Earlier this month, I wrote a piece for the New York Times in which I argued that lawmakers seeking to expand child care benefits should provide subsidies for both center-based child care and home child care provided by parents. Almost all of the public reaction to the piece was positive though, in my years of advocating this, I’ve yet to convince a single lawmaker of this and the policy professionals who control this area of Democratic policymaking are either uninterested in or actively hostile towards the idea.
Often opponents of home child care benefits seem to think that it would be bad for gender equality and even say that we should instead adopt the gender-forward policies of Nordic countries that consistently cluster at the top of global gender equality rankings. Based on this discourse, it has become clear to me over the years that Americans who invoke the Nordic countries in discussions of gender equality don’t really know what they are talking about.
It’s true of course that the Nordic countries typically dominate gender equality indexes. In the most commonly cited index, the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap, Iceland, Norway, Sweden, and Finland occupy the top four spots. Denmark clocks in a bit worse at 13th. The US sits at 51st.
But the Nordic advantage in gender equality in these measures is solely driven by women’s share of top political roles, i.e. members of parliament, prime ministers, and cabinet positions. On every other gender equality indicator — including health, education, and labor market outcomes — the Nordic countries look basically the same as the US and other developed countries.
If you listened to certain American commentators, you would conclude that, in the Nordic countries, when kids are born, each parent takes a roughly equal amount of paid leave after which children are placed in day care while moms and dads work full time jobs. But every bit of this is incorrect.
In Finland, fathers take only 9 percent of the parental leave days. In Sweden, the same number is 30 percent. These countries have set aside some weeks of leave as use-it-or-lose-it benefits for fathers (aka father quotas). These seem to help nudge fathers to take a bit more leave, but in practice a large percentage of fathers simply opt to lose it rather than use it. In Norway, 40 percent of fathers do not take the full father quota benefit and even more opt not to use the shared parental leave. In Finland, 25 percent of fathers opt to use none of the father quota.
After the paid leave period is over, in Norway, Finland, and parts of Denmark, parents are eligible for a home child care benefit until the age of 3. Sweden also had that option in the recent past but does not currently.
In practice, a large fraction of young children are not enrolled in child care services in these countries. And this is just as true in Sweden where there is no home care benefit as it is in Norway where there is.
For the mothers and fathers that do return to the workforce, there is a big difference in the amount of work they choose to do. In international comparisons, it is common to look at male employment rates and female employment rates, but these measures do not account for the difference between part-time work and full-time work.
The below graph shows the employment status of men between the ages of 25 and 54 across the four Nordic countries and the US.
The next graph shows the same thing but for women.
In Sweden, where labor market gender equality has been pursued the hardest and where American commentators tend to focus most of their praise, the overall female employment rate (black + red) is quite high, but lurking beneath that is a large female part-time workforce that is nearly three times the size of the male part-time workforce.
If you look only at the percent of women in full-time work, the Nordics perform about the same as the US, with the exception of Finland, which outperforms the US by a significant amount despite having a home child care benefit.
It’s probably not fair to discount part-time work entirely, so in the following graph I have created a modified female employment rate that counts full-time work as 1 job and part-time work as 0.5 jobs.
Here the US trails all four Nordics, but, with the exception of Finland, not by a tremendous amount. And if you compare the difference between the male employment rate and female employment rate so defined (i.e. calculate the gender gap instead of female levels), the US actually beats every Nordic country except Finland.
All of this is to say that, even with virtually free child care in every Nordic country, it’s not true that nobody does home care and not true that men and women both use the child care to work full-time. Instead, many people (especially women) still do home care, even where there are no benefits as in Sweden, and many people (especially women) who use child care nevertheless opt for part-time work in order have more time and flexibility to care for their (especially young) kids.
Inside the labor market, the Nordic economies also have patterns of occupational gender segregation that are very familiar in the US. In Denmark, over 60 percent of workers are employed in occupations where their gender accounts for 75 percent or more of the workforce. In Norway, the government statistical agency describes the situation this way:
Despite increasing levels of education, both men and women tend to choose quite traditional career paths. Typical female occupations include hairdressers, pre-school teachers and nurses. Examples of typical male occupations include tradesmen, [building] caretakers and engineers.
Today, approximately one-third of all employed people work in the public sector: 48 per cent of women compared to only 18 per cent of the men. Women are more often employed in local government, while the men are more equally distributed between local and central government.
The following graph shows the Norwegian professions where women make up 80 percent or more of the workforce.
The following graph shows the Norwegian professions where men make up 90 percent or more of the workforce (some of the figures may be off by a few percentage points because the Norwegian statistical agency rounds the employment numbers to the nearest 1,000).
A similar pattern is found in the Finnish occupational data. The next graph illustrates this by focusing specifically on the occupations that take care of young children.
I bring all of this up only because it seems like misunderstandings of the Nordic labor market and child care systems have led many American policy advocates into strange positions on things like family benefits. So far no country has found a set of welfare or labor market institutions that generates the kind of gender outcomes that these advocates appear to be aiming for. And the US currently has about the same labor market gender outcomes as the Nordic countries despite having radically different levels and kinds of support for families with children.
The Nordic countries have clearly tried the hardest to achieve these outcomes, including through virtually free child care, father quotas on paid leave, targeted recruitment efforts for gender-imbalanced occupations, and even targeted or wholesale elimination of home care benefits. And what they’ve got is the same occupational gender segregation we have, mothers taking far more paid leave than fathers, around half of young kids being cared for in the home, and a large minority of working mothers opting for part-time work.
This is not to say that campaigners should give up on trying to change these outcomes. But being selectively stingy or targeted about family benefits, which hurts mothers far more than fathers, is a really stupid way to pursue it. The design of the welfare state may not be able to radically alter gendered labor market behavior, but it can make sure that everyone is taken care of without interfering with cultural campaigns aimed at changing gender norms. And it should.