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Iceland: fewer take paternity leave

| Text: Guðrún Helga Sigurðardóttir

When Iceland introduced paid paternity leave in 2000 it was a huge success. New fathers welcomed the opportunity to stay at home with their children. But the trend has not continued, and fathers’ income opportunities have worsened. Families can no longer afford the cut in earnings.

Iceland introduced paid paternity leave in order to improve fathers’ chance to look after their children on their own terms, but also to strengthen mothers’ position in the labour market. Mothers and fathers were given three months parental leave each, and a further three months to share between them.

Fathers on paternity leave received 80 percent of their normal wages, limited to a  ceiling set by the government. That ceiling has now been lowered several times. It means fathers can no longer stay at home as much as they used to. They are now only stepping in to help the mother.

The law had the intended effect

A team of researchers led by Associate Professor at the University of Iceland, Ingólfur V. Gíslason, have looked at paternity leave and parents’ activity in Iceland’s labour market. Gíslason presented some of the study’s results during the Nordic Council of Ministers’ gender equality conference in Reykjavik in November. 

Their study looks at parents with children born in 1997, 2003 and 2009. The results show that the law had the intended effect. The norm used to be women staying at home looking after the children. But when the law came into effect, fathers started taking a bigger share in child care, while mothers became more active in the labour market. When the government lowered the ceiling for income support, the fathers reacted immediately.

“Fathers will spread paternal leave over a longer period of time, and they do not take the same number of days off every time,” explains Ingólfur Gíslason, who thinks this goes against the spirit of the law.

The father remains the mother’s assistant

The Associate Professor says the limits put on fathers’ paternity leave income is nothing short of a catastrophe. As a result, fathers have to a much greater extent become assistants to the mothers, rather than staying at home with the children on their own, over a longer period of time. 

Ingólfur Gíslason says that rather than strengthening their role as fathers, strengthening their relationship to the children and gaining child care experience, they are now only mothers’ assistants or perhaps some kind of handy-men who tinker with the roof. 

“There is still a gender-based salary gap within families. They cannot afford a sudden drop in the father’s income. The father will take time off when the family needs his input or when it suits his workplace.

“He remains the mother’s assistant,” says Ingólfur V. Gíslason.


Assistant Professor Ingólfur V. Gíslason addressed the Nordic Council of Ministers during their Reykjavik conference in November 2014. He presented a study of parents’ labour market activity and the development of parental leave in Iceland. 

Parental leave in Iceland

Icelandic families are given nine months parental leave. Mothers and fathers get three months each, after which they get a further three months to share between them. Another three months of unpaid leave is available to them after that. In 2008 fathers could receive up to 535,000 Icelandic kronor (€3,470) a month, based on their salary. In 2010, in the wake of the financial crash, that ceiling was nearly halved down to 300,000 kronor (€1,945). Iceland’s government plans to increase the ceiling to 2,391 euro a month.


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