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Gender Equality and Welfare States: Denmark and the United States, a case study

Aynsley Hartney


Rome. Washington D.C. Sydney. Johannesburg. Copenhagen. These are just a few of the many women’s marches that have taken place in 2019 demanding an end to inequality, the gender pay gap, and violence against women. With increasing advocacy, gender equality is a crucial component of any successful program or political platform. But what does that look like? Despite progress, large gaps exist between demands and reality. There is no question about the demand for equality, but what is the reality of these demands? New parents in Denmark are entitled to 52 weeks of paid leave. A mother in the United States is lucky to get any more than 12 weeks of unpaid leave before her job security expires. Both nations have vocal public support for gender equality, but their realities are much different.

According to an analysis of the Nordic gender equality model, a nation’s level of gender equality is determined by its governmental policies on education opportunities, equal pay for work of equal value, gender balance in family life, and gender-balanced participation in labor markets. Given the considerable differences in leave policy, it is clear that Denmark and the U.S. have divergent approaches to making gender equality a reality with regard to maternity leave. They also have substantially different policies regarding unemployment, healthcare, and income equality. This variety stems from differing welfare states - Denmark’s social democratic model and the U.S.’s liberal model. Denmark prides itself on having “an active social state with a comprehensive public responsibility for the welfare and well-being of citizens and residents, implying a large public sector and also relatively generous benefits, and fundamentally based on principles of universality and egalitarianism.” In the U.S., the liberal model has a small public sector and views welfare benefits as being reserved for low-income families.

Photo by Vlad Tchompalov on Unsplash

This case study seeks to determine if the difference in gender equality policies can be attributed to the welfare state model at play. While equal pay is prioritized in gender equality campaigns, “work-family policies are distinctive life-phase policies aimed at assisting young parents, foremost mothers, in overcoming care-based barriers to equal participation in working life.” Therefore, to narrow the range of policies regarding gender equality, this analysis will focus solely on the influence of the nations’ welfare state on their work-family policies concerning parental leave and childcare - two areas that drastically increase a woman’s ability to balance a professional career and family obligations.


Statistics provided by the OECD Family Database, Statistics Denmark, and government reports released by the US Department of Labor were used to compare policy outcomes relating to gender equality in terms of maternity/paternity leave, whether paid or unpaid, and access to childcare. Supporting information was found in various reports and infographics on policies and programs released by national organizations. The analysis will compare a variety of factors including leave benefits, leave length, cost of childcare, and percentage of children in formal childcare institutions. Before continuing, it is important to note that, in some instances, it was difficult to find data for both countries in the same year. Therefore, some data may not reflect policy changes that occurred during year discrepancies.

Maternity/Paternity Leave

The approach to maternity and paternity leave is vastly different when comparing Denmark and the US. In Denmark, the focus is on the family when it comes to granting maternity and paternity leave. The mindset in Denmark is that parental leave is “important for the health of both mother and child, it plays a significant role in the equality between women and men, and it is vital in the formation of a child’s attachment to his or her parents.” The mindset in the US is focused more on missing valuable time and its effects on employers rather than families. In the US, the federal policy that grants unpaid parental leave is grouped together with leave time for sickness or caretaker responsibilities. These attitudes manifest themselves in the average length of maternity/paternity leave and the amount of compensation received, or not, while on leave.

In Denmark, a couple can expect to take up to 52 weeks of paid parental leave, or barselsdagpenge. The breakdown of these weeks is as follows: mothers can take 4 weeks before and 14 weeks after the birth, fathers can take 2 weeks after the birth, and the remaining 32 weeks are split between the mother and father. Parents can opt to take an additional 8 or 14 weeks by receiving a smaller amount of the parental allowance each month. Leave benefits are calculated based on one’s average hourly wage and how many hours per week one is missing due to leave. In 2018, the highest amount one could receive was 4,300 DKK per week, prior to tax deduction. The important takeaway is that some amount of paid leave is available to all parents.

In the US, parents can expect practically nothing in terms of leave time or compensation. The US offers zero federal funding during leave, making it the only high-income country not to offer paid maternity leave on a federal level - paid leave is guaranteed in 178 countries, the US is not one of them. The Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA) is the only federal policy that applies to parental leave, and it does not include compensation. Its purpose is to help employees balance work and family responsibilities by requiring that employers grant 12 weeks of unpaid workweeks and mandates job protection. However, some are not even covered by this policy because it requires the employee to have worked for at least 12 months, at least 1,250 hours over the past 12 months, and at a location where the company employs 50 or more employees within 75 miles.

