14 June 2010

Equality for women… have the Dutch and Swedish got it right?

Imagine if part of Dave and Nick’s new plan for Britain was to allocate money to giving women makeovers. Well, bizarrely, that’s exactly what’s happening in Friesland in the north of The Netherlands.

Three councils are offering single girls on the dole a makeover, photo shoot, and membership of a dating service – worth around £1150! – in an effort to help them bag a wealthy husband so they’ll stop claiming benefits.

‘We know from national statistics that people in a relationship have better health, more happiness, make more money and live longer lives,’ explains Radboud Visser, director of the dating agency involved. ‘They make less use of medical systems and social security. So in Friesland they thought, we can try to get people out of social security by bringing them to a nice new husband.’

In theory the makeovers should help Dutch women find jobs, too (which seems to be a bit of an afterthought), but while they concentrate on lipstick and life coaching as the key to social change, Sweden has found a more forward-thinking way to increase women’s paychecks – by setting aside part of their generous parental leave for men only.

Although the Swedes have long offered post-baby leave to either gender, few men took advantage of it, so while their partners were at home breastfeeding they were getting promoted, and the pay gap between men and women remained. But now the government has tweaked the law to allocate two months just to dads. They’re not forced to take it, but if they don’t, the subsidised leave can’t be transferred to the mum so the family lose it completely.  

Since the change, eight in 10 fathers now take a third of the total 13 months of leave – and 9% of fathers take 40 percent of the total or more, up from 4% a decade ago.

A recent study has shown that a mother’s future earnings increase on average 7% for every month of ‘daddy leave’ taken, and the shift in roles is thought to be playing a part in lowering  divorce rates and increasing joint custody of children. It seems that a new kind of masculinity is emerging in Sweden, as summed up by the European affairs minister, Birgitta Ohlsson, who says. ‘Machos with dinosaur values don’t make the top-10 lists of attractive men in women’s magazines anymore.’

So are the Dutch on to something, or is it the Swedes who’ve got it right? Should Britain be taking note, or can you think of a better way to equalise gender roles?

By Caroline Benjamin


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