Workplace matters: negotiating a sense of entitlement towards taking time off for childcare among Korean fathers working in Sweden

Author: Yeon-Jin Kim1
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  • 1 Lund University, , Sweden
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A gender-equal leave policy for childcare does not necessarily engender a corresponding sense of entitlement in fathers to actually take leave, but few studies have focused on how fathers develop their sense of entitlement at work. This study explores how Korean fathers, accustomed to a work-centred life, changed their sense of entitlement towards childcare leave while working in a father-friendly country, Sweden. Sixteen Korean fathers’ narratives were analysed under two different work settings in Sweden: about half worked in Swedish companies while the other half worked in Korean-owned companies with branches in Sweden. The findings suggest that the fathers working at Swedish companies developed a stronger sense of entitlement to take childcare leave. Three contexts appeared to influence this development: the conceivability of being absent and putting responsibilities on hold, having a horizontal relationship with superiors (daring to refuse), and the social recognition of a father’s responsibilities as a co-parent.

Abstract

A gender-equal leave policy for childcare does not necessarily engender a corresponding sense of entitlement in fathers to actually take leave, but few studies have focused on how fathers develop their sense of entitlement at work. This study explores how Korean fathers, accustomed to a work-centred life, changed their sense of entitlement towards childcare leave while working in a father-friendly country, Sweden. Sixteen Korean fathers’ narratives were analysed under two different work settings in Sweden: about half worked in Swedish companies while the other half worked in Korean-owned companies with branches in Sweden. The findings suggest that the fathers working at Swedish companies developed a stronger sense of entitlement to take childcare leave. Three contexts appeared to influence this development: the conceivability of being absent and putting responsibilities on hold, having a horizontal relationship with superiors (daring to refuse), and the social recognition of a father’s responsibilities as a co-parent.

Introduction

Fathers’ involvement in hands-on childcare has become a major policy interest internationally. Institutional measures have primarily revolved around introducing and enhancing fathers’ legal rights to take time off from work, such as paternity leave, parental leave, and leave for care of a sick child. Some scholars have looked at the experience of the first countries to address this issue, such as the Nordic countries, and maintain that generous, gender-equal leave policies have increased the amount of childcare leave fathers take (Geisler and Kreyenfeld, 2012; Duvander et al, 2020). Other studies focused on the cultural rationale behind why some fathers seemingly remain reluctant to take leave for childcare despite their statutory entitlement (Lewis and Smithson, 2001; Hobson et al, 2014; Haas and Hwang, 2019).

This discrepancy between legal rights and everyday practice has led scholars to look at traditional work norms that have historically bound fathers to the primary provider role with caregiving being secondary. A discrepancy that resolves itself when viewed through the lens of sense of entitlement. Suzan Lewis (1997: 15), introduced this into work-family policy research as, ‘[A] sense that employees are entitled to voice their needs to modify traditional working practices for family reasons and to have these needs met’. Echoing the contradiction that being legally entitled does not necessarily correspond to feeling entitled, scholars have identified the workplace – private companies in particular – as the last conversion site that compromises a father’s sense of entitlement to take childcare leave (Haas et al, 2002; Holter, 2007; Gregory and Milner, 2011).

Even where gender-equal leave policies exist, resistance in the workplace has been significant, and fathers’ use of leave remains comparatively low in countries such as Hungary, Spain, the UK, Japan and South Korea. These studies suggest that despite the desire to take leave, fathers are likely discouraged in workplaces with a work-centred system with long working hours (Takahashi et al, 2014), where childcare is equated with holiday leave (Kaufman and Almqvist, 2017), with firm-oriented flexibility (Hobson et al, 2014), a high degree of co-worker loyalty (Kim and Kim, 2020), or non-care-sensitiveness (Romero-Balsas et al, 2013).

Such a predominant focus on workplace constraints does not necessarily demonstrate how a father’s sense of entitlement towards taking leave is shaped and reinforced over time. Little is known about how a sense of entitlement changes, such as how fathers, as primary earners, develop their sense of entitlement to take childcare leave, or what conditions in daily work life are likely to encourage fathers to renegotiate traditional obligations. In Fathers in Work Organizations, Lewis and Stumbitz (2017: 238), argue that these questions have not yet been sufficiently explored. They point to the need for further research beyond listing all the barriers towards ‘finding ways of actively contributing to systemic change in workplaces’.

To further examine this issue, this study looks to Sweden as an example of a successful gender-equal caregiving model, and explores how fathers from South Korea, where the male breadwinner model remains strong (Won, 2012), compromise their sense of entitlement to take leave despite being in a more father-friendly environment. To gain contextualised insights on the influence of the workplace beyond policies, 16 Korean fathers’ narratives were analysed in relation to their work and leave experiences in two different Swedish settings. About half had started working in Swedish-owned companies, while the rest maintained their jobs in Korean companies with branches in Sweden.

These settings will allow me to contribute deeper insight into the link between the workplace and a father’s sense of entitlement to take childcare leave. This article addresses two questions: how do Korean fathers working in Sweden perceive and exert entitlement towards taking time off for childcare? How do these fathers’ work experiences shape their sense of entitlement? I will start by introducing sense of entitlement as a theoretical lens. Next, I present a brief context of policy and workplace characteristics in Sweden and Korea, followed by an outline of method and data. Finally, I present an analysis of the empirical data. Through the findings, this study aims to contribute to the ongoing discussions among scholars in the field (for example, Bygren and Duvander, 2006; Hong, 2018; Sung and Won, 2018; Haas and Hwang, 2019) on how workplace culture affects a father’s decision for taking childcare leave.

