To the frontpage
spacer spacer spacer

Status report on the work-life balance in Denmark

Denmark is top of the class in the EU when it comes to welfare, gender equality and women’s representation in the labour market. The lesson to be learnt is that high birth rates and childcare availability go hand in hand. And earmarked paternity leave is another key to progress.


KVINFO/9.10.2007 “How can so many children be born with so many women out at work?” That’s the question many non-Danes ask when we at KVINFO – The Danish Centre for Information on Women and Gender – tell them that Denmark has one of the highest birth rates in Europe with 1.8 children per woman even with 72% of women active in the workforce.

The Nordic cocktail of a high proportion of women active in politics and at work combined with a high birth rate has recently begun to attract a fair degree of international attention. The welfare model shared by the Nordic countries with its flexible working conditions and public support networks, including maternity leave and childcare facilities, doesn’t only put these countries at the top of the international equality league table – this model also contributes to a general high standard of living overall.


Gender equality behind the welfare state

Birth rate and childcare availability go hand in hand.
Increased birth rates and economic growth are at the top of the agenda in most western countries today. And when it comes to the EU in particular, Denmark is top of the class with regards to equality, childcare facilities, and women’s representation in businesses. With the long-term outcome of the current slump in European birth rates being a future severe labour shortage, it’s no surprise that this issue is a reoccurring theme at EU summit meetings. Statistics from 2004 show that the birth rate within the EU averaged 1.5 children per woman. Top of the list is Ireland with 2.0 children per woman followed by France with 1.9. A shared third place goes to Denmark, Sweden and Finland with 1.8 children per woman.

Denmark’s relatively high birth rate and high proportion of women represented in the workforce is a result of flexibility, adequate provisions for maternity leave, good childcare facilities and social stability within the workforce. The so-called flexicurity model is seen by many experts a cornerstone in the quest for maintaining a high level of growth, a workforce in which women are well represented and fairly high birth rates. Barcelona-based Danish sociology professor Gøsta Esping-Andersen is credited with creating this ‘flexicurity’ concept – the potential of which is now being seen throughout the world.

The flexible workforce acts as a form of security for both employee and employer with an ultimately positive outcome for all. In the book ‘Why We Need a New Welfare State’ (2002) Esping-Andersen awards Denmark a European first place when it comes to combining growth and welfare, with Sweden as a close runner-up.

Esping-Andersen’s main argument for the strength and success of the Danish welfare system comes down to gender equality. It is this singular issue that he cites as the key to the winning potential of the system. According to Esping-Andersen, we have created in Denmark a welfare state which allows women to combine both motherhood and work. It is here, however, worth pointing out that even in Denmark, representation of the sexes in different sectors is far from equal with women still dominating the public sectors and men overrepresented in the private sector. In particular, the number of men in top managerial positions outweighs the number of women significantly. As a result, many Danes now feel that this imbalance will need to be addressed before they can take the next step forward to increase growth and improve welfare. Many feel that an even more equal society is required – a society in which there is more scope for women and which is more gender-neutral in relation to opportunities, chances and incomes.

Child care provisions
One condition that has been a considerable contributory factor for the high number of women in the Danish workforce is the good provision of day-care facilities. At the 2003 summit in Barcelona, the government leaders of the EU countries set significant targets for day-care provision which all countries are expected to meet by 2010. These included day-care provision for 90% of 3-6 year olds and provision for 33% of children aged 0-3. Denmark already meets both these requirements with over 90% provision for 3-6 year olds and 80% childcare provision for children aged 0-3. In fact, in 2004, 87% of all Danish children under the age of 5 were provided for with some form of day care.

One of the most important parameters for measuring the level of equality in a country is whether a woman is able to support herself. In 2002, the head of the European parliament passed a resolution with the aim of getting 60% of women (who are able to work) into employment before 2010. Denmark already complies with this with the highest percentage of women in the workforce of any EU country. According to the European Commission’s bureau of statistics, EUROSTAT, almost 72% of Danish women between the ages of 15 and 64 were active within the workforce in 2005 – 36% of whom were on a part-time basis. 

The building of the Nordic welfare model
The Nordic welfare model did not however, evolve overnight. In fact a group of historians from all the Nordic countries have demonstrated in a research project on marriage and politics in the years 1850-1930, that the equal family is the very foundation of the Nordic welfare model. In the following I will present you with a brief historical outline, up to the present day, highlighting the basis and fundamentals of the Danish system of welfare in relation to children, the workforce, and men and women.

Already during the first decade of the 19th century, the Nordic countries undertook a radical overhaul of marriage legislation – legislation that would not be seen elsewhere in Europe until the 1970s. And legislation brought in between 1909 to 1929 abolishing the marital patriarch was so radical that it would not be seen outside the Nordic region for another fifty years.

In the 1950s, following the crises of the 1930s and the turmoil caused by the Second World War, Denmark experienced a strong economic upturn. Industry overtook agriculture as the primary employer and growing cities created an increased demand for workers. To meet these growing demands, the workforce was sourced from the agricultural sector and from abroad. But it was women who contributed most to this explosive growth in the workforce. Out of a growth in the workforce of 1 million workers between the years 1960 to 1990, women accounted for 850,000.

