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European fathers on parental leave a statistical overview

by Lukas Sedlacek

January 17th 2007
last updated January 17th 2007


35 years ago Sweden was the first European country to make it feasible for fathers to takeparental leave. Since then, other European countries have introduced various financial and labour market incentives for fathers to take time out with their newborn children.

In most European countries the actual number of fathers who take parental leave is still low. However, considering the fact that cultural norms and stereotypical gender roles have existed for hundreds of years, the number of men taking an active parental role can also be seen as relatively high.
The Scandinavian countries lead the statistic on European fathers taking parental leave, thanks to father quotas and other incentives. In Sweden and Norway 80 percent of fathers take parental leave. In Germany, Czech Republic and other European countries, the percentages are significantly lower. 

All in all the statistics indicate a strong correlation between  incentives offered to fathers and the number of fathers who take parental leave.

The Status on Men’s Use of Parental Leave

Introduction: Fathers on Parental Leave in Europe

In Europe, fathers first got the option of staying at home to take care of their children in Sweden in the early 70s (and most recently in Norway). This was made possible by the inception of parental leave, which broadened the option of staying at home for both parents. Up until that time only women were guaranteed the opportunity to care for their small children on a full-time basis: their guarantee was the statutory maternity leave.

The institution of parental leave was the first legislative step towards the equal opportunity for both fathers and mothers to provide full-time care for their children. Despite this legislative equality the share of fathers taking parental leave has been rising very slowly. Although the Scandiavian countries have provided the leading European example of overcoming gender prejudices and stereotypes for many years now, the situation of men leaving the career race for a few years to care for his child(ren) full-time did not start becoming more common until the 90s. When this finally happened it was not the result of any spontaneous change in parental behaviour so much as a response to distinct encouragement provided by the state.

Father-quotas and Paternity-leave

Scandinavian countries
One example of such encouragement was the implementation of the so-called father-quotas, which means a period of parental leave reserved only for fathers (currently 2 months in Sweden, 1 month in Norway, 3 months in Iceland). If the father fails to make use of his paternal leave, the right to that leave-period is forfeited, i.e. it cannot be taken by the mother instead.

In countries where this father-quota is statutory, almost all men choose to stay at home with their children:

• In Sweden it was 77 % of fathers (ten years ago)
• In Norway the number is 85 % of fathers
• In Iceland the percentage of fathers taking paternity-leave is 82%

Other European Countries

The positive impact of this stimulation on paternal participation in everyday care for their children is felt even in countries where the traditional gender-roles still have a firm hold. Portugal is one such example: This country takes a very traditional view of gender-roles but at the same timer there are also serious political attempts to obtain gender equality:

The state motivated fathers to increase their share of parental leave-days used by providing 15 days of paid paternal leave (a leave-period reserved only for fathers). This has been positively received by fathers: In 2003 about 40 % of fathers availed themselves of this option.

Similarly, Austria has set out to support men’s involvement in the care of young babies: If each parent cares for the child for a minimum of 3 months, the family is entitled to an extra 6 months of paid leave compared to family where only one parent cares for the child.

But in spite of all this support and motivation men’s share of the time spent on parental leave remains very low. The financial advantage is just one part of the process of motivating men to be more involved in nurturing their children. But nevertheless the results are positive. In western European countries that have no father-quota or ear-marked paternity-leave, the share of men taking parental leave is about 1-2 %. The rest is taken by women.

But in countries with this special support like those mentioned above, the share of men on parental leave becomes higher. In Portugal, men’s share of total parental leave taken reached 4,4 % in 2003, in Austria it grew from 1 to 3 % after the introduction of the father-quota. In Sweden, men’s contribution to parental leave was 16 % in 2002 while in Norway it was about 10 %.

Success or Failure?
Of course the state-of-affairs revealed by these figures can hardly be termed gender equality when it comes to caring for children. Some might consider this a disappointing result and hence call the failure of the father-quota system. But on a more positive note: the stereotypes and prejudices we have addressed here have existed for hundreds of years with the objective of supporting and reproducing patriarchal systems. Stereotypical gender-roles – featuring men as breadwinners and women as primary caregivers – are the very foundation of that system, so it is unreasonable to expect to accomplish a complete change in the span of a few years, not should this change be reduced only to question of financial benefits.

These figures also display highly progressive indications: more than 80 percent of men (in Norway e.g.) choose to stay home and care for their children. Even if they stay home only for a limited period this brings new experiences to men‘s world: their masculine identity is enriched by the experience of caring for a baby all day – they obtain competencies that were previously the preserve of women. Besides there is a further positive impact of men-taking parental leave: A Swedish study indicates that the divorce rate is decreasing as more fathers take parental leave.