Theoretical lens: sense of entitlement

This study takes the critical view that being entitled does not necessarily correspond to feeling entitled. Several scholars have argued that this distinction is necessary within a sociological context because social norms and one’s situation can affect perceptions of deservingness for a given legal entitlement (Lerner, 1987; Major, 1993; Lewis, 1997). This approach enhances the understanding of the underlying mechanism of how people live with less entitlement than they deserve in the eyes of the law, and most importantly reveals a counterpart to entitlement – obligations (Lerner, 1987). The coexistence of a sense of entitlement and obligation often leads to paradoxical decisions and behaviour, even when entitlement is guaranteed by law. For instance, Lewis (1997) applied this concept to a case study of cultural barriers to adopting family-friendly policies at the organisational level in the UK. Lewis pointed out that mothers feel more entitled to attend to family needs at work, but inversely, have a lower sense of entitlement to advancement at work since a tendency to attend to family concerns is perceived as incompatible with being an ideal worker. Her findings expose the sociocultural norms of a traditional model of work and the gender roles embedded therein. More recently, Romero-Balsa et al’s (2013) research cast light on Spanish fathers’ tendency to take shorter leave without a balanced view of the entitlement as a worker and obligation as a father. As Lerner (1987: 109) put it, ‘Much more elaborate systems of entitlements and obligations appear in the status-role-based expectations of the social institutions.’ In other words, without freeing fathers from traditional sociocultural norms and obligations, the role conflicts that working fathers commonly experience at work as well as in the family are likely to lead directly to a diminished sense of entitlement towards childcare leave.

Lingering obligations clash with fathers’ sense of entitlement towards leave-taking

Financial provider

Many studies focused on barriers to fathers taking leave examine factors from individual sociodemographic characteristics to cross-national regime types. However, there is a self-evident fact throughout: taking leave causes a loss of income for parents despite any government benefit and/or company subsidy. Many studies show that the greatest barrier is economic instability, a significantly greater factor for fathers than mothers (Kaufman and Almqvist, 2017). Instability can result from the father’s work status: that is, being temporarily employed or self-employed (Geisler and Kreyenfeld, 2012), immigrant (Sainsbury, 2019), or having low job security (Haas and Hwang, 2019). Low financial contribution from a partner is also a cause (Mussino et al, 2016; Duvander et al, 2020). These findings suggest that financial loss from taking leave clashes with the normative obligation to be a provider and makes fathers feel less entitled to take leave.

Job first

Beyond the normative role of family provider, the constraints on taking leave have a simple but tenacious common thread: job first (Sallee, 2012; Haas and Hwang, 2019). Its influence is not as explicit as that of a workplace’s external characteristics, such as company size, sector, gender ratio and so on. However, it can draw an implicit boundary around how much fathers feel they deserve leave. This expectation is often theoretically framed as an ideal worker norm. Williams (2000: 5) defined an ideal worker as a full-time worker who is ready to do whatever is needed when the job ‘requires it’. Even today, scholars find that this norm creates concerns among fathers about losing the career game (Sallee, 2012) and being labelled as less committed (Kaufman and Almqvist, 2017). Sallee (2012) pointed out that under these circumstances, childcare leave ends up being perceived as a privilege not an entitlement. This weak sense of entitlement drives fathers to opt out of leave or voluntarily shorten leave to a greater extent than mothers (Haas and Hwang, 2019).

Minimising disruption

A certain degree of flexibility at work also emerges as a key condition for fathers to take leave. Burnett et al (2011) show that fathers utilise work flexibility less often because of gendered assumptions that presume flexibility is for mothers. A more crucial but often overlooked aspect is that flexibility at work is a power struggle. For instance, Berg et al (2004: 331) defined flexibility as ‘employee control over working time’. This implies a counterintuitive relational dynamic between employer/manager and employees – since controlling time includes refusal (Hobson et al, 2014). Refusing companies’ demands can be interpreted as a lack of commitment by those who, ‘disrupt the orderly flow of organizational work, causing difficulties for managers, supervisors, and co-workers’ (Acker, 1998: 199). Peper et al (2014) point out that care leave, which often involves weeks of absence from work, is considered a disruption. Work flexibility requires the ability to say no, and a father’s accompanying awareness of disruption to the work process inevitably influences a sense of entitlement to take time off.

Negotiable role as a caregiver

Gendered expectations of fathers as the secondary caregiver are often discussed within couple dynamics (Kaufman and Almqvist, 2017). However, some studies show that fatherhood often remains invisible in work organisations (Burnett et al, 2013), and the dividing label of primary/secondary caregiver has permeated work organisations and discouraged fathers from taking leave (Kaufman and Petts, 2020). There is an assumption that leave itself is negotiable. Fathers are often asked whether they will take leave before any discussion of timing or duration (Brandth and Kvande, 2002; Bergqvist and Saxonberg, 2017). Precedent is one reason fathers frequently mentioned as a factor in whether they take leave (Bygren and Duvander, 2006), which also signifies that childcare leave is well within the scope of acceptable fatherhood-related behaviours. When it comes to defining the scope, Bergqvist and Saxonberg (2017) argue that the national norm of care takes precedence while others emphasise close relationships with, for example, co-workers and managers (Hong, 2018). This shows that work organisations consider a father’s role as a caregiver as more negotiable, which makes fathers more ambivalent towards leave-taking.

