The pendulum between work and care: family policies and family practices in Russia and Sweden

By Zhanna Kravchenko

One of the most important factors underpinning political, economic and demographic development during the twentieth century was women’s entrance into the labour market. Not only did it bring about changes in labour and gender relations, as well as employment and family structures, but eventually it also resulted in some distinct policy mechanisms, normative discourses and everyday family practices. The resources provided to families through policy measures vary depending on a country’s economic capacity, political order, cultural history, etc. In my own research I specifically examined the following three components of family policy a) parental leave; b) the organisation of early childcare and education; and c) schemes of financial assistance and support for families with children. These measures are specifically intended to help reduce the time squeeze on employed parents and compensate for some of the costs related to raising children.

The conventional approach to the study of social policy, and family policy for that matter, treats the family as an object of intervention. Even though some authors have acknowledged that informal social organisation has an impact on the social wellbeing of both the individual and society, the above perspective hinders the theoretical conceptualisation of the family as an active agent of welfare production and distribution, rather than simply a mere mediator between the state and the individual. The ways that families choose to use the available resources differ greatly, determined by both structural and individual conditions. In this article I aim to bring together family policies, actual family practices and the norms surrounding the reconciliation of work and care in Russia and Sweden during the last fifteen years.

Evidence suggests that public efforts to provide a comprehensive system for managing the socio-economic risks related to reconciling the dual social roles of working parents do not necessarily comply with the normative ideas among the population about how these roles should be combined and/or divided within the family. In addition, everyday experiences of how people in fact realise their aspirations to work and raise children demonstrate that in reality, the ways in which people organise their lives do not necessarily reflect what their ideals are.

Family policies: continuity and change

In both Russia and Sweden the development of social policy over the course of the last century has been closely linked to the debates around the family and demographic challenges. During the period when the Swedish welfare state was established, discussions of social solidarity and gender equality were closely intertwined with attempts to comprehend and ameliorate the negative tendencies in the demographic situation. In a similar manner, in Soviet Russia a need to increase the reproductive behaviour of the population during a period of economic hardship, in conjunction with extensive female participation in the labour force, stimulated public efforts to create a comprehensive system of social service provision and support for families with children.

Today, in both countries recognizing women’s economic role as a child-bearer and breadwinner has brought into place an explicit policy framework, rather similar systems of special privileges, including pre- and post-natal parental leave, financial support and the provision of public services. In both national contexts parental leave regulations are intended to secure parents’ attachment to the labour market (Försäkringskassan 2002; Kodeks Zakonov o Trude RSFSR 1992; Socialförsäkring 1998; Verchovnyj Sovet SSSR 1990), while childcare services provide a range of facilities1 (Rossijskoe obrazovanie. Federal’nyj portal 2003; Statistika Rossijskogo obrazovanija 2006; Strandbrink and Pestoff 2006), and means-tested financial transfers schemes address the problem of low incomes but have no effect on the employment of parents with young children (Kravchenko 2008).

When examined more closely however, the organisation of policy measures reveals an important set of differences. The concept of care as a primarily female responsibility has not been challenged in Russia. Women have many incentives to engage in full-time paid labour because the social security system treats them as workers while men are not encouraged to be carers. However, there is not enough evidence to be able to make the claim that the parental leave regulations in Russia are ‘neofamilialist’ and serve ‘the idea of bringing women back home’ (Teplova 2007: 291). Job protection regulations can make women unattractive candidates in the eyes of potential employers, but the attachment of parental benefits to their work record and income stimulates women to search for compromises, they are thus more prone to postponing childbirth instead of dropping out of the labour market altogether.

The situation in Sweden is somewhat different. Public policy is much broader in terms of equalization: it has a ‘traditional’ means of promoting more flexible employment regulation for women, while also beginning to emphasize dual-care to a much greater degree. According to Ellingsaeter (1998), women are often considered as junior providers and given wide opportunities for part-time employment which reconciles the conflict between different social roles. In addition, regulations relating to parental leave have significantly increased men’s involvement in childcare. Yet wage differences stimulate women to take on more care work than men, especially in low-income households (Duvander et al. 2005).

In cross-country comparisons it is, in general, quite difficult to categorize systems as being either unambiguously similar or different. The structure of the family policy arrangements suggests that public policy in the two countries strives to produce a dual-earner family model, promoting female employment by means of providing substantial financial assistance and services. The main difference in the policy approach to the contradictions produced by the duality of the parent’s role comes from the fact that while Swedish policy-makers place an emphasis on supporting more equality in the division of care, in Russia, the issue is not problematised in terms of gender equality. The idealisation of motherhood and a public policy which ‘ objectifies’ women as primary carers leads to most of the policy measures being aimed at women (this is especially evident in some of the recent developments concerning the means of financial support, e.g. subsidies for multiple childbirths, the so-called ‘mother’s capital’).

