In a move hailed by the media, the female-led government of Finland announced last week a family leave reform that would grant an equal number of paid days off to both parents upon the birth of a child.
“The family leave reform is the Government’s investment in the future of children and the wellbeing of families,” the Finnish government website reads. “The reform will be a major change in attitudes, as it will improve equality between parents and make the lives of diverse families easier.” Each parent is to receive 164 days of paid leave, or almost 7 months. Of that time, each parent has the option of transferring 69 of their own days to the other parent. The changes, the New York Times summarizes, “are a bid to promote gender equality and inclusivity for same-sex couples and to encourage fathers to take as much time off work as mothers.”
And although the Finnish statement focuses on gender equality, the media reports also highlight Finland’s low birth rate, which last year reached the lowest number seen since an 1868 famine. Could this measure help produce more Finnish babies?
The problem is that gender equality does not necessarily lead to more births. Over at Forbes, Elizabeth Bauer highlights that Finland, like the other Nordic countries, already has one of the most generous parental leave policies, a solid economy, one of the “happiest” populaces, and a rating by the World Economic Forum to be 4th in the world when it comes to gender equality—behind Iceland, Norway, and Sweden. In short, all of the things that should lead to a higher birth rate, analysts tend to think, are already in place. Bauer closes by puzzling that perhaps the Finnish birth rate will start to tick up again soon, but in the meantime, “it calls into question the conventional wisdom that the path to replacement-level fertility rates is a combination of gender equality and generous social welfare provision.”
So what is going on? Allan Carlson has highlighted that in Sweden — another country hailed for its generous parental leave and gender equality — such policies have done nothing to reverse population decline. Carlson quotes Joseph Chamie, former Director of the Population Division of the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs:
“While many governments, . . . non-governmental organizations, and individuals may strongly support gender equality at work and in the home as a fundamental principle and desirable goal, it is not at all evident how having men and women participate equally in employment, parenting and household responsibilities will raise low levels of fertility. On the contrary, the equal participation of men and women in the labor force, child rearing, and housework points precisely in the opposite direction, i.e., below replacement fertility.”
So what does work? A family-friendly tax policy that favors marriage and children has shown some marked benefits. The measures that the nation of Hungary is currently taking — which include excepting women who bear four or more children from income tax for the rest of their lives and providing parents with sizable housing allowances — also seem to be gaining traction.
While gender equality may be good for other things, raising the birth rate, unfortunately, is not one of those things.