Context: leave policies and workplace support

This study deals with three types of leave policy schemes for fathers: paternity leave, parental leave (including earmarks), and leave for the care of a sick child. A brief outline of relevant policy and previous research follows, based on Swedish and Korean contexts.

Sweden

In 1974, Sweden underwent momentous reform: maternity leave became parental leave with beneficiaries now including fathers; ten days of paternity leave and gender-neutral leave for care of a sick child were also introduced (Lundqvist, 2011). Ten days of paid paternity leave continues to this day; fathers (or equivalent caregivers) are entitled to about 77.6 per cent of wages. According to the Swedish Social Insurance Agency (hereinafter Försäkringskassan) (2019a), the average number of days used among men almost reached ten in 2018. Parental leave entitles parents to 390 days off per child at approximately 77.6 per cent of normal pay and an additional 90 days at a flat rate benefit until the child is 12. Out of a total of 480 days per child, 90 days must be used by each parent or rendered void. About 40 per cent of paternal recipients took at least 90 days off while their child was under two (Försäkringskassan, 2019b). Care of a sick child entitles fathers to 120 days off per child at around 77.6 per cent of their wages with about 44 per cent of these days taken in 2018 by men (Försäkringskassan, 2019a).

Even in Sweden, workplace culture has not always immediately matched policy advancements. Studies conducted in the 1980s show that fathers perceived a less positive response from their colleagues (Hwang et al, 1984) than in studies from the 1990s. Since the 1990s, scholars generally agree that Swedish fathers rarely face explicit objections from companies (Haas, 1992), and companies are generally in favour of employee-driven flexibility (Haas et al, 2002) and gender-equal childcare (Bergqvist and Saxonberg, 2017).

Other studies have found that traditional norms of fathers as secondary caregivers continue to linger within Swedish work organisations. A recent study conducted by Haas and Hwang (2019) claims that in Sweden, the ideal worker norm remains and discourages white-collar fathers from taking leave. Their research seems to demonstrate that work-oriented norms tacitly rule, even in a society known for dual caring. However, the barriers they highlighted, particularly for white-collar fathers, such as the expectation of a short leave and minimising work disruptions, tend to be based on a working environment already somewhat conducive to fathers taking leave. The difficulties arising from negotiating a leave arrangement seem to be the next rung for societies or workgroups where white-collar fathers and blue-collar fathers do not even consider childcare leave.

South Korea

Fathers in South Korea were included first in unpaid parental leave in 1995. Currently, fathers who have paid employment insurance are eligible for ten days of fully paid paternity leave and one year of paid parental leave (separate from their partners) as well as unpaid leave for caregiving. Parental leave benefits amount to roughly 80 per cent of their monthly salary for the first three months and 50 per cent for the remainder. However, the second parent, usually the father, is entitled to their full salary for the first three months and half after that. The maximum benefit values are equivalent to about 95 per cent and 46 per cent respectively of the median income among male employees in 2017 (KOSTAT, 2019).

The actual usage of leave is still low. In 2019, 1.8 per cent of fathers who were eligible took parental leave (KOSTAT, 2020). When it comes to paternity leave, out of 5,049 companies investigated, only 7.1 per cent put the policy into practice while 72.4 per cent were fully aware of the policy (the Ministry of Employment and Labor [MOEL], 2019). Within this study, 61 per cent of male employees responded that they feel burdened by paternity leave. Sung and Won (2018) indicated that fathers’ reluctance to use leave for childcare might result from the Korean workplace organisational culture, which is described as highly work-centred and hierarchical. Kim and Kwon (2015) pointed out that Korean fathers believed they deserved the accompanying disadvantages from taking time off for childcare. This demonstrates the extent of their low sense of entitlement.

Methodology and data

This qualitative study is based on in-depth interviews with Korean fathers working in Sweden. A qualitative approach with the narratives of individual fathers gives the researcher the advantage of ‘unwritten eyewitness accounts of the past’ (Coffey, 2004: 120). Subjective narratives of this kind provide a greater understanding on a wide range of sociocultural elements in the workplace that increase fathers’ usage of childcare leave.

The interview data was collected from 16 Korean fathers employed full time in three Swedish counties. Nine were from multinational Swedish companies and seven from multinational Korean-owned companies with branches in Sweden. According to the Korea Trade-Investment Promotion Agency (KOTRA) in 2017, there were seven Korean branches in Sweden at the time. All were electronic and mobile phone-related industries. The Swedish companies were selected to match the same industries. According to the interviewees, the number of Korean employees in the Korean branches ranged from six to 30. Out of the 16 fathers, one has a long-term expatriate contract. The rest have local contracts and plan to stay in Sweden at least until their children become independent.

The interviewees were recruited through online posts, human resources departments and snowball sampling. Prior to the interview, interviewees were informed of the research topic and guaranteed anonymity and confidentiality. The interviews were conducted in their homes, workplaces or in a public space, and generally lasted two to three hours. Following an inductive approach, an open-ended semi-structured interview guide was used. The interviews were conducted in Korean and focused on the motivation for moving to Sweden, changes in parenting practices, current and previous work experiences in Sweden and Korea, and experience, if any, of using childcare leave.

