Modern daddy: Norway's progressive policy on paternity leave

After a baby is born, Mom is entitled to maternity leave, but what about Dad? Shouldn't he have some time off to adjust, too? Norway tops the European league table of family-friendly nations as far as new dads are concerned, and the government is now proposing to extend the "daddy quota" from four to five weeks, for exclusive use by the father.

NORWAY - Ever-growing numbers of families in Western societies seek to balance paid work and family commitments. Consequently, the need for innovative social policy measures and radical transformation of the links between the welfare state, the labour market, and families has intensified. Scandinavian countries, some of which instituted paid maternity leave in the nineteenth century, have moved on to pioneer a range of innovative ideas - including guaranteed rights to childcare, shared access to parental leave, "daddy leave", and cash payments for home-based care.

Most countries in the European Union (EU) offer paid paternity leave, from two days in Spain to two weeks in France, while Norway - which outside the EU - tops the list as the most family-friendly country with a full four weeks.

Encouraging fathers

A newly published ILO study, Gender Equality and Decent Work: Good Practices at the Workplace, shows that Norway grants the longest-paid paternity leave after the birth of a child, in addition to the mother's 11 months.

Norway introduced the four-week paternity quota in 1993. The provision sets aside four weeks of the parental period for the father with the purpose of encouraging more fathers to take an active role in the care of children during their first year. These four weeks cannot be transferred to the mother and are lost if the father does not use them.

Rights and entitlements with regards to parental leave and pay compensation are established by law in Norway. In developing the legal framework on parental leave, equality of opportunities has been a guiding principle, with a view to both promoting women's labour market participation and encouraging men to spend more time at home taking care of their children. Isak Berntsen, a 31-year-old officer in the Royal Norwegian Navy, is looking forward to spending more time at home with his daughter Erle thanks to his paternity quota.

"I am happy to step up my involvement as a father in my daughter's early life. In my family we arranged it so that my wife stayed home the first 12 months with 80 per cent income loss compensation. The "father's quota" may be used at any time during the shared period of leave, but is lost if not used by the father, so I have to use it now or I will lose it. I'm lucky to have this opportunity to participate more in family life while receiving full pay at the same time. As a member of the Standing NATO Response Force, I see that most of my colleagues from other countries do not have the same rights," says Mr. Berntsen.

The introduction of the paternity quota led to an extension of parental leave, and it did not come at the expense of women's opportunities in relation to leave. Fathers are granted this quota regardless of whether the mother remains at home after delivery or not, which means that both parents can stay at home during the father's period of leave. However, the father is not allowed to take the leave during the first six weeks after the baby is born.

Bringing fathers into the picture

Drawing on the practices and experiences of 25 countries, the ILO study shows how governments, employers' organizations, and trade unions around the world bring gender equality into their institutional structures, policies, programmes, and activities.

The Norwegian government has pursued an active policy of promoting gender equality since 1978. The implementation of this policy is the responsibility of the Unit for Gender Equality located in the Ministry of Children and Family Affairs, the Gender Equality Ombud, and the Centre for Gender Equality. The ministry is also responsible for policy on issues such as childcare, parental leave, and reconciliation of work and family life.

In 1978, Norway adopted a Gender Equality Act which prohibits discrimination on the grounds of sex in all areas of society and obliges all public institutions to promote gender equality in all areas of policy, such as labour, education, and health. The Gender Equality Act was reinforced in 2002, and now requires all employers in both the public and private sectors to report annually on women's representation on the staff and in management positions in their organizations.

Results - more fathers using their quota

The scheme has significantly increased the number of fathers taking paternity leave.

Very few fathers took advantage of the parental benefit period from 1978, when it was introduced, until 1994. However, the Gender Equality Ombud's office reported in 1997 that over 70 per cent of fathers with the right to the paid leave took it that year, a very large increase over the 2.4 per cent registered for 1992. Since then, take-up of the paternity quota by fathers has been consistently high, as the following table shows:

Fathers exercising their entitlement to paternity quota, 1997 and 2004

      1997    2004
   Total number of women with parental benefits (ended cases)    48,664    46,690
   Estimated number of fathers with right to paternity quota    38,392    37,352
   Fathers with right to paternity quota as percentage of births where mother has right to parental benefits    78%    80%
   Total number of fathers using paternity quota (ended cases)    29,238    33,164
   Fathers with paternity quota as percentage of fathers with right to paternity quota (estimated)    75%    89%

Extended paternity leave

The Norwegian government has proposed in its revised national budget that paternity leave should be extended by an additional week. This proposal means that parental or adoption leave will now be extended beyond a total of one year.

