Iceland Airwaves Cultural Story: Parental Leave and Gender Equality (LISTEN)

Stay tuned right here for our Iceland Airwaves 2015 final radio documentary, which will air on WCRX-FM 88.1 in Chicago (live stream here) in the near future. In the meantime, check out one of the during audio stories the students produced below and check out previews, reviews and more on our Iceland Airwaves 2015 home page.

Even though it’s one of the most developed nations, the United States is one of only three countries around the world that has no mandated parental leave policy. Democratic politicians like Bernie Sanders, Hilary Clinton, and even President Obama have said they’re embarrassed by our lack of policy for new parents. Iceland has set a great example. The small Nordic country is well-known for its advanced parental leave policy. However, despite the fact that Iceland’s policy on parental leave is one of the most progressive in the world, it has its issues but the country’s dedication to gender equality remains strong.

Ingólfur Gíslason is an associate professor of sociology at the University of Iceland. He explains that the first drawback comes from a lack of collaboration between parental leave and the education system.

The next flaw was born out Iceland’s financial crisis in 2008. From 2008 to 2010, companies were forced to steadily lower the ceiling of compensation for workers taking family leave. New parents couldn’t afford to take all of the time that was set aside for them. Now that the financial situation in Iceland is improving, Icelanders feel it’s time that family leave compensation be raised again.

In 2012, it was proposed that the government lengthen parental leave to 12-months, with 5 months to the father, 5 to the mother, and an additional 2 to split between them. Unfortunately, it was rejected. Gíslason says a 12-month parental leave is likely to be put into place very soon.

Iceland is known for being a “gender equality conscious” country. They’ve ranked number one on the World Economic Forum’s Gender Gap Index every year since 2009, but they understand that there is more they can do. When it comes to the parental leave policy, the first step is finding ways to counteract the small but ever-present gender pay-gap that exists in the country. Gíslason says individualizing the time given to each parent is key. Giving each parent one-on-one time with their child is crucial to achieving equality. Gíslason believes parental leave should help to put parents on an even playing field, both in the labor market and at home.

So parental leave helps women to apply for and keep jobs while they’re starting a family. And more and more women want to keep their jobs. 95% of Icelandic children between the ages 6-12 are enrolled in school. Kristín Ástgeirsdóttir is the Director of Iceland’s Center for Gender Equality. She explains how this figure represents a cultural shift in Iceland.

But parental leave also helps men, who are stereotypically not aware of what goes on at home.

But it’s not all about the parents. Gíslason says that children will also benefit from having both parents in the home. He says that when kids have two people with different personalities caring for them, whether that be two mothers, two fathers, or a mother and a father, its stimulating and beneficial for the child’s development.

Despite the fact that Iceland has a successful parental leave policy, they’re still working hard to improve it. Government mandated, paid parental leave is a hot topic of conversation amongst politicians, especially here in the US. Top Democratic candidates are speaking out about their plans to finally take the USA off of the short list of countries without a policy. Some American companies have recently implemented their own family leave policies. California-based Netflix currently provides both parents unlimited, fully-paid parental leave during the first year of their new child’s life. Other technology companies such as Microsoft, Facebook, and Google have set up their own plans.

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