The fathers interviewed had one to three children between the ages of 6 months and 14 years old with their Korean female partners. Four had children who had all been born in Korea, while the rest had had at least one child since moving to Sweden. The length of their residence ranged from six months to more than ten years. Most of the partners used to work in Korea but had to resign on moving. Two thirds are now stay-at-home mothers, learning Swedish or job seeking. Four spouses have full-time positions and one is working part time, but it took them years to get those jobs. In contrast, all fathers maintained their white-collar jobs as an engineer, accountant, analyst and so on (see Table 1, Appendix A). The data specifically represents middle-class men. Compared with other classes, these fathers are known to take the most childcare leave and show more childcare-oriented tendencies in Korea (MOEL, 2019) and Sweden (Plantin, 2007). Although the fathers interviewed said being a foreigner did create new challenges for their families, most chose to stay in Sweden primarily to have a better work-life balance and a less stressful educational environment for their children.

The interviews were analysed based on similarity and contiguity (Maxwell and Chmiel, 2014). First, I applied a similarity-based analysis by categorising detailed experiences relating to leave-taking into high-level categories. The categories that emerged were family orientation, limited options to take leave, and work-centred life in Korea. Differences were plans and discussions and the associated attitudes towards taking time off, which were dependent on the workplace. Second, I applied a contiguity-based analysis by finding the connections between their sense of entitlement and its grounds – an analysis focusing on stories juxtaposed by time and place rather than similarities and differences. In the process, I referred to what Major (1993) noted: sense of entitlement can be affected by comparative referents, such as previous experiences, feasible alternatives, or socially acceptable norms that govern a situation. I focused on two intersections that revealed the fathers’ perceptions and experiences on taking leave. First, between their previous experiences in Korea and current experiences in Sweden; second, between their Swedish colleagues’ leave-taking and their own. These intersections revealed assumptions about the deservingness the fathers felt on a daily basis.

The findings are presented in two major threads: first, how fathers have used leave in Sweden and their diverging sense of entitlement towards using leave. Second, those work practices highlighted by fathers as important for their sense of entitlement to take leave. The fathers at Swedish companies are coded as Father-S-# and those at Korean companies as Father-K-#.

Converging aspirations for family time, but diverging sense of entitlement to leave

‘When looking back, we men became a working machine in one sense while busting our hump providing for family. My friends and I see ourselves as having been raised with our needs neutered to become blind to what we really like and want to do.’ (Father-S-6)

The fathers interviewed recalled that back in Korea, they had work- and career-centred lives, as Father-S-6 described above. In fact, about 76 per cent of the workforce in Korea work more than 40 hours a week (OECD, 2019). More than half of parents who live apart from their children attributed their separation to maintaining their careers (KOSTAT, 2016). Regardless of their actual contributions to family income, most Korean fathers believe that a good father is a good provider (Shin, 2014). On average, fathers work 8.6 hours more per week than mothers (KOSTAT, 2018).

Despite these figures, the breadwinner role is no longer the sole priority for these fathers, who now aspire to prioritise family time. The fathers who previously worked full time in Korea had a higher income in the past, but by deciding to move to Sweden, they chose family time over greater economic security. They stated that a better work-life balance was one of their top priorities. For instance, Father-S-7 believed that moving to Sweden was the only way he and his spouse could raise their children without the help of grandparents. He added, “We are a real family now. Every day I appreciate that we are all living together, and we can have dinner together in one place.”

However, paradoxically, a majority of the fathers feel highly obligated to work and provide for their families – rather than take full advantage of the leave they are entitled to. This is because most of the families became single-income families on moving to Sweden. The fathers cannot deny that their role as earners still makes up a large part if not a majority of their obligations. The internal conflict between childcare duties and economic responsibilities surfaces when fathers consider taking childcare leave. The fathers’ hesitance was evident when they talked about taking a block of parental leave or taking a few days of leave for sick children. Regardless of the workplace, the fathers rarely use leave for care of a sick child. They said that they instead use some of their own paid annual leave days or flexitime to maintain a higher income. Less than half of the fathers at Swedish companies had taken more than three months of parental leave. The rest said they chose not to take parental leave solely due to financial constraints. This was also the case at the Korean companies but to an even greater extent; a majority had not taken any parental leave.

Despite the common financial challenges, a sense of entitlement to leave appears to be particularly high among the fathers working at Swedish companies. They reported that they could have taken more leave had they demanded it. No justification for taking leave was necessary. Father-S-9 recalled the day he told his colleagues his wife was pregnant, “People congratulated me. After that, well, people already assumed that I would take parental leave. They asked me when I plan to leave.” Father-S-6 described his decision on taking leave as “natural as breathing”. This change in attitude particularly stood out in Father-S-5, who had just moved to Sweden six months earlier. He remembered that he never thought of taking parental leave back in Korea, although he was legally entitled to one year at 40 per cent of his monthly salary. He reports that he is planning to take parental leave for his youngest child in a couple of months, “since I feel less embarrassed and have the opportunity now” – an opportunity he had legally had in Korea since 2001.

