FOR mother-of-three Susanna Westling, coming to Australia from Sweden has been a bit like travelling back in time to her mother’s generation.”When my mother had me it was not long after they first brought in three months’ paid parental leave – now they are introducing it here,” Ms Westling said as her Australian-born son Oliver rolled around the floor of the family’s Collaroy home.”It’s like Sweden 40 years ago – mum did the laundry, the cooking, the cleaning and dad goes to work. Sweden is very different now.”With the Rudd government’s paid parental leave scheme clearing its last major legislative hurdle this week, Australia is finally set to join countries such as Sweden and Norway in paying both parents to take leave during the crucial early months of infancy.In northern Europe, highly developed parental leave schemes offering up to 13 months off have wrought dramatic changes to society.Men are not only allowed but expected to take time off when they become fathers, with family, friends and even employers looking askance at those who choose not to take up the option.In Sweden, academics and commentators are heralding a new conception of masculinity which they say is partly responsible for lower divorce rates and greater co-operation in the custody of children. Having raised children in both countries, Ms Westling is in a unique position to compare the treatment of parents in Australia and Sweden, including our first tentative steps towards paid parental leave.”Sweden is a country where everything has to be equal and fair – from the family to the company board to Parliament,” she said. ”Almost all women go back to work after one year. Even if you want to stay home with the child you have to go back to work.”Here it is more the other way. It’s harder for mothers to work because childcare is so expensive. The Swedish mothers I know like the fact that they don’t have to work full-time, but they would like to have the choice.”So will Australia experience the same fundamental societal changes as our northern cousins?Some experts, such as Dr Sara Charlesworth, an expert on work and family issues at RMIT, say the shift has already begun.”The passage of this scheme gives legitimacy to the idea women can work and be mothers at the same by introducing a basic structure which allows that to happen,” she said.”The vision of the family that John Howard was so fond of – the policeman father and the mum who’s a part-time retail worker – perpetuated the idea that a good mother is one who focuses on her children rather than work.””That idea is still out there. But in a couple of years people will no longer be talking about whether or not we should have a paid parental leave system, but about how it can be improved.”A review of the new scheme is still two years away, but experts already have a long list of changes they say are needed to bring Australia up to speed with the rest of the developed world, particularly when it comes to men.”If you really want to encourage men to take time off, you have to give them specific and time-determined leave entitlements,” said Juliet Bourke, an expert in gender diversity at Equus Partners.In Sweden, two months of leave are set aside exclusively for men, and they can take all of the 13 months available if the mother gives up her share.”That’s when you start to see the broader benefits, not just in the home, but at work as well,” Ms Bourke said.”That is the big hole in the scheme as it stands – it will be used almost exclusively by women.”with agencies
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