Paternity leave spurs new debate

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Norway’s Minister of Children, Equality and Social Inclusion, Audun Lysbakken, wants fathers to take 14 weeks paid leave with their young children. He’s looking forward to benefitting from his own policy, as he gets ready to take off for four months to look after his daughter Aurora.

Audun Lysbakken will head out on paternity leave himself next month, and wants to be sure other fathers can do the same. PHOTO: regjeringen.no

On November 29, November Lysbakken starts  16-weeks of what the Norwegians call “pappa permisjon,” adding some vacation leave at the same time.

“I haven’t heard a single critical question, asking me why I, as a male minister, choose to take four months leave,” Lysbakken told newspaper Aftenposten. “This shows that society and expectations about what women and men can do, have changed a lot in just a few years. I’m convinced that we would not have got this far if it had not been for the quota reserved for fathers.”

New debate
It’s precisely that quota, though, that has renewed debate in recent weeks, as the government proposes expanding it from the current 10 weeks to 12 weeks next summer and, ultimately, Lysbakken’s desired 14 weeks.

Parents now can take 46 weeks off at full pay when their child is born, or 56 weeks at 80 percent pay, with 10 of those weeks set aside for fathers. From July 1, total fully paid leave expands to 47 weeks, 12 of them earmarked for Dad.

It’s a “use it or lose it” quota. The quota set aside for fathers will normally not be allocated to the mother except in special situations. If fathers don’t take advantage of the paternity leave portion, it’s lost, leaving mothers with 36 weeks.

“I think we have reached an optimal balance between giving more time to fathers and leaving enough flexibility to families,” Lysbakken told Aftenposten. “I believe this is a good arrangement which promotes equality between the sexes and which we can maintain for a long time, as long as the (political) Right doesn’t demolish it.”

Conservative criticism
The Conservatives want to leave the division of the post-natal leave to each family, arguing that the individuals concerned know what is best. A recent survey conducted by research firm Respons for Aftenposten also showed that two-thirds of those questioned also want to divide up leave time themselves, instead of the state doing it for them.

The Labour Party-led government, though, thinks that earmarking a specified period for fathers will encourage equality and, not least, make it easier for men to apply for leave from work.

“The Right think that creating a quota interferes with people’s freedom. I, on the contrary, think that establishing a quota gives men real freedom,” says Lysbakken, who hails from the Socialist Left party in the current coalition government. “Norwegian fathers have never had real freedom to choose as much leave as they would want, because of the attitude of employers and quite a few mothers, that this period basically belongs to them.”

He rejects any suggestion that the government is forcing men to stay home. “We’re not forcing anyone. The father’s quota comes on top of the child leave package which is already one of the most generous in the world,” says Lysbakken.

Views and News from Norway/Sven Goll
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