Unlike the fathers at Swedish companies, the fathers at Korean companies tend to retain some sense of their old obligations. The divergent attitudes were particularly evident when discussing the ten-day paternity leave. A majority of the fathers at Korean companies were eligible for paternity leave, but only half used it in its entirety; the rest took just a couple of days immediately after their child was born. Both fathers in managerial and non-managerial roles explained that they could not leave for “such a long time” because of their work responsibilities. Fathers-K-5 and K-6 pointed out that the ten-day leave was a recommendation, not an obligation – which is accurate. In contrast, all of the fathers working at Swedish companies who were eligible for paternity leave used it fully and said that since everyone did so, they thought that it was mandatory—which is not accurate. Such divergent understandings imply that the fathers’ sense of entitlement to leave depends more on the working environment than what the law actually says.

The ultimate difference between the two groups results from the fact that the fathers working for Korean companies are expected to work, as Fathers-K-1, K-3 and K-6 put it, in a “Korean fashion”. The next section discusses the experiences that led to the divergence in the sense of entitlement to take leave.

Contrasting experiences at work

Anxiety about not working

‘How could people dare to say that they want to take time off for a year for childcare when they haven’t even experienced more than one week of annual leave at once.’ (Father-K-6)

A father of three in a managerial role at a Korean company vented about why Korean employees, including himself, have not taken parental leave as freely as their Swedish colleagues. Among all the Korean employees at the Nordic branches of his company, only one male employee has taken parental leave in the last 20 years; he proudly added that he approved that employee’s leave although he would not dream of taking his own.

The limited usage of annual leave holds true among fathers working in Korean companies. All workers in Sweden have had the right to five weeks of paid holiday since 1996 (Nyberg, 1996). However, the practices of Korean companies differ in terms of the length and pattern of annual leave utilisation. While the fathers working for Swedish companies reported feeling free to use their paid holiday in full, none of the fathers working for Korean companies have done so. Fathers at Swedish companies took holidays in blocks of time exceeding four weeks, whereas the maximum number of contiguous annual leave days taken by fathers at Korean companies was two weeks. Father-K-1 explained that he uses his annual leave days individually; for example, when he has to both drop off and pick up his child from school, since he knows he will not use them all, in any case.

Shorter fragmented use of annual leave was not common among the Korean fathers at Swedish companies. Were their attitudes originally different? Interestingly, their anxiety about taking long holidays seems to have been no different from their Korean company counterparts. It appears that the fathers at Swedish companies also showed a strong sense of obligation that made them feel they were not entitled to a long break for the first couple of years at a Swedish company. Father-S-4, who has been working at his current job for six months, confessed he was not yet up for taking any leave let alone the six weeks of annual leave he is entitled to. He still pushes himself hard, saying, “You do not deserve it unless you attain this level of work. It is wrong.” Father-S-3 recalled that on his first four-week holiday, he kept contact with work. He explained, “Because I was nervous. It felt like I would mess up things if I didn’t check my email every hour. You know, somebody is going to be waiting for my response.” Most of the fathers, including Fathers-S-2 and S-6 who now take more than four weeks of leave, reported having similar thoughts at first.

The fathers interviewed from Swedish companies seemed to have slowly got over their former anxieties about time off, while those at Korean companies still retain most of their apprehensions. Father-S-2 spoke of his fears after taking four weeks of holiday for the first time in his life, “I felt uneasy taking four weeks of leave. […] But when I came back, my colleagues hadn’t even gotten back yet. Now I know my company will never run into trouble while I am away.” He now views this separation as bearable and even indispensable for enjoying a break to recharge. Apart from Father-S-2, the other fathers working at Swedish companies for more than a year have grown to take the generous amount of annual leave for granted and see it as a deserved entitlement.

In contrast, the fathers at Korean company are conflicted over taking weeks of leave; they worry about how their superiors will judge their commitment. Father-K-4 heard Korean senior management criticising Swedish workers for taking leave before a product launch. After learning how senior management would judge him, he did not dare apply for leave lasting longer than two weeks even during regular business. Fathers at Korean companies rationalise their unequal position through the belief that they cannot be replaced by their Swedish colleagues and are more valued at Korean companies. Father-K-5 proudly said that during his first several years, he only took one week of paid leave. He added, “Only those who are passionate survive here.” The myth of the diligent worker, as Kim (2008) put it, is also well reflected in Father-K-4’s thoughts, “If one can be away for a month, then is that person actually needed at the company?”

Identifying as collaborator versus subordinate

Father-S-8 said with incredulity, “Children are random variables!” To handle this unpredictability, a parent requires some flexibility with their workload and childcare schedule. Work flexibility, particularly in Sweden, has also been discussed as a key condition for fathers taking leave (Hobson et al, 2014; Haas and Hwang, 2019). Fathers from Swedish companies have been content with less work. Father-S-3 even stated, “It feels like five people share the workload of four people.” Furthermore, the work assigned to them is within their job descriptions – this makes it easier for the fathers to predict, schedule, and take some liberties with their workload for family life.

However, the fathers from Korean companies have less flexibility owing to heavier workloads that habitually stretch beyond their job descriptions. Regardless of their position, they usually work longer than their Swedish counterparts. Father-K-6 said, “After six o’clock, only black-haired Koreans are left in the office.” Father-K-1 explained why they had no choice but to work longer and harder:

‘There is a hierarchy in this company. Work is assigned hierarchically. If some work falls onto this person, he must comply with it …[otherwise] you can expect a reaction from your superior like, “Are you telling me that you need to go pick up your kid? When I have just given you an order to do now?”’