Parental Leave in Denmark, the Czech Republic and Germany

Now we shall take a look at three different European countries, since each of them represents a different area of Europe: Scandinavia (Denmark), Eastern Europe (Czech republic) and Western Europe (Germany).


Like in other Scandinavian countries Denmark too implemented father-quotas in 2001. This quota meant an extra two weeks reserved only for fathers and was added to total amount of parental leave. However the quota was abolished just one year later as only 20 % of fathers had been taking advantage of this paternal leave (compared to over 80 % in Sweden).

Nowadays Danish legislation grants fathers 2 weeks of parental leave following the birth of the child while the mother is granted 4 weeks prior to and 14 weeks following the birth. After that both parents have a right to 32 weeks each of parental leave but only 52 weeks of these are paid leave. The 52 weeks have to contain the reserved periods (18 weeks for mothers, 2 for fathers). The 32 remaining weeks may be used by either parent at the family’s discretion.

However, pay during the parental leave is regulated not only by legislation. Most Danish employees work under a collective agreement between their union and their employers´ representatives. These agreements usually grant full pay during periods reserved for one of the parents.

In families with a child born in 2003, where at least one parent took parental leave:
• 71 % of fathers availed themselves of parental leave
• 92% is the figure for mothers on parental leave

Of course women still dominate the figures when it comes to the total time that was spent on parental leave. Danish fathers currently take an average of 3 weeks of parental leave, while women average 40 weeks. Danish men were accountable for approximately 7 % of all parental leave taken in 2004.


Maternity Leave
The situation in Germany is quite different as legislation here strives for neutrality as to whether parental leave is taken by the father or the mother. The decision is clearly up to each individual family. Maternity leave does exist and is of course reserved for women: the mother is entitled to 6 weeks leave before and 8 weeks after childbirth.

Parental leave

Parental leave is a 3-year extended benefit following birth of a child. Both parents are entitled to the 3 years of parental leave and it can be taken at any time until the child’s 8th birthday. Both parents may take leave simultaneously.

This reform came in to force in 2001. Before that only 1.5 % of fathers who were entitled to parental leave took advantage of this opportunity. Now this share has increased to 5 %. However, we should note that the figure does not reflect the actual share of the fathers´ time spent on parental leave since the number includes fathers who took parental leave at the same time as mothers. Almost 98.5 % of all time spent on parental leave belongs to women while the rate for men is only 1.5 %.

However, new regulations concerning parental leave-allowance have recently been adjusted to support families where both partners share childcare. These regulations come in force in January 2007. The parental leave-allowance may be claimed by all mothers and fathers who take time off to care for their children during the first year of their lives.

The parent taking time off work can claim 67% of their average net wage over the previous twelve months, with an upper monthly limit of 1800 €. The biggest change is the introduction of two extra "partner months": If the spouse/partner stays home for at least two months, parents will be eligible for parental leave-allowance not for the usual 12 months but for 14 months.

As these rules apply to babies born from January 2007 onwards, we have yet to see what changes this may bring about.

Czech republic
The situation in post-communist countries is a very specific one: the model of two-income-families had already been achieved and in that sense equality between men and women in the labour market was supposedly secured. But the equality that was declared in public sphere contrasted sharply with the traditional distribution of gender roles in private sector. The resulting conditions – with women working more in full-time positions in Eastern Europe – does not mean that they share their household chores and childcare duties with husbands or partners.

The legislative arrangements that formally enabled fathers to take parental leave were in some cases applied after the fall of the regime but mostly up to a decade later. In the Czech Republic fathers were permitted to take parental leave in 2001. There is no specific fathers´ quota or paternity-leave.

Both men and women are entitled to 3 years of parental leave. In the Czech Republic parental leave means that employer has to reserve the position for the parent (father or mother) for a period of three years. This may be availed of by both parents simultaneously. Parental leave allowance may be payable for up to four years but only one parent can take advantage of this. And of course during the fourth year an employer is no longer obliged to guarantee the parents’ job at the end of the leave period.

Since there is no positive motivation for fathers to take parental leave the number of men caring for their children full-time are very low. The male share of parents claiming parental allowance was 1 % in 2004


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International Journal of Law, Policy and the Family 2001 15(1):118-134; Policy changes and family stability: the Swedish case by L.SS Oláh.
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With support from the European Community - Programme relating to the Community Framework Strategy on Gender Equality (2001-2006).The information contained in this website does not necessarily reflect the position or opinion of the European Commission.