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What U.S. Companies Can Learn from Scandinavia

What I learned about the impact of social and public policy on women’s professional development after a visit to Sweden and Denmark.

What U.S. Companies Can Learn from Scandinavia

What is Corporate America afraid of when it comes to letting employees put family and other life interests first? Compared to nations all over the world, our “superpower” country is dubbed by the Pew Research Center as an “outlier” when it comes to family policies and benefits that support work-life balance. The Center for Economic and Policy Research reports that the U.S. has no federally mandated paid sick days, less vacation time, and zero paid days off for new mothers and fathers.

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I’ve spent decades trying to find ways to help companies take advantage of their female talent, and I thought I had a fairly comprehensive view of how advancing women’s careers and achieving corporate goals are linked. Then, as part of a leadership program with Bentley’s Center for Women and Business, I took a group of 14 undergraduate women to Sweden and Denmark to study the impact of social and public policy on women’s professional development, and their naive questions and insightful observations woke me up. I realized that the U.S. is afraid to admit that families–however they are defined–matter. Here are some of our most meaningful learnings:

1. Family is first for both men and women

The first thing my students noticed during their free time in Sweden was the large number of men pushing strollers and chasing toddlers. During company visits, we consistently heard from powerful female executives that their equally powerful partners put family first. All fathers are granted paid paternity leave and required to take at least two months in Sweden. Families receive a bonus if the father takes six months; fathers are also expected but not required to take paid paternity leave in Denmark.

What’s the biggest takeaway from this? The national ethos for women and men is that it’s worth missing some business meetings and perhaps even some major business decisions in order to be present for the critical family bonding time that occurs during the earliest months of a child’s life.

2. There Isn’t As Big Of A Career Rush

Even though family seemed to be the top priority, that didn’t stifle career aspirations; perhaps just the timing of career intensity. Take SOLVATTEN founder and CEO Petra Wadström. She took the required maternity leaves for her three children, and then used her engineering training to develop a portable water treatment and solar water heater system for households in the developing world, and launch a successful business. She was named Woman of the Year 2015 by the Swedish Women’s Educational Association.

3. Child care doesn’t have to take your whole paycheck.

Unlike in the U.S., the childcare and education systems in Denmark and Sweden do not consume paychecks (but taxes do). I remember paying a large percentage of my paychecks to commuting and child care costs when my children were young. It made little economic sense for me to work.

In northern Europe, income taxes are relatively huge but parents are not stressed by exorbitant tuition bills for childcare and college. Nearly all couples have both partners working, but they have access to high-quality state-sponsored childcare facilities that are conveniently located.

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Back in the U.S., some companies are providing services at reduced rates, but not many. The dual-career couple is not going away because childcare, education, and living costs require two incomes for many couples in many parts of the country. Companies can subsidize the family costs or the government will be forced to.

4. Mass transit reduces stress

The compact cities of Stockholm and Copenhagen have robust mass-transit systems as expected, but outlying areas are also well-served by trains. In contrast, the U.S. is large and many people commute long, congested distances by car, adding to stress levels and taking away time with family. Until we have better transportation systems, surely we are creative enough to utilize technologies and perhaps satellite offices closer to home and still provide the necessary faceime at work.

5. Healthy families matter

A good home life matters for people, and consequently, for business–because a business is only as good as its people. The Danes topped the list for the happiest people in the world, according to Sustainable Develop Solutions Network’s World Happiness Report. And I understand why, not just from years of studying their culture, but because of the 14 fresh sets of millennial eyes on the study-abroad trip. In Denmark, people’s needs are prioritized and addressed by business and the government, so people don’t fret over those things. Instead, they seek their passions and take parenting seriously.

We know that millennials want American companies to follow suit with these kinds of benefits, and some U.S. companies are on board. Amgen, for example, ranked in Glassdoor.com’s list of the top 25 companies for compensation and benefits, noted by an employee “for their generous bonuses and European-style paid time-off, matching 401k, and awesome gym.”

The Pew Research Center reports that although women’s labor force participation has surged in recent decades and fathers–virtually all of whom are in the labor force–are also taking on more child-care responsibilities, the U.S. government support for working parents remains very limited compared with 37 other nations.

It’s time for our nation to acknowledge the writing on the wall and do something about it. The fact is, our society does not prioritize families; in order to create meaningful change, it’s the business world that needs to update, improve, and implement new policies for both women and men to put family first. Companies are emerging from the economic downturn with more power and money than before, putting many in a great position to lead the charge.