It became acceptable for middle-class, married women to take jobs previously seen as only acceptable for unmarried women, and the Danish feminist movement succeeded in their fight for unmarried women to receive an education and to be able to support themselves. However, even though from the middle of the century it became the norm for middle-class women to educate themselves and work, up until the 1960s, women were still expected to give all this up upon marriage and instead become housewives. And even though many married women continued to support the family income, the general attitude and opinion remained unchanged.

As a result, one of the mainstays of the equality debate, parental leave after the birth of a child, quickly became a top priority. From the moment post-natal maternity leave first appeared as a political issue in 1901, improvements to such legislation were top priority on the agenda among unions and in the feminist movement. In 1960 this legislation was extended to allow all working mothers 14 weeks of maternity leave during which she would receive standard state sickness payments. And in the 1970s the discussion heated up with questions raised about extending the length of maternity leave and even allowing fathers to take paternity leave. Such ideas were heavily inspired by the work of the Danish Council for Equality.

Parental leave secures equality
In Denmark, the debate culminated around 1980 with unions, socialist-oriented political parties and women’s organisations coming together with a national paternity-leave campaign. The main demands of the campaign were the right to 26 weeks’ leave for the mother and 13 weeks’ leave for the father, with financial compensation coming from a central parental-leave fund. Changes to legislation in 1980, 1984 and 1985 partly saw these requirements being adopted into law, and in 1985 parental leave stood at 24 weeks. Parents could share the last ten weeks of these and all fathers were given the right to 14 days leave in connection with a birth subsidised at the same rate as national unemployment insurance – on average the equivalent of half a normal income.

This ongoing development and constant improvement of maternity and paternity leave illustrates a common consensus among all bodies concerned with equality in Danish society. All were in agreement that women belong as much to the workforce as men belong in the home and that children are a matter of public importance. At the same time, this heralded the change of focus during the equality politics of the 1990s where focus shifted from women to men.

In Denmark today, parents are entitled to 52 weeks leave subsidised at unemployment insurance rates when their child is born. The latest figures from 2004 show that 6% of all the time taken on parental leave is taken by fathers with mothers making up the remaining 94%. Parents of children born in 2004 held, on average, 290 days of parental leave, corresponding to 41.4 weeks. Of these 290 days, fathers took 18 (2.6 weeks) and mothers 272 (38.9 weeks). These figures from 2004 are the most recent statistics, released by the Danish Minister of Gender Equality in 2006. 

Fathers on paternity leave a key to progress
Now, in 2007, one of the most hotly debated topics in this area is the earmarking of paternity leave for fathers. According to Professor Esping-Andersen, the success of tomorrow’s society depends upon its ability to accommodate women’s requirements of men, of the welfare system, of the state and of society as a whole. Men should become involved with care and welfare to a much higher degree – with paternity leave being perhaps the most important aspect. It is men who may have to adopt a more progressive and responsible approach if the welfare society is to continue making strides forward.

The ‘male role’ in Denmark is already undergoing a general change. For example, the past few years have seen several cases of men being fired by their employer whilst on paternity leave – something that previously was the exclusive misfortune of women. And many Danish men and women are expressing a keen interest in how to be a good parent and still enjoy a satisfying working life.

Current Danish legislation regarding parental leave allows both mother and father to establish an emotional bond with a new-born child. However, as the statistics show, the average number of days men take leave is 18 as compared to the 272 days taken by the average woman – that is 94% of the overall number of days taken on leave. New Swedish research even suggests that the more leave a husband takes, the less likely he is to get divorced. This is of particular relevance to Denmark which, like its Nordic neighbours, has a high national rate of divorce as one out of every two marriages fails.

Because of these different factors, parental leave specifically aimed at fathers is a hot topic allowing everyone, women as well as men, to stand on a equal footing when it comes to caring in the home or earning in the workplace. By earmarking three months of leave especially for men, it is hoped that both parents will fulfil an active role in the first year of their new-born child. Additionally, by legally affording men the right to take leave, it places men and women on a more even footing in the workplace. And as a Norwegian study has documented, such work sharing has a positive effect on women’s careers and is not detrimental to a man’s career.

Setting a certain amount of time for paternity leave will also help alleviate the problem of women being seen as potential baby-making machines when being considered in a hiring or promotional situation. This all-too-prevalent view still accounts for the fact that few women possess high managerial or leadership positions and is still a factor in the inequality of pay for men and women in Denmark. The political argument against such earmarked paternity leave is that men simply will choose not to make use of it, the end result being that children are sent out to a childcare institution three months early – something that is not in any child’s best interest.

According to the spring 2006 issue of the well respected journal The Economist – women are the most powerful locomotive for global wealth today. Women are an overlooked cache of talent – leading the way in both education and new working areas. And in Denmark, public institutions, civil bodies and politicians are all acutely aware that for an information society to survive in the global arena, all talents must come into play. This is where Denmark stands today.

Translation: Andrew Bell

facts and figures on gender equality

Printer ikonspacerPrint

KVINFO · Christians Brygge 3 · DK 1219 København K Tel: +45 33 13 50 88 · Fax: +45 33 14 11 56 · E-mail: