourth.
With all their employees disappearing for up to nine months whenever they have a child, and then demanding that they drop to 75 per cent hours for the next seven years, you might expect Swedish companies to be lobbying behind the scenes to whittle away at these rights. But in fact - unlike in Australia, where business groups have fought tooth and nail against the Liberals' parental leave plans - Swedish business groups largely support them.
Partly this is because in Sweden it's the state rather than businesses who pick up the bill. (Abbott's scheme will be paid for by a 1.5 per cent levy on big business.)
For Sweden's big employers, parental benefits are also seen as a crucial way to attract and keep international workers.
''The strong parental benefits in Sweden are clearly to our favour when recruiting international candidates that have children,'' says David Polfeldt, managing director at Massive Entertainment, the local computer game studio known for its World In Conflict series. ''Not many regions of the world can compete with that.''
The advantages of Sweden's parental leave arrangements easily outweigh the costs to employers, he says. ''If you take the long game into account, a healthy work/life balance is an awesome thing and people tend to be loyal to companies that understand that,'' he says. When his own kids were small, he used to work 80 per cent, staying at home on Fridays.
Indeed, as one woman with preschool-age children who works for a large multinational in Sweden told me: ''It's very hard to leave once you're here. What's most important to me is spending time with my kids … I think this is the closest you can get to a real work-life balance.''
You might also think that Sweden's conservative parties would push to reverse some of these generous policies. But in fact, the centre-right coalition that has ruled Sweden since 2006, while slashing things such as unemployment benefit, sick leave, and disability benefits, has left the country's ultra-generous parental leave system entirely alone.
That's because the policy is designed to benefit the middle classes. Parents on middle-class salaries receive a maximum of $163 a day under the scheme, the equivalent of $42,000 a year in parental benefits, while those on the lowest salaries only get the equivalent of $30 a day, or $8000 a year.
And Sweden's ruling Moderate Party understands that the middle-class professional women who make up a big share of their voter base have a lot more to lose in terms of their careers than less-educated working-class women.
From a Swedish point of view, every new mother who drops out of her career represents a tremendous waste of the resources society has spent educating and training her.
Arguably, Sweden's universal parental leave and childcare system pays for itself through the higher tax revenues it generates from those women workers who have managed to maintain their careers through motherhood.
Sweden's government takes 44.3 per cent of national output in taxes, a far greater share than the 26.3 per cent the Australian government takes. But Swedes get a lot more in return for their taxes.
The economy, meanwhile, has weathered the difficult past five years better than anywhere in Europe, apart from oil-flush Norway.
For Grindal, the big problem with parenting the Swedish way was not the months of nappy-changing. It was coping with his Anglo-Saxon work ethic, and the gnawing sensation that while he was on leave, his career was going backwards.
''I think it did concern me a bit,'' he admits. It didn't help that while he was off, his company - a telecommunications multinational based across the bridge in Copenhagen - went through a reorganisation, leaving him frustrated at being unable to fight his corner.
According to Ruppanner, Grindal is not alone. She estimates Swedish fathers are 22 per cent more likely than Australian fathers to report that their family life interferes with their work.
''Men in Sweden don't get off the hook as easily,'' she says. ''If your kid is sick, you may have to go pick them up.''
Ruppanner argues that this is the kind of dilemma Australian working women have faced for years. ''Men in Sweden are probably experiencing what working women and mothers have always experienced.''
As it happened, Luke was right to be worried. The work climate in Denmark is more overtly competitive than in Sweden, and he ended up returning to an arguably less senior job. But it didn't take him long to get back on track. Nine months later, he was promoted to finance head of his division.
''That kind of surprised me given that I'd just taken six months off,'' he said. ''It shows that people don't necessarily hold a grudge against someone who takes 'six months holiday'.''
That he jokily refers to his paternity leave as a ''holiday'' might be a hangover of Grindal's deeply ingrained Anglo-Saxon work ethic. Because in Sweden, most fathers are in no doubt that childcare is hard work.
Grindal, for one, doesn't resent the impact Swedish-style parenting has had. ''I'd be hard-pressed to say that it's something that's affected me in my career path,'' he says.
It does help women workers, however. The other two people at Grindal's level in his company are both women.