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Iceland's record-breaking parental leave "not perfect"

Iceland's record-breaking parental leave "not perfect"

| Text: Hallgrímur Indriðason

Iceland's parliament passed a new law on parents’ leave in 2021 giving each parent at least six months off – the longest paternity leave in the Nordics. Yet only six weeks can now be split between them, a big change from earlier when parents could split far more time between them. Usually the mother took the entire leave that could be split.

30 years ago, Iceland had no statutory paternity leave at all and shorter maternity leave than any of the other Nordic countries.

Fríða Rós ValdimarsdóttirFríða Rós Valdimarsdóttir, the former leader of the Icelandic Women's Rights Association Kvenréttindafélag Íslands, has been working as a freelance project manager on equality issues for a long time. In 2005 she wrote a report for the Icelandic Directorate of Equality on the development of maternity and paternity leave in the Nordic countries, giving her a good overview of developments.

According to the report, Iceland's experience with parental leave stands out. Laws on paid maternity leave were only passed in 1946, decades later than in other Nordic countries. Paid paternity leave was not available until 1998. It only covered two weeks, and only only applied for fathers living with the mother. 

“Iceland stands out by being slow to provide public care for children in general. That doesn’t only apply to maternity leave but to other issues such as warm school meals, which were introduced much later in Iceland. 

“The percentage of women working full time has also been high for decades, and there are no clear statistics detailing where the children were at the time, but often they were taken care of by older siblings or their grandmothers.”

Fathers took paternity leave instantly

Valdimarsdóttir said this changed when daycare improved after a hard fight from women’s rights groups. Trade unions have also put pressure on the government to improve parents’ leave. Then came a separate paternity leave, which in 2000 changed from two weeks to three months and has since been lengthened step by step.

“Over 80 % of fathers already started to take leave then. It was incredible how fast this happened. This shows that if there is a will and firm steps are taken, big social changes are possible. Icelandic society changed very fast in that respect. 

“It became much more normal for men to be out with a pram and they became more visible as one of their child's caretakers. And research shows that they are experiencing the role as a father much strongly and in a more positive way.”

Valdimarsdottir says that before the new law was introduced, fathers had already started to take more part in childcare. It had become socially expected. 

“It was like the year 2000 was the right time to take these steps. And statistics show that it has an impact on the gender pay gap. That is very much based on childcare. The gap starts when the children arrive, and extending paternity leave is simply a way to change it. The pay gap is now closing, and it is very likely to be at least partly because child care is more equally divided between both parents.”

Backlash after the crisis

But there was a big backlash in the wake of the financial crisis in 2008. The state would always pay 80 % of people’s salaries, currently capped at 600 000 ISK (€4 288). One of the government’s budget cut measures was to significantly lower that cap. 

“This meant that many fathers felt they couldn’t afford to take paternity leave and the percentage of those who took it fell drastically, especially among the ones on higher salaries. It was a shame that the limit was so low that it had this effect. This was especially bad because this applied to leaders who should be role models – they are important in order to normalise paternity leave.”  

But when the cap was raised again, things gradually changed. Parental leave was extended in 2021 from nine months (where the mother took three months, the father took three months, and the rest was split as the parents wished) to twelve months with only six weeks transferable between parents.

Some MPs criticised this reduced flexibility between the parents. But now, Iceland has the longest paternity leave among the Nordic countries. Valdimarsdóttir says this has come as a result of putting pressure on the authorities.  

“That comes not only from the women’s rights activist groups but also from the trade unions. Previous examples show that when there is no special paternity leave, people go back to the old habit of the mother staying at home. So, it is very important to have earmarked paternity leave. In some areas it is important that the authorities take action to promote gender equality. This is one of those examples.”

Valdimarsdóttir believes that the duration of parents’ leave is good as it is now.

“The bigger problem now is to bridge the gap between parents’ leave and kindergarten, public childcare, so parents can go back to their work or education. This has become a big problem that adds to the pressure of already strained parents.”

Always wanted six months' leave

Birgir Þór Harðarson, a journalist, took a six months paternity leave after his son was born in June last year. 

“I always wanted to take the full six months. My wife decided to spread her six months across seven months, which meant we got less money for each month. So she took the first seven months after our son was born and then afterwards I took the whole six months.”

And he is still at home with his son even though the paternity leave is over because he has not found a space for him in kindergarten. He now works from home part-time while taking care of his son.

Harðarson says he thinks he would have done it the same way in the old system when part of the leave could be split between the parents as they wished.  

“We always wanted to split this time equally between us.”

Income shrunk

However, during both the maternity and paternity leave the family’s income shrunk drastically. 

“We found that parental pay lasted a lot shorter every month than our salaries did. The pay is capped and both of us reached that limit, so we got less than 80 % of our salaries. This meant we had to use our savings to see us through this period. So savings became very important, otherwise we would have been forced to handle the situation differently.”

Harðarson says the fact that they had both been working for over 10 years helped. It meant they had more income than those who have children at a younger age, and they had a chance to build up some savings.

 “If the child had come when I was a bit younger I would not have been able to afford to take such long paternity leave. I was not able to build up any savings until I managed to buy my own place. And that was maybe the most sensible decision we took – that is, not to have children until we had our own apartment. If we hadn’t done that, then the two of us could not have taken full leave.” 

Harðarson is, however, certain that both he and his son have benefitted from such long paternity leave. 

“I’ve got to know my son better and in a whole other way than if I had taken shorter leave. During the first year you’re simply helping them get on their feet, but these last few months I’ve watched him learn new words, something that I would otherwise have missed. 

“So this is very important, for me and not least for him. My mother started to work three months after I was born 33 years ago. I can’t for the life of me understand how she managed that,” Harðarson says.


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