Feminist Paradises

Lessons from Sweden on Equal Pay Day

04.09.13 3:15 PM ET

Christina Sommers makes an incisive point at the American Enterprise blog: in a crazy way, Sheryl Sandberg is right about "lean in": if women are given the choice of a "mommy track," many of them will … want to take it.

Studying Sweden's generous family-leave policies, Sommers notes that they have had the effect of encouraging more Swedish women to work some of the time - but fewer of them to reach the very top as compared to their U.S. counterparts.

Though the United States has fewer women in the workforce (68 percent compared to Sweden’s 77 percent), American women who choose to be employed are far more likely to work full-time and to hold high-level jobs as managers or professionals. They also own more businesses, launch more start start-ups, and more often work in traditionally male fields.

Why the difference?

Generous parental leave policies and readily available part-time options have unintended consequences: instead of strengthening women’s attachment to the workplace, they appear to weaken it. In addition to a 16-month leave, a Swedish parent has the right to work six hours a day (for a reduced salary) until his or her child is eight years old. Mothers are far more likely than fathers to take advantage of this law. But extended leaves and part-time employment are known to be harmful to careers — for both genders. And with women a second factor comes into play: most seem to enjoy the flex-time arrangement (once known as the “mommy track”) and never find their way back to full-time or high-level employment. In sum: generous family-friendly policies do keep more women in the labor market, but they also tend to diminish their careers.

According to Blau and Kahn, Swedish-style paternal leave policies and flex-time arrangements pose a second threat to women’s progress: they make employers wary of hiring women for full-time positions at all. Offering a job to a man is the safer bet. He is far less likely to take a year of parental leave and then return on a reduced work schedule for the next eight years.