The traditional understanding of women’s economic empowerment is that, as participation in paid employment increases, fertility decreases.
This was certainly true in industrialised nations up to the early 1980s.
But then things began to change. OECD data now shows a positive correlation between higher female labour participation and higher fertility rates.
This fact may not be widely known, but it has been well-documented. Why it has occurred, though, is more of a mystery – and the focus of our research.
Scandinavian nations have been at the forefront of the reversal – but that’s not surprising. Countries like Sweden and Denmark have strong state support for working mothers and high cultural acceptance of gender equality. It’s easy to see how they have made it easier for women to reconcile family and career.
The puzzle is that English-speaking nations aren’t too far behind the Scandinavian countries, despite high childcare costs and relatively little policy to support working mothers.
Our research points to a set of factors in Anglophone economies not typically identified as tools for women’s empowerment: in particular, flexible labour markets.
Understanding all the factors that contribute to a positive relationship between paid employment and fertility is profoundly important for policy makers the world over. It may help countries such as Japan, which is grappling with the consequences of birth rates falling below population replacement level. It can also help countries such as India, where female economic participation rates remain stubbornly low.
Reversing the trend
The following graph shows the situation in nine industrialised nations, exemplifying different varieties of capitalism, government policy and cultural clusters, in 1970: the trend line indicates higher female labour force participation is associated with a lower fertility rate.
Authors: The Conversation