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Associate Professor of Sociology, University of Virginia 

Gender Equality Not What It’s Cracked Up To Be For Fertility


Bryce J. Christensen and Nicole M. King


In recent years, much ink has been spilled on the problems of both gender inequality and low fertility, especially in so-called developed nations. If only gender equality were greater, these writers suggest, if only women had truly equal opportunity in the workplace and men truly supported them at home, they would be more willing to have children. 

Indeed, writes researcher Martin Kolk of Stockholm University, “Several recent theories in demography suggest that while initially societies that have more gender equality also have falling fertility levels, but that at higher levels of fertility this relationship reverses.” Theorists call this supposed correspondence a “U-shaped” pattern. In this pattern, when gender inequality is high, fertility is also high, and when gender equality is high, fertility is again high. It is only in the transitional period—the “trough” of the U, when gender equality is still progressing—that fertility sinks. Supporting this theory, Kolk writes, “The lowest fertility is found in societies with some public sphere gender equality, where women are increasingly equal in the labor market but where equality within the household is low with most responsibility falling on women.” Findings on the concept of gender equality as it relates to fertility levels, however, have been mixed, even though “most developed countries with high gender equality have had higher fertility than slightly less affluent societies.” Kolk seeks to address this gap in the research, across a wide range of countries and many decades, seeking to examine if the popular U-shaped pattern is real or a myth.

Kolk gleans his data from two primary sources: The Human Fertility Database, measuring birth rates, and the Varieties of Democracy data set. In addition to the 29 countries already represented in the Human Fertility Database, data from Australia, Belgium, Denmark, Ireland, New Zealand, and South Korea were also used; most countries had yearly data for 1960-2015. “Women’s equality” is gauged by the Women’s Political Empowerment Index (WPEI), “a multifaceted measure on women’s civil liberties, civil society participation, and political participation across the world.” These are both huge longitudinal data sets covering a broad range of countries.

Kolk’s results put to question the beloved U-shaped pattern of gender-equality theorists. “[M]ost countries,” writes Kolk, “do not show a pattern of increasing fertility together with increasing equality.” Notably, the countries where gender equality is actually highest—those in Northwest Europe as well as New Zealand and the Czech Republic—do not show such a pattern. Kolk summarizes, “Only four countries in the data set (Belgium, Denmark, France, and the Netherlands) show for some periods an (ambiguous) U-shaped pattern of increasing fertility together with increasing gender equality.” He continues, “When controlling for a general decline in fertility over time . . . there is some evidence of slightly higher fertility at the very highest levels of WPEI, though the effect is small and nonsignificant.” 

Kolk spends a great deal of time discussing the Nordic countries, where gender equality is high and specific policies for family support (state-subsidized daycare, generous family leave policies, etc.) have been implemented. “Even though fertility-equality reversal theories are modeled on experiences in Nordic countries,” observes Kolk, “these countries have not had an experience that fits the causal model suggested in fertility-equality reversal theories.” Such fertility rises have been sporadic, and Kolk also speculates that in some of these countries, fertility was somewhat higher to begin with. “So far,” he concludes, “we have not seen any substantial increase of fertility in these societies, despite increasing gender equality over the last few decades.”

Kolk warns that his measure for female equality may not be sufficient, as, for example, division of household labor is not considered, and this is a factor that has been shown to have an effect on fertility. Nonetheless, he warns, long-term, cross-sectional data do not back up the U-shaped pattern. 

Policymakers should consider this study before leaping to the conclusion that more subsidized daycare, more paid parental leave, or other such supports will solve our fertility crisis.

(Martin Kolk, “Weak support for a U-shaped pattern between societal gender equality and fertility when comparing societies across time,” Demographic Research 40.2 [January 2019]: 27-48, 10.4054/DemRes.2019.40.2, Web.)