Policy shaping family attitudes?

The method of assessing the results of family policy in terms of its adequacy by aggregating demographic and economic tendencies often hides the effects that family policy may have on particular family practices of reconciling different social roles. The research on how the institutionalisation of family policy is related to changes in family systems tells us that ‘the governments do a lot [according to their normative ideas of the desired results for families] and want to do much more to support families with children and mothers working outside the home’ (Abrahamson et al. 2005: 210). It is a common expectation that such measures will be gratefully received by the target groups and incorporated into their practices. However, if we assume that the family is not merely a passive target of public policy and that individuals (groups) take responsibility for their own wellbeing, it is only logical to suggest that a policy can have varying effects depending on such things as the context and family circumstances and the individual’s normative ideas about appropriate family and gender behaviour.

The fact that Swedish family policy places a special emphasis on stimulating a dual-earner/dual-carer family model can be seen as one of the factors contributing to a long-term socialising effect, influencing individual preferences and creating a more or less coherent social consensus about the equal rights of individuals irrespective of their gender in relation to gainful employment and child rearing. Strongly conservative (patriarchal) ideas about gender roles have hardly ever been expressed in Swedish public discussions. As Axelsson (1992) has noted, the radical feminist ideas had to compete with a rather ‘modified’ traditional interpretation of gender equality that emphasised the dual role of women as carers and workers, but which prioritised motherhood and being a wife as the most important component of this role. More radical views that assigned the same roles to men and women have prevailed in public discourse. When answering the questions of the International Social Survey Programme (2006) in 1994 and 2002, Swedish respondents demonstrated high levels of support for gender equality in the division of work and care and had positive views about the effects that female employment had on family life (Kravchenko and Motiejunaite 2008).

The lack of a liberal feminist critique or practice in Soviet and post-Soviet social and political life and the abrupt liberalisation of economic relationships in the early 1990s were expected to have a traditionalising effect upon the Russian population, that was no longer subjected to the previously strict employment obligations and socialist gender equality discourse. In relation to this, the preferences documented in the ISSP did indeed highlight that there was much weaker support for the equal engagement of both men and women in paid work and in caring for children. Female labour market participation was seen as one of the factors negatively influencing family wellbeing (ibid.). However, it would be a mistake to conclude that a rapid shift has occurred in attitudes towards the family and gender roles in Russia during the post-Soviet period, as it had never been egalitarian previously. Even before the process of transition began it was already recognised that some of the non-egalitarian features of the Soviet gender structure were still in existence and had not been counteracted by either policy or ideology. The traditionalism that is seen in relation to the distribution of private vis-à-vis public responsibilities of men and women, as well as within each type of social activity, should not be regarded with astonishment – as if it was a break with some ‘evolutionary’ process – from traditionalism to egalitarianism.

Policy shaping family practices?

The outcomes of the process of family policy implementation can be seen in the actual arrangements of dividing private family life from public work activities, of organising care for children while at work and with the sharing or delegating of responsibilities within the household or the outsourcing of everyday tasks. ‘Balancing’ and ‘reconciling’ two distinct social roles – the parent and the waged worker – means making choices and sorting priorities. The person who chooses to care has to make certain adjustments in their working arrangements in order to meet the organisational rhythm of public childcare facilities and prepare for inevitable periods of being absent from work. The one who concentrates on work has to accept the consequences of missing opportunities to be with her/his children. The division of care and housework responsibilities is often perceived as being a rational solution, i.e. the one who is better in their respective job, be it care or paid employment, generally does it. However, when it comes to men, it seems that they have a choice whereas women often do not.

With the help of twenty interviews with parents from Russia and Sweden I have been able to distinguish some of the common difficulties that parents face in their everyday lives (for more details on the methodology and analysis, see Kravchenko 2008). The informants were unanimous in their opinions regarding the high value of the family. Reconciliation strategies were diverse and often spontaneous, obliging the family member who simply had more flexibility to be the one who assumed the caring role. The results can be briefly summarised as follows:

