The XX Factor

Uh Oh. Sweden’s Not the Egalitarian Paradise of Your Work-Life Balance Dreams.  

Prince Daniel of Sweden is expected to hold his daughter, Princess Estelle, while working at the same time. It’s a lot.

Photo by Torsten Laursen/Getty Images

In the United States, work-life balance is stubbornly framed as a women’s issue. Though there is some notable male push back, the public discussion always seems to focus on uber-moms of the Sandberg, Mayer and Slaughter variety. Part of the reason the discussion happens that way in the U.S. is that there is no paid maternity leave, which many believe leads to a more difficult work/life integration for women. Why can’t we be more like Sweden?! is the rallying cry—that egalitarian paradise, where moms AND dads have the most generous parental leave in the world. But how does that explicit, nationwide Swedish commitment to gender equality play out for parents in the workplace?

A new study published in the journal Work and Occupations tries to answer that question. Authors Leah Ruppanner and Matt L. Huffman look at individuals in 31 countries around the world—including Sweden and the U.S.—to see how male and female workers in different cultures report what they call “nonwork-work” interference and “work-nonwork” interference. “Nonwork-work” interference is when family demands impinge on your job; “work-nonwork” interference is when work demands spill over into your family time.

Here’s where things get interesting. Swedish men report more “nonwork-work” and  more “work-nonwork” interference than Swedish women do. So they’re more likely to feel that the demands of their families spill over into their jobs and the demands of their jobs spill into their family time. In the U.S., the results are more gendered. Men report that their job responsibilities are more likely to interrupt their home life, while women report their home responsibilities are more likely to get in the way at work.

I asked Dr. Ruppanner, a sociology professor at the University of Melbourne, why Swedish men are so stressed by the conflicting demands of work and family. Because of Sweden’s commitment to gender equality at a state level, “Swedish men may not be able to opt-out of childcare responsibilities while at work,” like men in the U.S. or say, Turkey do, Dr. Ruppanner wrote  in an email. Swedish women may take a harder line on making their male partners contribute at home because they feel they have societal support.

Men still make more money than women do in Sweden, and so their jobs are seen as more important for a family’s bottom line, hence the work spillover into family life. And though there is a great deal of leave available to Swedish men—men and women in Sweden get a combined 480 days of parental leave at 80 percent of their salaries but with a cap; two months are just for moms, and two months are just for dads; the rest of the leave can be allocated between the parents any way they choose—women still take 75 percent of the parental leave allocation. So when kids are young, men are generally working more, but also expected to do a lot at home. (U.S. dads: You still want to be more like Sweden?)

Sweden has half the equation down, with a structure that demands accountability from dads. But men’s higher status at the workplace is a double-edged sword for them. Yes, they make more money, but they also have more stress. This is a reason for Swedish men to embrace an even more radical feminism, actually: If their wives become  just as valuable at work as they are, the stress can be parceled out fairly.