The fathers feel obliged to prioritise orders from senior management over their personal issues. Working in Korea taught them that doing so signifies a tactful employee under a hierarchical organisation, a sentiment they carry with them to Sweden. Korean senior management still take strong compliance for granted. For instance, Father-K-3, a manager at a Korean company, explained why he has hired about 100 Swedish employees over the last five years to fill 30 positions at his branch. He expected them to complete impromptu work tasks. However, the Swedish employees usually object, ask why, ask for a raise with a revised job description, or end up quitting. He added this is why Korean employees end up working more hours and stay longer, “Because Koreans never challenge orders from their higher-ups.” To match managerial preferences for compliant juniors, the Korean fathers started taking on more tasks assigned by their Korean superiors, or tasks that fall in a grey area that are beyond everyone’s job descriptions.

From the employees’ perspective, managerial expectations and indispensable work duties continue to make them feel subordinated by the company. Father-K-7 has seen some pushback within his company. According to him, some employees, mainly young, childless Koreans, initiated small group actions and demanded equal treatment between Swedish and Korean workers regarding workloads and flexible schedules. Ultimately, their complaints did not result in change. Father-K-1, who works for the same company, recalled the company’s stance towards their protests, “Why would we bother to hire you [Koreans] then, here in Sweden? Leave if you don’t like this.” In stark contrast to their strong sense of indispensability in the workplace, the fathers still believe that they are dispensable. To avoid conflict with their Korean superiors, they would rather choose to comply with the company’s hierarchical mandates, and their identity as subordinates becomes more deeply rooted. They have compromised themselves by finding a middle ground for their sense of entitlement between what they observe their Swedish counterparts taking and what they would have done in Korea. This resigned acceptance is demonstrated in Father-K-6’s attitudes towards taking parental leave:

‘If I worked at a Swedish company, I would use up all days granted to me. For now, I need to be selective about taking leave because I am working for a Korean company [in Sweden]. But if I worked in Korea? I would not use it in the first place.’

In contrast, the fathers from Swedish companies have started identifying themselves as collaborators working with their managers and company. It is common for them to feel like their opinion is as important as anyone else’s, even their superiors. For example, Father-S-7 said, “I was really surprised. It doesn’t matter if one has worked for 20 years, just one day, or two years like me, we discuss things equally.” All the fathers described their managers as helpers whom they can discuss anything with. Father-S-8 said, “It seems like a manager is nothing more than a role.” The horizontal relationships between all colleagues, including higher-ups, seem to promote agency in their work. Father-S-4, who had viewed himself as just a tool for the company, said appreciatively, “There seems to be a consensus that it is a person who does the work, so it is pointless to make it difficult for them to get the work done.” Father-S-9 had no compunctions about planning to take parental leave for his third child. Father-S-8 also explained how freely he can adjust his work schedule for his family, “You can even say, ‘I don’t want a meeting after 3:30 pm since I need to go to pick up my child’. No one judges.” By learning that a personal issue can take priority and that they get to make that determination, the fathers seem to have developed a stronger sense of entitlement towards taking time off for childcare.

Embracing fathers as co-parents versus secondary caregivers

Taking time off work for childcare is not just a matter of personal gender role attitudes and the gender contract between couples; how a workgroup validates a father’s role also influences a father’s sense of entitlement towards taking time off. None of the fathers in this study initially felt entitled to speak up when they needed to stay home or leave work early. However, over time, fathers at Swedish companies started experiencing positive validation from the workplace for taking leave – affirming that fathers also have a role to play as caregivers. Father-S-1 recalled the first time he needed to take his child to the hospital. It took him about an hour to decide to tell his manager that he needed to leave. He had deliberated over whether he should leave his work behind unfinished. However, his manager’s reaction and response embarrassed him – “Why did you even ask me that? Just go.” Father-S-6 also said, “At least, it is unexceptionally okay to be absent when your child is sick. The manager doesn’t even bother to ask why. I have never experienced or heard of any men in this company having problems or feeling uneasy about taking time off for children.”

After watching what their Swedish male co-workers and managers do for their children, the Korean fathers at Swedish companies started expanding their own boundaries of what is acceptable behaviour for fathers in the workplace. The fathers learn that it is acceptable to leave in the middle of a meeting, work from home while taking care of children, bring children to work, notify their managers last minute of necessary absences, and leave early to participate in school events and other activities. Through these experiences, the notion that there is no gender-role-based disparity in expectations when leaving work for children is constantly reinforced. Father-S-9 explained that he was eventually able to prioritise family over work because “There is no emotional strain at all. It is so natural to adjust your work schedule for the kids.” As co-parents rather than secondary caregivers, the fathers feel entitled to take time off. Father-S-7 added:

‘I have a boss who has two daughters. It is not common in Sweden, but his wife is not working. She takes care of their children, but at times, he also takes time off for his children. He thinks nothing of it and even tells me that I don’t have to feel burdened by it.’

Meanwhile, Korean fathers at Korean companies appear to rarely voice their need for childcare leave childcare. About half of them reported that they rarely talk about leaving for a sick child – unless the child needs to go the emergency room, or their partner is also very sick. Korean fathers who have a wife at home tend to feel especially uncomfortable about being absent, since they think, as one father put it, “People know that my wife is a housewife.” The fathers place constraints on themselves even though they know nobody will actually stop them from going home. Such implicit constraints lead fathers to come up with alternatives to getting involved in non-emergencies.

