Utopian paradise? Working fathers and mothers in Finland

‘It’s Daddy Time!’ campaign showed burly construction worker joyfully pushing a pram

To many, the Nordic countries have come to represent a near-mythical paradise of gender equality and family harmony, where legions of happy fathers push prams through the streets, relaxed mothers enjoy lengthy paid maternity leaves, and well-nourished children in chunky sweaters glow from their free healthcare.

But even against that backdrop, one statistic about Finland, a nation of 5.5 million, stands out: According to a recent OECD report, it's the only country in the developed world where fathers spend more time with school-aged children than mothers, to the tune of eight minutes a day.

And what can the rest of us learn from this small Nordic nation that might accelerate the battle for gender equity in other places?

The Global Gender Gap report rated Finland the second most equal country in the world in 2016, and the Economist recently rated it the third best country to be a working mom.

How did Finland get there?


And what can the rest of us learn from this small Nordic nation that might accelerate the battle for gender equity in other places?

It’s a story of collective action and political will, of a strong tradition of social democracy and an accommodating tax system. But it also boils down to a key difference in how Finland frames the conversation: It’s not about what’s good for adults – it’s about what’s good for children.

"This is a question of gender equality, but it's more a question of the rights of the child," says Annika Saarikko, Finland's minister of family affairs and social services, one of six female ministers out of a cabinet of eleven. "This is not about the mother's right or the father's right – but the child's right to spend time with both parents."

Finland believes fathers play a crucial role in child development. The government offers fathers nine weeks of paternity leave, during which they are paid 70% of their salary. And to encourage fathers to take advantage the benefit, it recently launched a new campaign – with flyers showing a burly construction worker joyfully pushing a pram – called “It’s Daddy Time!”

“We want fathers to take more of the shared parental leave available,” says Saarikko. “We are quite sure if we look at the research that the connection between the baby and the father is really important – the early years are vital and we believe in investing in that.”

While she advocates for fathers, Saarikko is also a fitting example of how mothers in Finland are to a degree liberated from the constraints of motherhood by the country’s supportive policies. She is 33 and has a three-year-old child in full-time public daycare. Her husband also works full-time. “You can be a young woman and a minister here,” she says. “My situation is not abnormal. In Finland it is normal to combine work and family – it’s not easy, but it’s not impossible.”

Finland’s current standing reflects a long legacy of women’s advancement. The country was the second in the world to give women the right to vote, and the first – in 1906 – to give them full political rights. Today, 42% of parliamentarians are women, whereas in Ireland just 22% of the Dáil are women.

"Finland was a poor country where women worked alongside men, and we all had to work together after the war to pay off our debt to the Russians," says Paulina Ahokas, director of Tampere Hall, the largest concert and convention centre in the Nordic countries. "But women have also been involved in decision-making for a long time – we believe that [LEADS TO]the best decisions."

When parents have a child in Finland, they don't have to worry about a huge medical bill.

The Finnish State strives to provide both mothers and fathers with meaningful social support before their child is even born – and perhaps not coincidentally, the parents this reporter spoke with in Finland seemed significantly less stressed than their counterparts on the other side of the Atlantic.

When parents have a child in Finland, they don’t have to worry about a huge medical bill. A pregnant woman with no complications can expect to be seen between 11 to 15 times before giving birth for free, and the cost of having a baby is nominal.

On top of that, for the past 80 years, the Finnish state has also gifted parents with a “baby box”, filled with newborn essentials including a sleeping bag, mattress, outdoor gear, toiletries and playsuits – all in gender neutral colours, of course. While families can opt to receive €140 instead, 95% of first-timers take the goodies, as they are worth much more.

The baby box has been credited with helping Finland achieve one of the lowest infant mortality rates in the world – it saw only 1.7 deaths per 1,000 live births in 2015, compared to the United States' strikingly high rate of 5.82 – not because of the bed itself, but because pregnant women must have a checkup before the end of their fourth month of pregnancy to receive it. "It's the contact that's important, not the box," says Anita Haataja, who works for the Finnish social agency Kela.

Once the baby is born, Finland gives mothers about four months of paid maternity leave and fathers a little more than two months of paid leave. On top of all that, couples can share an additional five-plus months of paid parental leave between them. While most dads take the first three weeks of leave offered to them, only about half take the full two months and only a small percentage beyond that – numbers the “Daddy Time” campaign is hoping to boost.

