Why do women in Sweden return to work soon after giving birth, while Austrian women stay at home at least one year after the birth, with some staying up to three years? Are women in Sweden more eager to return to work? Is this showing a more modern pattern, while staying at home shows a traditional one? Attempting to explain the differences in this way would mean to refer to values: Leaving it to values is tempting, it sounds plausible and because values are so vague they offer various possibilities for interpretation. The same is true for the very broad meaning of  ”traditional“ or ”modern“. Values matter to a certain extent – they play a central role in the construction of the leave systems – but behavior of the parents is oriented towards the possibilities they have and on the opportunity structures. It is the structure of the parental leave system that really matters.

In its parental leave system, Sweden offers 480 days in total. This leave can be used in the first 18 months, though this is not strictly necessary as a certain part of it can also be used up later, namely 96 days of it can be used up after the child’s fourth birthday (as regulated in 2014). Since most people know that school children often fall ill, and there are school holidays lasting much longer than vacations offered by the employer in the economic world, it makes sense to save leave days for later. Consequently, mothers return to work rather early.

In Austria (as far as 2016), parental leave had to be taken in one block after birth. It is generously long, paid (depending on the length), and with job security. It is up to three years if the partner also takes at least a fifth of the total of parental leave. Many families choose the three-year model. Austrian couples use as many months as they feel is adequate for them in one block since they have no other choice; days cannot be saved for school years, as it is possible in, for instance, Sweden. It therefore clearly follows that mothers in Austria return to work later than mothers in Sweden. And to explain this fact, we do not need to reflect on the value systems.

Comparing the countries we see that behavior is oriented towards the possibilities offered. The leave systems provide opportunity structures, which more or less prompt people to return to work. Whether the parents return sooner or later depends on the kind of work offered by the economy of the country and on the financial needs of the couple.

Gender is also an aspect in the structure of parental leave systems, which can be demonstrated by referring to the Austrian system though other systems incorporate gender issues. As mentioned above, Austria’s model (in 2016) offers the possibility to benefit from the full leave time only when partners share the leave between them. For instance, if parents choose twelve months of parental leave, one partner would need to take at least two months; if 24 months is chosen, the division would need to be 20 months + 4 months. The law does not specify which part of the leave should be taken by the mother and which by the father. In addition, couples are free to share parental leave equally between them. However, for most readers it is probably not surprising that the father usually takes shorter periods of leave, amounting, as a rule, to a fifth of the leave of the mother. Without making explicit references to gender, the structure is built on gender inequality.

Parental leave systems – as shown by a study carried out within FamiliesAndSocieties by Olivier Thevenon and Ann-Zofie Duvander – provide opportunity structures that can promote the return to full or part-time work, contribute to gender equality, or hinder it.

In conclusion, looking at structures in place might be much more effective than to discuss value systems.


What do you think?


Source: Olivier Thevenon, Ann-Zofie Duvander: Leave policies for parents with young children. Pp 20-41. In WP7 of FamiliesAndSocieties:  Family policies and diversity in Europe: The state-of-the-art regarding fertility, work, care, leave, laws and self-sufficiency. Edited by Olivier Thévenon and Gerda Neyer . 2014.


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