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OSLO/STOCKHOLM (Reuters) - Nordic nations are the tops when it comes to gender equality, according to the World Economic Forum's global rankings which reviews the gaps between men and women in a range of areas, including the economy.
But not happy to rest on their laurels, some of these progressive, northern European states are debating how much further paid parental leave needs to be pushed onto fathers to liberate more women into the workforce.
Supporters of balanced sharing of parental leave say it boosts employment rates, narrows pay inequalities and generates family lifestyles that are the envy of those living in countries with a more conservative approach to child rearing.
A 2010 Swedish government study showed that for each month the father takes leave, the mother's future annual income increases by 7 percent.
"We are a feminist government and one of our goals is to increase labor market participation through 2020," said Annika Strandhall, Sweden's social security minister. "Hopefully this is one of the things that contributes to that."
While Scandinavians see the benefits of dads changing diapers, there is little consensus on how to move forward. The controversy is whether governments have the right to deprive families of some paid leave if fathers do not take their quota.
Sweden offers couples 480 days of parental leave, with 60 of those days reserved for fathers. To further encourage male parenting, the government in Stockholm is now planning to raise that total to 90 days.
Norway offers some 59 weeks of parental leave, again largely paid, but the government has cut the quota reserved for men to 10 weeks from 14, citing family choice.
In Finland men have the right to up to 18 days paternity leave. There is no quota system in place, but the new center-right coalition is expected to discuss whether to introduce such a system to boost employment amongst women.
By contrast, French fathers get just 11 days, British dads get up to 14 days, and U.S. fathers get none -- although the United States is also the only developed country in the world that offers no paid leave to mothers.
So common is the sight of fathers strolling around with prams that Sweden has coined a phrase for them -- "Latte pappas" -- and Nordic men seem to relish the opportunity to spend time with their infants.
"I've just became a father for the first time so this is literally a once in a lifetime opportunity," said Torbjorn Roe Isaksen, who took leave from his job as Norway's education minister in April to spend time with his daughter.
Economists say it makes sense to encourage men to raise children given that females are outdoing males in completing university education, meaning that they are better qualified and therefore potentially the bigger earners.
"Governments have very few levers to offer to help change social and gender behavior," said Willem Adema, a senior economist at the Paris-based Organisation for Economic Co‑operation and Development (OECD).
"This is one of them and it can have both cultural and economic benefits," Adema said. "From a perspective of investing in human capital, it makes total sense."
Some small businesses see it differently and worry that paternal leave is a luxury they cannot afford.
"To take several months off would present risks to the company's development, to customer relationships and things like that," said 31-year-old Mattias Forss, owner of IT company Forss Webservice in Katrineholm, southwest of the capital.
"The bulk of the parental leave has been taken care of by my wife," he added. His wife also works for his company, but in a more junior role.
By contrast, large companies with elastic workforces feel that paternal leave can give them a competitive edge.
Ericsson, a Swedish mobile phone equipment maker, tops up a government scheme with its own cash and says parental leave benefits its talent development.
"It opens up possibilities for job rotation and internal career development," said Marita Hellberg, Ericsson's Swedish HR chief.
It also helps draw women into the workforce.
Women's labor participation rates are between 74 percent and 84 percent in the five Nordic countries -- Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Finland and Iceland -- against an average of just 62 percent for developed nations within the OECD.
There is still definite room for improvement when it comes to the wage gap, with women in Nordic nations earning between seven and 15 percent less than men, against the OECD average of around 15.5 percent.
Economists believe this gap is exacerbated by missed career opportunities for women while they raise their children, and believe it could be lowered if there were more "latte pappas".
Last year, 54 percent of Norwegian men who had small children spent at least 10 weeks off with their toddlers, up from 9 percent a decade ago. Over that period, Norway's pay gap dipped to seven percent from just over 10 percent.
Anecdotally, companies say the increased focus on family care has not hurt output.
"It has become acceptable to leave work at 4, but productivity has not declined," said Hanne Simensen, HR director of aluminum producer and mining firm Norsk Hydro. "I see a lot of email coming at 8 or 9 in the evening."
Additonal reporting by Alistair Scrutton and Stine Jacobsen; Editing by Alistair Scrutton and Crispian Balmer