  • The role of formal childcare proved to be very important for the work-family life balance as it is in other countries with high female employment rates (Lewis et al. 2008). However, it does create a number of inevitable problems when its supply does not match the demand. Not being able to enrol a child in a childcare facility was often reported as a problem in both countries. However, while Swedish parents referred to their inability to find an available place in a facility close to their homes, Russian parents faced the problem of a general lack of available places, a phenomenon encouraging routine extortion.
  • The individual’s working arrangements proved to be a very important factor in terms of the successful reconciliation of work and care. In Russia, arranging a leave of absence from work (when a child is ill) was often claimed to depend on the informal latent work relations between an employer and employee. In Sweden, the dynamism and flexibility of the working arrangements were usually officially prescribed, which made it impossible to make new arrangements quickly or to use reciprocal favours from colleagues. Family life was said to influence the work performance of both Russian and Swedish parents, especially in high skilled occupations which demand continuous on-the-job learning and it thus negatively influences the employment chances of those who cannot meet these demands.
  • The role of informal networks proved to be especially important for the success of reconciliation strategies, to such a degree, that even long distances were not an obstacle to engaging family members in both countries. Sometimes even employed assistants might be afforded a status that was equivalent to that of family members and be treated as such. The special role of grandmothers in raising children was mentioned on numerous occasions in both national contexts, although it was only in Russia that it was attributed with a special significance i.e. as being a valuable experience for the children themselves. Swedish families were willing to engage non-relatives organised in voluntary organisations, whereas Russian parents avoided relying upon people outside their circles for care and instead turned to members of their extended family or close friends.
  • While married couples in both countries emphasised that they strive to divide their time for domestic chores and care for children equally, in Russia they often described such practices as being grounded in rational reasoning rather than ideological premises. Differences were sharper in those cases where the couples were divorced or separated. Swedish parents were more inclined to continue with the joint care of their children whereas their Russian counterparts rarely did so.

A very common picture emerges from the stories gathered in the course of this research project: parents do their best and most of the time things work out satisfactorily. However, different situations can undermine the established order. Children can become ill and require constant care. Parents can also become ill which means that a larger share of the responsibility for childcare will have to be handled by the other spouse. School holidays do not always coincide with the parent’s own holidays and extra arrangements have to be put in place to make sure that the children are cared for during these periods. Also, if they decided to have more children, parents were again faced with the problem of having to make parental leave arrangements at the workplace and the problem of incurring large additional costs. Such things as the flexibility of family arrangements, having opportunities to engage in informal networks, and possessing knowledge about the services and assistance available to them, as well as individual preferences, all shape the landscape of everyday family life.

Day-to-day reconciliation: opportunities and constraints

The analysis of the everyday organisation of family life revealed discrepancies between the proclaimed aims of the institutional framework, the way policies were implemented in the case of each particular family, and the normative ideas about the appropriate division of work and care. The practices of working parents with children were dependent on specific family situations. Thus, the use of available services or benefits was determined by the work record of the parents, their place of residence, or the availability of informal support.

In both countries, family policy provided a relatively strict framework for family life. A simplified version of family life as regards work and care is used as a background for public provision: partners are expected to be employed (full- or part-time), have access to social insurance that covers any potential breaks in paid work arising from certain family-related situations, and have access to public/private childcare facilities that work during the parent’s working hours. As any kind of policy will assume a very general idea about its object and targets of intervention/support, it is not really that surprising that reality does not always correspond with expectations, especially when it comes to individual behaviour in small groups like the family. It was, however, revealed that families use different methods to go beyond the ‘policy’ model and to realise their own interests. Sometimes while doing this they diverge from their normative ideas, guided by practical considerations, while on other occasions the most practical solutions are ignored in favour of the dominant (but not necessarily utilisable in their best interests) norms.

Due to their more rigid working arrangements Swedish parents employed less egalitarian everyday practices in the distribution of work and care than would have been expected from an analysis of Swedish family policy and prevailing gender role attitudes,. In contrast, Russian families managed to create more flexible and sustainable practices for the reconciliation of work and care than would have been expected based on the general understanding of gender role attitudes that prevails. This leads us to the important conclusion that it is necessary to look behind the official face of family policy in order to be able to assess its social outcomes. This finding is of particular relevance as many countries currently face the challenge of a changing demographic structure, the transformation of employment patterns and new socio-economic risks resulting from these phenomena. Moreover, this problem is likely to become even more acute in the coming decades.



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1 It is necessary to note that the scale of the variation in the availability of services for different age groups and between different regions is much bigger in Russia than in Sweden, but the structure of services and the conditions of entitlement are rather similar.

Om Zhanna Kravchenko 1 artikel
Zhanna Kravchenko, PhD, is a researcher and teacher in sociology at Södertörns högskola. She has recently defended her dissertation "Family (versus) Policy. Combining Work and Care in Russia and Sweden" at Stockholm University