However, not all respondents held a passive stance towards fatherhood at Korean companies. Father-K-2 works under a Swedish manager. He said that compared with his Korean colleagues he tends to feel less pressure when he goes home early for his child. He added, “Because even my manager does that.” Other fathers who work mainly under Korean bosses observe a distinction between the expectations of Swedish fathers and themselves and are resigned to it. Previous research also points out that the absence of role models at the managerial level makes fathers feel less entitled to take leave (Moran and Kolowski,2019). Similarly, these Korean fathers’ sense of entitlement is also powerfully affected by the extent to which they are expected to freely show their fatherhood to their workgroup and leaders.

Conclusion

This study explored how Korean fathers who are accustomed to leading work-centred lives came to adapt their sense of entitlement to take childcare leave while working in a father-friendly country. Although no fathers initially felt entitled to take leave for children, those who started working for Swedish companies came to believe that they were entitled to take leave and were free to exert their needs. In contrast, the fathers who maintained their jobs at Korean-owned companies in Sweden seem to have retained their old attitudes towards taking leave lasting longer than two weeks. This diverging sense of entitlement suggests that the workplace can greatly influence a father’s decision on taking leave, regardless of his status as a financial provider.

Additionally, this research reveals three essential, but often taken-for-granted, contexts that seem to form the basis of a father’s sense of entitlement to take childcare leave: the conceivability of being absent and putting responsibilities on hold; having a horizontal relationship with superiors (daring to refuse); and the recognition of a father’s responsibilities as a co-parent regardless of their partner’s financial contribution. First, fathers seem more inclined to take a longer leave when they have prior experience of taking leave for an equivalent duration. Without that experience, it is hard to break loose from the old belief that they are indispensable to the company and their anxiety that not working equates to a lack of commitment and laziness. Second, it appears that fathers come to feel more entitled to demand leave when they have a certain degree of agency regarding their work and schedule. This comes not only from their workload and duties based on job descriptions, but ultimately from a horizontal relationship with their superiors. Third, it seems that the fathers’ sense of entitlement to take time off is strengthened by daily experiences that reveal expanded boundaries of what is acceptable behaviour for fathers in the workplace, especially behaviour modelled by managers.

This study carries three theoretical implications and subsequent suggestions for further research. First, it demonstrates how national norms in relation to time, power dynamics and parenthood intersect in work organisations. Fathers working at Korean-owned companies interpreted the organisational resistance they faced as the ‘Korean fashion’. The workplace norms and practices experienced by those working in Swedish companies are also highly related to how the Swedish model has been described; for example, employee-driven flexibility (Hobson et al, 2014), ‘low power distances’ (Sandberg and Movits, 2013: 53), and a child-centred approach (Lister, 2009). Scholars engaged in work-family studies on fathers’ roles have highlighted the fact that a work organisation does not exist in a vacuum and needs to be understood in the wider context at the national level (Peper et al, 2014). In this respect, this study provides a research setting with multinational companies where national cultures are magnified. I suggest further cross-national research (for example, on fathers’ experiences in Swedish multinational companies located in Korea) could provide greater insights into the influence of national cultures on fathers’ uptake of childcare leave.

Second, this study reveals the importance of work organisations encouraging fathers to take leave, particularly among migrant fathers. Migration generally creates challenges for fathers to feel entitled at work because of economic instability (Strier and Roer-Strier, 2010; de Haan, 2011). Even though Sweden provides generous benefits, migrant fathers take less parental leave than their native-born colleagues (Sainsbury, 2019). One reason is that spouses often remain unemployed due to additional gender-based disadvantages (Mussino et al, 2016). However, this study suggests that fathers at Swedish companies developed a stronger sense of entitlement towards taking time off. This corresponds to previous findings that the longer migrant fathers live in Sweden, the more parental leave they take (Tervola et al, 2017). Though Tervola et al (2017) did not identify the underlying cause for this, this study provides a possible explanation: that Swedish workplace culture gradually influences migrant fathers’ sense of entitlement to take leave. I suggest that further qualitative research on migrant fathers’ experiences in various work settings in Sweden could fill this knowledge gap.

Third, this study advances policy research on the tendency of fathers to take childcare leave. Viewed through a sense of entitlement, it illuminates the often-unspoken contradiction between being granted a legal entitlement (childcare leave) and ambivalence about actually using it. Fathers may ultimately decide not to take leave, but as this study shows, some fathers may decide not to take leave due to financial reasons even if they have a strong sense of entitlement towards using it. Others may not use it as freely as they wish because of a low or non-existent sense of entitlement towards taking leave. Lewis (1997: 15) calls this ‘a resigned acceptance’ and emphasises that delving into the contexts that lead to resigned acceptance will expose the weaknesses of a situation that seems fair to everyone. This nuanced, but critical, difference between a voluntary opt-out and resigned acceptance in a daily context can be easily overlooked in policy research if it only focuses on policy schemes or usage rates. This study thus suggests that subsequent research could go beyond the binary approach into a holistic frame, furthering the understanding of how social policy acts on fathers’ sense of entitlement by continuously reinforcing it or weakening it through daily interplay.