The proposal will apply to parents of children born or adopted after 1 July 2005. Under the terms of the new proposal, parental and adoption leave will be extended by one week, with the additional week being reserved exclusively for use by fathers. This will raise the father's quota to a total of five weeks.

Putting an end to discrimination

  • Previously, paternity and adoption benefits paid to many fathers were reduced in proportion to the mother's earned rights. Men only received maximum benefits if the child's mother had worked more than 75 per cent of a full-time post.
  • Men whose spouses/partners had worked between 50 and 75 per cent of a full-time position had their benefits reduced to correspond to the mother's position.
  • Many men lost so much in financial terms that they had to make do with two weeks' leave on full pay instead of four weeks on half pay. This discriminatory practice has now been brought to an end, and fathers now receive paternity benefits based on their own earning rights.
Many men due to take paternity leave can rejoice that little bit extra, since they will be receiving more benefits while they spend time at home with their child. The reason for this is that a larger number of fathers will receive paternity benefits calculated on the basis of their own employment level. Until now many newly fledged fathers with spouses who were in part-time employment had been discriminated against and penalized financially when they took their paternity leave.

Thus, the total amount of parental and adoption leave has been increased from 52 to 53 weeks at 80 per cent of full pay, or from 42 to 43 weeks at 100 per cent of full pay. This extension is conditional on the child's father taking the extra week of leave.

The proposal applies to fathers who are entitled to the paternity quota. If the father has been exempted from the paternity quota, or is not entitled to paternity leave, the extra week will pass to the mother. The same applies if the mother has sole responsibility for the child.

Gender Equality and Decent Work: Good Practices at the Workplace

by the ILO Bureau for Gender Equality

Drawing on the practices and experiences of 25 countries, this book shows how governments, employers' organizations, and trade unions around the world bring gender equality into their institutional structures, policies, programmes, and activities.

Examples from the good practices are cited under eight thematic categories such as the use of sex-disaggregated data; strategic partnerships; multi-sectoral approaches in legislation, policies, and strategies; strategically placed gender expertise, and more. Intended to stimulate fresh ideas and invite adaptation, the book provides step-by-step outlines of the actions undertaken to make the elements of good gender practice visible and comparable, and to make it easier for readers to find the aspects most relevant to their own situations.

Parental leave provisions

Statutory provisions for parental leave in Norway apply equally to both parents, in compliance with the Gender Equality Act (1978). In addition, each parent is entitled to up to one year of unpaid leave per child, extended to up to two years for a single parent.

Parental Benefit Scheme: reconciling work and family life

The statutory parental benefits period is 42 weeks with full income loss compensation, or 52 weeks with 80 per cent income loss compensation.

Parents who qualify for the benefits may choose to share the period of paid leave. However, certain weeks must be used according to specific rules:
  • 3 weeks before delivery are reserved for the mother;
  • 6 weeks after delivery are reserved for the mother;
  • 4 weeks are reserved for the father (paternity quota).
This leaves 29 weeks of parental leave which either the mother, the father or both can use.

The Norwegian paternity quota

If both the mother and the father qualify for parental or adoption benefit, four weeks of the benefit period are reserved for the father. If the father does not make use of these weeks, they will normally be forfeit. The mother must have worked at least 50 per cent of a full-time post.

When parents share the period of leave, the Working Environment Act requires first the mother and then the father to take their respective periods without a break.

The paternity quota cannot, however, be taken until at least six weeks after the birth of the child. Adoptive fathers can take their quota at any time during the adoption benefit period. The paternity quota may, upon agreement with the employer, be divided into several periods, but it must be taken within the total parental/adoption benefit period. If his employer consents, the father may, for example, take one day a week for 20 weeks. The mother must then have leave of absence for the remaining four days per week. The father may not take his quota as part of a time account agreement.

There is no requirement that the mother must return to work when the father utilizes his paternity quota. For example, if she so wishes, the mother may work part time (time account agreement) during this period. However, she is not entitled to more than 50 per cent of the parental benefit during this period.