However, there is hope for the future. Paid Family Leave (PFL) is mandated in four states with the number rising. The maximum benefits range from $630-$1,200 (4,204 DKK-8,000 DKK) per week. While this is more than the maximum amount in Denmark before tax deductions, these benefits would only be available for an average of 8 weeks. Additionally, paid leave is not universal. In fact, it highlights income inequality within the US. In 2018, only 6% of women in the bottom 25% got paid maternity leave compared to 24% within the top 25%.

The differing policies are embedded in the statistics. The OECD released a report in 2016 that quantified the average full-wage equivalent weeks of leave parents received in various countries. For Denmark, the average was 26.8. For the US, zero. When it comes average leave duration, Denmark reported 231 days (33 weeks) for maternity leave and 25 days (3.6 weeks) for paternity leave in 2015. Because the majority of women in the US do not get paid leave it is hard to make a direct comparison, but the average maternity leave is 10 weeks without differentiating between paid and unpaid. Little to no statistics exist on paternity leave in the US. In the US, women are forced to choose between taking care of their child or maintaining their professional careers, especially if they are single mothers. Denmark’s policies allow women to take time to care for their children without worrying, and reserved paternity leave will pave the way for a more equal distribution of child-rearing responsibilities and the understanding that it’s not just the women who should have to put their professional lives on hold to raise a child.

Child Care

In addition to maternity/paternity leave, childcare policies vary greatly between Denmark and the US. From a big-picture perspective, a quick glance at the percentage of GDP both countries spends on family expenditures says a lot about the countries priorities. In 2013, Denmark spent 3.7% of their GDP on family expenditures, and the US spent only 1.1%. A large portion of this money goes toward public spending on childcare.

Publicly financed childcare plays a large role in high female labor force participation in Denmark. All children between the ages of six months and five years are granted a place in subsidized childcare facilities. Costs vary, but parents pay no more than 30% of the costs of nursery or kindergarten care. This policy applies regardless of socioeconomic standing which is a major equalizer because it gives all women an equal opportunity to return to the workforce without worrying about the high costs For nursery care (0-2 years), the payment ceiling is around 2,665 DKK per month (32,000 DKK annually). For kindergarten care (3-6 years), the payment ceiling is around 1,648 DKK per month (19,776 DKK annually).

In the US, government subsidies for childcare only exist for the low-income families and are scarce even for them. There is a lot of inequality when it comes to the costs of childcare because many low-income families spend up to 52.7% of their income on childcare whereas high-income families spend around 8.6%. When money is needed for housing, food, and transportation, many families simply can’t afford to send their children to childcare. This forces women to either remain at home to tend the children, if they can afford it. The costs often vary by state. In 2017, the annual cost for infant, center-based care ranged from $5,300 to $24,000 (35,300 DKK to 160,200 DKK) annually which amounted to 27.8% to 70.3% of a family’s median income. For toddler care, the annual costs ranged from $6,300 to $18,900 (42,000 DKK to 126,100 DKK) annually which amounted to 30.5% to 64.9% of the median income. For many, child care costs exceed the cost of housing, college tuition, transportation, and food.

And as a result of the government subsidies or lack thereof, attendance is much higher in Denmark than in the US. In 2016, 61.8% of infants aged 0-2 years and 97.6% of children aged 3-5 years attended a formal daycare institution in Denmark compared to only 28.0% of infants aged 0-2 years and 65.6% of children aged 3-5 years in the US. This drastic difference in attendance points to the impact childcare policies have on gender equality. If the access to childcare is cheap and universal, no one will have to stay at home to take care of the kids, and women are free to rejoin the workforce.


The numbers speak for themselves. The welfare state in Denmark ensures generous paid leave and ease of access to affordable, public-funded childcare for everyone as a way to foster egalitarianism, thus making significant advancements in areas where the US is lagging far behind. Denmark’s generous paid leave allows for mothers and fathers to prioritize family time without worrying about returning to work immediately to keep food on the table. And post-leave, access to affordable childcare allows mothers to resume their professional careers without high costs. Denmark has found a way to produce policies that allow women to be mothers and professionals. In the US, the welfare state isn’t centered on egalitarianism but rather on only helping the very poor, and this is reflected in its insufficient work-life policies. Maternity leave policies aren’t focusing on a mother’s quality family time but rather on a quick return to work to avoid burdening employers. And when mothers wants to return to the workforce, they are either forced to stay at home or pay significant funds for childcare. There is a disconnect: when mothers want family time, they are discouraged, and when mothers want to rejoin the workforce, they are discouraged. This case study between Denmark and the US highlights the importance of welfare state model when it comes to developing successful, work-life policies that promote gender equality by allowing women the option to have family lives and professional lives without sacrificing either.

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