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Women accept incomplete equality

Norwegian women who choose to have children say goodbye to exciting career opportunities. Men, on the other hand, work on.

Illustration photo: Colourbox.no

Norway has, since the 1800s, come a long way towards a more egalitarian society. But when a child enters the relationship between a woman and a man the consequences for the woman are different to those for the man, according to a new doctoral thesis at the Department of Sociology and Human Geography, University of Oslo.

- There is equality since both men and women work, but we see that men take on the main responsibility for providing for the family, while women take the greatest caring role, researcher Eirin Pedersen says.

For four years she has studied men and women's attitudes to childcare and work. One of a group of researchers, she interviewed 90 women and men in the cities of Trondheim and Oslo, some who have children and some childless. The results were interesting: Although women and men have the same rights in society, births create a shift in duties in the home, and it is women who make the adjustment to the new demands.

Only women consider changing their job

- Among both the working class and the upper middle class people talked about how it might be necessary to change jobs after they had children. It was mostly women, however,  and not men who were considering this, says Pedersen.

By working class the researchers are designating people with little education beyond upper secondary school. “Upper middle class” is used for people who have studied and gone into professional careers with high social status, such as doctors or architects.

- Many working class women worked shifts, which they had to stop when they had children. Some also chose to move to part-time work, to become more flexible, says Pedersen.

Upper middle class women mostly  had flexible hours already, but they were expected to repay their employer when it was required.

- These expectations and demands were tiring. Several of these women therefore chose to replace interesting jobs but with undefined boundaries with work with more limited hours. They changed jobs either right before or right after they became parents.

Eirin Pedersen disputerer 5. desemberWe don't have a perfect gender equality model in Norway. Having children is an obstacle to a woman's career, but not a man's, says researcher Eirin Pedersen. Photo: Silje Pileberg

The workplace is lagging behind

Previous research has indicated that cohabitants without children have an equal distribution of tasks at home. When the couple have children a large amount of the domestic work is redistributed to the woman. According to Pedersen the shift is related to labour market dynamics. For while the Norwegian welfare state makes good provision for family lives, the combination of children and work is still an individual responsibility.

- None of the women said that their employes would adapt to their new situation. It was always the women who had to adjust to new demands. Here is the main obstacle in the whole equality project, says Pedersen.

For many women, both among the working and upper middle classes, this involved a transition to less exciting jobs. For example, one of the women worked as a cook. She was passionate about her work. Before she became a mother, she worked evenings at a restaurant. As a mother, she switched to the morning shift, which was far more routine in nature.

- Most people see it as an absolutely necessary and natural adaption. But it is interesting that business and industry are lagging behind in the equality process. When a woman decides to start a family her position in the labour market is weakened.

Eirin Pedersen continues that in Norway we only see small disadvantages in comparison with Italy, for example. In Italy there is formal equality in terms of rights, but equality is completely absent in the family.

Can explain differences in employment

Most Norwegian women see changing their job as unproblematic. There are jobs to switch to. Pedersen cannot say that the situation in Norway is unfavorable, but she believes that it can explain some differences in the workplace.

- Even though women are more highly qualified than men, men still hold higher positions and earn more. In the medical profession, for example, it’s men who take the high status jobs, even though a majority of medical students are women. It is not easy being a 25 year old woman and reject a life with children because you want to be a brain surgeon, especially in a society where having children is seen as the path to the good life.

That there exists a collective notion that family life is the ideal is another finding from the project. Children are seen as very valuable, and focusing on the economic costs they entail is seen as a devaluing of the children. There is a collective perception that children are something you should have, and there are also clear conceptions about when you should have them, according to Eirin Pedersen.

- A 23-year-old woman who had a child when single, said that in her life no status was attached to having children. She then referred to a norm that everyone is aware of: Women should have children when they are between 28 and 35 years. A woman in her early 30s who does not have a partner or children can expect to get many questions. Yet men can still be 35 years and attractive.

By Silje Pilberg. Translation by Matthew Rix Whiting
Published Dec. 2, 2014 11:19 AM - Last modified Feb. 20, 2015 2:06 PM