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Iceland: The parental revolution

Iceland: The parental revolution

| Text and photo: Áslaug Skúladóttir, Iceland

The image of parent and child doesn't necessarily involve a woman any longer in Iceland. For almost five years fathers in Iceland have been able to take paternity leave, and from day one they have made the most of it. This has been the largest step Iceland has taken towards gender equality. But there are still examples of employers who don’t follow the law.

A CEO of a large company in Iceland recently resigned in order to take paternity leave. According to the daily newspaper, Morgunbladid, the company´s board found it “unfortunate” that the CEO wanted to take a long leave, so he resigned. 

Other similar cases have been reported lately, both in Iceland and in Denmark. People find that odd in a modern society, where these rights are secured through legislation. The reports made people think about all the women who have suffered discrimination for years. Their stories don’t even hit the news anymore. 

Welcomed by everyone

You could say that it showed the negative side of gender equality, but as parents, sociologists, employers and union leaders say, the stories do not reflect reality. The paternity leave is welcomed by almost everyone. From day one, fathers in all levels of Icelandic society have been making use of their right to paternity leave. No matter where or who you ask, people agree that this is one of the greatest steps towards gender equality ever taken in Icelandic history. 

One wonders how fathers felt before they where made responsible for their newborns by law. Sociologist Ingolfur V. Gislason, a manager at the Centre for Gender Equality, says the legislation is nothing but positive.

“The big advantage of the legislation and the reason why the changes went so smoothly is that everyone is benefiting.” 

Ingolfur still thinks more can be done and wants to extend the leave to one year. 

“Make it three times four months; four for the mother, four for the father and four months which they can split.” 

Ingolfur stresses that parents' financial situations are much better now than before the new legislation came into force.

“And don’t forget, fathers take a much more active role in child care now than ever before.” 

How do fathers feel about these changes? 

Olafur P. Stephensen, Associate Editor at Morgunbladid, is on his third paternal leave. Olafur has three children, his first was born in 1997. Back then there was no such thing as paternal leave, but he managed to get three months off by expediting leave he was entitled to as a journalist. He was met with a certain level of surprise when he told his employers that he wanted paternal leave, but they agreed.

 “I lived in downtown Reykjavik at the time, and I was the only male pushing a baby pram. There were no other men around in the same situation.”

Olafur also remembers women's surprise when he showed up at church for 'mother´s meetings'. His second child was born four years later, in 2001. The paternal leave legislation was still only one month old. He took most of the shared three months; his wife stayed at home for the first four months and then he took over.

“The reactions she got from other women surprised us. They couldn't understand why she would give me two months of 'her' time with the baby.”

Again he expected to be the only male pushing a baby pram. But he was proved wrong.

Fathers strolling with their babies

“Reykjavik was filled with fathers strolling with their babies and at most churches you could attend 'parents' meetings'. It seemed like things had changed over night with the new legislation.” 

Olafur maintains that it doesn’t come as surprise to anyone anymore if men take paternal leave, even men in managerial positions like his. Some people worry the Maternity/Paternity Fund payment cap will discourage highly paid men to take paternity leave. Only six months after its introduction, it might be too soon to say.

Islandsbanki employs over 900 people. Vilborg Lofts is their Executive Director of Human Resources. She says she hasn't noticed anything to indicate such a development yet.

“If I was asked again in two years, I wouldn´t be surprised if the answer was different.” 

Women at the bank usually take longer than six months' leave, and most of the men use their three months, usually dividing it into smaller periods. They try to work out an agreement with their employers over when to take the leave. This year however, two male bank employees have been on leave for three months in a row. When women take maternity leave, someone else is hired to cover for them, but when men go their absence is covered in other ways.

At Islandsbanki even the CEO does it 

Vilborg says male employees at Islandsbanki have been taking paternity leave from day one of the law coming into effect.

“It was well noticed in Iceland when Bjarni Armannsson, the Chief Executive Officer, took paternity leave. But he didn´t take three months in a row, that would have been almost impossible for a man in his position.“

So are there no real problems facing men who take paternity leave? Of course, says Snorri Kristjansson at the Commercial and Service Trade Union in Reykjavík, there are some examples of things going wrong. The union represents 20 000 members across more than 100 professions. Snorri can recall 10 - 15 cases over the past 12 months where men have met resistance at work when taking paternity leave, and some 30 - 40 cases of women complaining. In most cases the problem was solved, but a few have gone to court. Ingolfur V. Gislason, at the Centre for Gender Equality, is not sure if the legislation will lead to greater labour market gender equality, as was the aim.

“We hear of men losing their jobs when asking for paternity leave, which is of course illegal. But I guess those stories are a bit blown up.” 

He sees the legislation as an all-positive thing, everyone is benefiting from it.

A change in society

“You notice a change in society. Earlier everything relating to young children was aimed at women. Now men are taken into consideration as well. The church does not advertise 'mother meetings' but 'parents meetings'. This is perhaps not what matters most, but it still does matter, words can say so much.”

 And Ingolfur is of the firm opinion that the leave should be extended.

“If we want total equality, the leave must be extended to one year. Women normally use the first six months of their leave and then men take over for three months. I don’t think that will change unless the leave is extended. We must be able to do that, just as they do in Norway and Sweden.”


The almost five years old legislation or act on Maternity/Paternity and Parental leave in Iceland has been a great success.

The law now allows three months leave for the father, three months for the mother and three months for either mother or father. 

Furthermore, parents have eighteen months to make use of the leave.

The Maternity/Paternity Fund handles all the payments, and parents on leave get 80 % of their wages, or up to 7.700 EURO monthly. 

From January to June this year, 1707 men and 1858 women have received payment from the Fund. 

Since January 1st the Fund has a cap of 7.700 EURO a month. In this period, 61 men received as much as that, which means that their normal wages were at least 9.600 EURO monthly. 

Only 15 women were in that category. Earlier, people got 80 % of their wages no matter how much. It came as a surprise how almost all fathers took paternity leave, right from the start, and the Fund almost went bankrupt.


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