In conclusion, the findings and the discussions presented in this research call our attention to the ongoing tug-of-war between the authority of childcare leave policy and the workplace as the last conversion site turning individual rights into practices. Although this research design might cause a self-selected sampling given the Korean fathers working in Sweden already had high aspirations towards a better work-family life balance, the struggles the fathers experienced at Korean companies in Sweden demonstrate the fact that childcare leave policy alone cannot guarantee their anxiety-free decisions – as long as workplaces still feature a work-centred structure. Gender-neutral leave policies are an important plank towards gender equality. However, to succeed, they must be accompanied by a raft of other systemic changes, such as labour protection regarding work flexibility, reasonable workload, horizontal relationships between managers and employees, and cultural recognition of a father’s role as a co-parent. This extends beyond migrant fathers and international companies. It also applies to Swedish fathers whose workplace is male-dominated and where a career requires a high degree of commitment. To find proactive measures to address discrepancies between leave policies and fathers’ sense of entitlement, it will be necessary to produce long-term research that leads to everyday work practices contributing to systemic workplace change.

Funding

There are no funding agencies or funds associated with this research.

Acknowledgements

I would like to thank Kristina Göransson and Åsa Lundqvist at Lund University for their full support throughout my journey of this study and the two anonymous reviewers for their constructive and insightful comments.

Conflict of interest

The author declares that there is no conflict of interest.

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Appendix A

Table 1:

Sociodemographic characteristics of participants

CodeAgeOccupationLevel of educational attainment (degree)Length of employment with current company (years)Ages of children (years)Use of 10-days paternity/ parental leave
Father- S-140sEngineeringCollege511, 10X / X
Father- S-240sEngineeringCollege68X / O
Father- S-330sStock controllingCollege16 monthsO / O
Father- S-440sEngineeringCollege6 months14, 11, 11X / X
Father- S-530sEngineeringPost-college6 months3, 1X / X
Father- S-640sEngineeringCollege129O / O
Father- S-740sResearchPost-college25, 3X / X
Father- S-830sStrategy consultingPost-college36, 4O / X
Father- S-930sDesignCollege64, 2O / O
Father- K-130sAccountingPost-college45X / X
Father- K-230sManagementCollege61O / X
Father K-330sManagementCollege53X / X
Father- K-430sPricing analysisCollege74, 2X / O
Father- K-540sSalesCollege89O / X
Father- K-640sData processingCollege812, 7, 4X / X
Father- K-730sMarketingPost-college33O / O
  • Acker, J. (1998) The future of ‘gender and organizations’: connections and boundaries, Gender, Work & Organization, 5(4): 195206. doi: 10.1111/1468-0432.00057

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Berg, P., Appelbaum, E., Bailey, T. and Kalleberg, A.L. (2004) Contesting time: International comparisons of employee control of working time, Industrial and Labor Relations Review, 57(3): 331349. https://doi.org/10.1177/001979390405700301

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Bergqvist, C. and Saxonberg, S. (2017) The state as a norm-builder? The take-up of parental leave in Norway and Sweden, Social Policy & Administration, 51(7): 147087.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Brandth, B. and Kvande, E. (2002) Reflexive fathers: negotiating parental leave and working life, Gender, Work & Organization, 9(2): 186203. doi: 10.1111/1468-0432.00155

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Burnett, S., Gatrell, C., Cooper, C. and Sparrow, P. (2011) Fatherhood and flexible working: A contradiction in terms?, in S. Kaiser, M.J. Ringlstetter, D.R. Eikhof and M.P.E. Cunha (eds) Creating Balance?, Berlin/Heidelberg: Springer, pp 15771.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Burnett, S., Gatrell, C., Cooper, C. and Sparrow, P. (2013) Fathers at work: a ghost in the organizational machine, Gender, Work & Organization, 20(6): 63246.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Bygren, M. and Duvander, A.Z. (2006) Parents’ workplace situation and fathers’ parental leave use, Journal of Marriage and the Family, 68(2): 36372. doi: 10.1111/j.1741-3737.2006.00258.x

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    • Export Citation
  • Coffey, A. (2004) Reconceptualizing Social Policy, Maidenhead: Open University Press.

  • de Haan, M. (2011) The reconstruction of parenting after migration: A perspective from cultural translation, Human Development, 54(6): 37699. doi: 10.1159/000334119

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Duvander, A.Z., Mussino, E. and Tervola, J. (2020) Similar negotiations over childcare? A comparative study of fathers’ parental leave use in Finland and Sweden, Stockholm Research Reports in Demography, Preprint, Stockholm, https://doi.org/10.17045/sthlmuni.11866401.v1.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
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    • Search Google Scholar
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    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Gregory, A. and Milner, S. (2011) Fathers and work‐life balance in France and the UK: policy and practice, International Journal of Sociology and Social Policy, 31(1/2): 3452. doi: 10.1108/01443331111104797

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Haas, L. (1992) Equal Parenthood and Social Policy: A Study of Parental Leave in Sweden, Albany, NY: SUNY Press.

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    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Haas, L., Allard, K. and Hwang, P. (2002) The impact of organizational culture on men’s use of parental leave in Sweden, Community, Work & Family, 5(3): 31942. doi: 10.1080/1366880022000041801

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Hobson, B., Fahlén, S. and Takács, J. (2014) A sense of entitlement? Agency and capabilities in Sweden and Hungary, in B. Hobson (ed) Worklife Balance. The Agency & Capabilities Gap, Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp 5791.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Holter, Ø.G. (2007) Men’s work and family reconciliation in Europe, Men and Masculinities, 9(4): 42556. doi: 10.1177/1097184X06287794

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  • 1 Lund University, , Sweden

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