Even after the parental leave period ends, one parent has the right to stay home, and get “paid” €450 a month, and return to the same job until the child is three years old. (Granted, some critics argue this stipend encourages women to stay away from the workplace for too long, thus harming their job prospects).

For Sami Sulin, who works in the back office of a bank, the benefit offered a welcome opportunity to spend time with his daughter. He stayed at home for a full 10 months from the time she was 10 months old, and he says an increasing number of his friends are doing the same. "No one was negative about it," reports the 35-year-old. "I think it is just more socially acceptable now. There is a recognition that fathers need to participate in family life."

Most parents, including mothers, do eventually go back to work – and when they do, the state provides universal daycare. At its most expensive, the service costs only €290 a month.

Oh, and in Finland, someone else will take care of all the details.

"I guess the big difference is it is not stressful at all," says sales manager Tuomas Aspiala, 40. "Someone else organizes everything." When a local nursery didn't have any space available for his two children, the city of Helsinki organised a nanny share to look after them until room became available. "The situation at the daycare centre is really fantastic. It's really close, the people who look after the children are wonderful," he says. "We really don't feel guilty about leaving them there at all."

Indeed, Finland's early years care is arguably the best in the world, credited with helping the country land consistently high in the Pisa education rankings when children go to elementary school at the age of seven. "Here in Finland, schooling isn't something people stress about at all," says Noora Ahmed-Moshe, 37, who had her second daughter in Finland two months ago, after having her first while living in London.

Finnish companies’ attitudes tend to be progressive, too. Here, most people start the day around 8am and commonly wrap up between 4pm and 5pm. All of which adds up to a culture where parents are better able to divvy up the work of parenting.

For Petri and Kirsi Louhelainen, a tech startup entrepreneur and the CTO of a tech firm respectively, they both see the division of time and labour in the home as important for their sons.

“When I am at home, I’m really involved – that’s normal,” says Petri, 41. “Dads participate in their kids life and kids have a lot of hobbies, in my experience it’s often the dad who takes them.”

Taxes account for 44% of Finland's GDP

While Kirsi, 38, can’t personally attest to the finding that Finnish dads spend more time with school-age kids than moms – and it’s true that women here still spend around 71 more minutes a day than men with preschoolers – she appreciates how relatively egalitarian her country is compared to others in the Western world. “Petri takes care of all the kids clothes. I find it too stressful,” she says. “But I cook more. It just feels natural and good to share the load.”

None of this comes cheap, of course. Taxes account for 44% of Finland’s GDP. Income tax includes payments to the town or city, the state, a church tax, and a public broadcasting tax. Someone earning $1.2m a year would pay as much as 51.5% to the state.

“I pay a lot, but I don’t lose any sleep over it,” says Aspiala, the sales manager. “Of course I would like to pay less tax, I would like the public sector to be less heavy – but I’m comfortable with it. I know that I am a net giver rather than net receiver, but if my tax goes to help someone worse off, then okay. Finns have a pretty deep rooted idea of social democracy.”

So does Finland agree with the American perception that it’s a utopian paradise? Not yet. Minister Saarikko acknowledges that deeply-ingrained gender related problems remain, particularly in remote areas. The gender pay gap still hovers at 16% to 18%, depending on which measure is used, which is not dissimilar to the 17% to 20% in the US. Most professions are still dominated by one gender. And women make up only 23% of board members in listed companies.

“One of the main barriers we face is the illusion of gender equality,” she says. “Many people think that gender equality has already been achieved in Finland.”

But the government is actively working to improve these figures. This year, the Finnish government launched an International Gender Equality Prize as part of celebrations marking 100 years of independence – it will give $180,000 to a person or organization “that has advanced gender equality in a globally significant way” to donate to the cause of its choice.

“I don’t know of any other country [THAT]would make this kind of prize it’s major statement in a celebratory year, and that makes me proud,” says Ahokas, the convention center director who is also the chair of the prize.

So where does the country go from here? The next big push for greater gender balance may just come from fathers, predicts Katja Lahti, 43, who writes a popular family blog Project Mama. "It feels like a real millennial movement of fathers who are asking for more, who want their voice," she says. "It's like they want to have it all."

– Guardian