Swedish gender equality scolds

Nordic countries are unusually prominent in research on the health and welfare of children, including in the context of divorce and “parental separation” (how researchers describe two biological parents that might have spent 15 minutes having sex and then never talked to each other again). Partly this is because they gather a lot of data on subjects, such as the health and happiness of children, that other societies apparently don’t care about. “Parental Responses to Child Support Obligations: Causal Evidence from Administrative Data” (Rossin-Slater and Wust 2014) is one example of what can be done with a big data set. The work of Malin Bergstrom and colleagues referenced from the Children, Mothers, and Fathers chapter is an even better one.

Swedes showed up in moderate force at the International Conference on Shared Parenting 2017 to present their latest research. Their data continue to show that children in 50/50 shared parenting do much better than children who live primarily with one parent. Unprompted, however, they would try to explain why shared parenting is more common in Sweden than in other countries. It would have been a major breach of conference protocol to say that “one possible explanation is that children are not profitable in Sweden and therefore people don’t fight over them.” (see the International chapter for how a plaintiff could have sex with the richest person in Sweden and get only about $2,500 per year). Certainly nobody had the temerity to raise a hand and suggest “Maybe Swedish women work because they can’t get paid for having kids or having once been married.” (See the aggregate economic effects chapter for a reference to a paper out of University of Chicago finding that married women cut back their labor force participation when no-fault-with-50-50-property-division divorce was made available.)

The go-to explanation for the Swedes was that Sweden has more gender equality than other countries. In other words, setting up court systems to give women primary custody of children (and a paycheck to go with the kids) is a remedy for gender inequality. Because Sweden doesn’t have as much gender inequality therefore fewer women put in the effort to supplement their wage income with child support checks.

What are the key elements of Swedish gender equality, as explained at the conference? One is that Swedish men can take paternity leave. Economist says that Swedish couples can divide 180 days of paternity leave between the mother and father (but what if the biological parents are no longer acquainted? How is the decision made then?). Nearly 90 percent of Sweden fathers take at least some leave and that the average amount taken is 7 weeks. But can that initial 7-week leave actually affect the parenting time schedule if the parents are together at the birth but split up when children are 8 and 10 years old?

How about gender pay gap for full-time workers, without adjusting for field, years of experience, etc.? Sweden’s is 13.2 percent. That’s a larger gap than in New York (source: National Women’s Law Center), a winner-take-all jurisdiction for custody and child support. The gap is roughly the same as in Florida, home to “permanent alimony” for the litigant identified by the court as a “dependent spouse.”

Does this focus on the family law/gender equality relationship make sense? Based on our research for Real World Divorce, there doesn’t seem to be a perfect correlation between a state’s gender equality level and friendliness toward shared parenting. If we look at state-by-state gender wage gaps (source: National Women’s Law Center) we find that Maryland has more gender equality than Pennsylvania, yet Pennsylvania is the state that supports shared parenting. California has a lower gender wage gap than neighboring Nevada and Arizona, yet it is California that stages the winner-take-all primary/secondary parent court battles (guess who wins, statistically!) and Nevada and Arizona that have 50/50 shared parenting statutes. Maine has a larger gender wage gap than Massachusetts  (the two were once a single state), yet it is Maine where courts are more likely to award 50/50 shared parenting.

Anecdotally, a Swedish family stayed in our Harvard Square apartment last year. I had spent years listening to tales of Swedish superiority in gender equality, environmentalism, welfare systems, etc. Both parents were well-educated and had full-time jobs. I took the family out for a day of suburban sightseeing, helicopter flying, etc. in our minivan. Mom sat in the back in between the two toddlers. Dad sat in the front and talked to me about computer nerdism, aviation, etc. Dad would lend a hand when necessary with the kids, but Mom did most of the child-related tasks. The condo neighbors complained that the family did not properly sort items into trash versus recycling.

Readers: Are Swedes in your direct personal experience more gender-equal than Americans? If so, does it make sense that their radically different family law system is somehow related to this increased gender equality?

[Note that Michael Lamb, a professor of psychology at Cambridge University (“the real Cambridge”), was at the conference and offered his own non-economic perspective: “The Swedes believe that children have two parents and that parents matter. You will not see fundamental changes in laws and outcomes without changes to underlying attitudes. The focus on law alone is misplaced.” (but how to explain a sudden shift from winner-take-all primary/secondary to 50/50 shared parenting as a result of a court ruling (Alaska) or a piece of legislation (Arizona and Nevada)?]



  1. Roger

    June 18, 2017 @ 3:05 pm


    Scandinavian countries have greater sex-role differentiation, with men in male jobs like construction and women in female jobs like nursing. They say that the greater gender equality allows them to make the more natural choices.

    Were there any economists at the conference? Freshman economics classes teach the principle, with many examples, that people respond to financial incentives. But nobody else knows this fact, unless they have had a freshman economics course.

  2. Jernej

    June 18, 2017 @ 3:30 pm


    If their system is like ours (probable), parents can split the second 180 days of the full year of parental leave. The first half a year is exclusive to mothers and the father gets a few weeks off in that time.

  3. Jack

    June 18, 2017 @ 3:38 pm


    I do work in Sweden and travel there periodically. In my (limited) experience there is more gender equality in Sweden than here. For example, Swedish listed companies have as their goal by 2018 that 40% of board positions be filled by women (whether this is a good idea is a separate issue — in my experience it isn’t). But Sweden is a very different society from the US with much higher degrees of trust and social responsibility (some attribute this to the role of Lutheranism in Sweden) so things that work in Sweden may not also work in the US. Also with the large scale immigration into Sweden, Sweden’s character will likely change.

  4. Tom

    June 18, 2017 @ 4:03 pm


    You rang?

  5. Tom

    June 18, 2017 @ 4:14 pm


    I would characterize my upper middle class friends as being fairly similar to Americans, say the Massachusetts Puritan. I haven’t seen any hugely acrimonious divorces like you hear about. One pair divorced (for no good reason, as far as I can tell) yet still seemingly-amicably share child rearing. Other divorces have been prior to having children. I don’t know anyone who has admitted to having an abortion either, so they seem not to require any of the feminist landmark achievements. Fathers in this stratum seem to enjoy taking a few weeks off during the summer to push around a stroller and use their cellphones.

    One effect I have seen that may be unfamiliar to Americans, or at least contrary to stereotype: multiple sightings of black men pushing around baby strollers. I haven’t asked about the circumstances.

  6. philg

    June 18, 2017 @ 4:37 pm


    Thanks, Tom, for the on-the-ground perspective.

    Jack: I’m not sure that putting in a quota system for women is a sign of gender equality. Why isn’t that a sign of the reverse? If women are widely perceived as equally competent in business, why would coercion need to be applied to get companies to put women in these positions? If you found a society where they had to force symphony orchestras to hire Asians in the string section would you say “Wow. Here is a society that is totally open to Asian violinists, violists, and cellists.”?

  7. anonymous

    June 21, 2017 @ 6:05 pm


    The Swedes and other descendants of Scandanavian tribes have apparently historically viewed women and each other differently than other groups. Free men would be both armed and meet in “thangs” to govern themselves, with the leader elected, instead of imposed upon them. Women, who were used to men going off to sea and hunt, were in charge of the homestead and free to entertain guests and manage the property, unlike Mediterranean women, who were often sequestered. (source — lectures on “Vikings” from “The Great Courses”.)

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