In the Gendered pathways seminar organised by the Cicero Learning network and the Academy of Finland, Bettina Wiese from Germany, Anna Rotkirch from Finland and Barbara Schneider from the US discussed women’s choices and family life. Finland stood out as an exemplary Nordic welfare state, even though we have the most bureaucratic family leave model in the region.

 “Equality has its downsides,” stated Professor Katariina Salmela-Aro in her opening speech. “The gendered paradox of equality is that the more equal a society is in terms of family leave, for example, the fewer women choose professions in technology and science.”

The German model encourages fathers to stay home with their children

Bettina Wiese, professor of psychology at RWTH Aachen University, explained that much like in Finland, mothers in Germany can stay home with their children for up to three years, with 14 months of maternity benefits.  The father may participate in the family leave for two months. Germany’s situation is excellent in the germanophone region – for example, in Switzerland, women can only take 16 weeks of maternity leave.  

 “In Germany, men have become aware of the opportunity to take family leave, but too few of them take advantage of it,” Wiese explains.

The higher the social status of the father, the less likely he is to stay home with his child. Executives do not stay home, as money is a deciding factor. Most stay-at-home fathers are socially aware and highly educated. Men also have the opportunity to work part time, but very few do.

Mothers are encouraged to return to work. For example, they can let their supervisor know the number of hours they can spend at the workplace every week. Workplaces promote self-regulation, i.e., they encourage employees to not stress about combining work and family.

 “Time and performance management become challenging under a great deal of stress.”

Nevertheless, it is clear that mothers would rather stay at home for longer than further their careers. A short maternity leave, of 14 months for example, increases stress.   

Why is the birth rate dropping?

Alarmingly, the birth rate in Finland has been on the decline for more than six years, despite our generous family leave system. 

Anna Rotkirch, Director of the Population Research Institute at the Family Federation of Finland,  explains why. These days it seems that the desire to advance a career is the biggest reason for not having children, but interests outside starting a family can also be important. It can be difficult to give up an established lifestyle, and economic worries may also be a factor.  The age of first-time mothers is rising.  The birth rate is in decline in all other Nordic countries except Sweden. It’s a global trend.

 “We’re experiencing a shift in Western culture,” says Rotkirch. “The family is no longer a social norm.”

The people with higher education who do choose to have a child will typically return to work within 18 months. The people with the least education tend to stay home for the longest, commonly for the full three years.   

In Finland, the higher the income of a man, the older he will be when he becomes a father. Women’s income has no bearing on the age at which they become mothers. Most think that the ideal age for starting a family and having children is over thirty.

Still fewer women than men in US universities  

Professor Barbara Schneider from Michigan State University  has conducted a 40-year longitudinal study on college students. In the United States, unlike in Finland, women are still a minority at universities.

 “The number of women studying mathematical and technical fields is still low, but it is growing,” says Schneider. “Finland has a similar problem.”

However, the American concept of the ideal family is still quite conservative in comparison with the Nordic one. Two children, a dog and a house with a picket fence is an enduring goal, even though families with one child are becoming more popular, and very few have more than three children.

 “The bigger the family, the less likely it is for the children – particularly the daughters – to go to college.”

If a family happens to have two daughters, they will have great expectations and demands for their education. People want to invest in the education of girls, and they want to put teen mothers in the past.

 “Of course the family’s socioeconomic status has a great impact on the choice and level of the school. Approximately 40% of African American students will never be able to take the same courses that  are available to students in the so-called better schools, with more choice.”   

American girls are increasingly likely to be interested in science for its own sake, but also for the future opportunities it provides. Nevertheless, most decision-makers in the United States are male, making the country still one led by men.

Further information:

Katariina Salmela-Aro, katariina.salmela-aro@helsinki.fi, +358 50 415 5283

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