Monday, July 04, 2011

Seeing The Connections: From Culture To Fertility

While reading this post (which I recommend*) and its sources, I noticed something interesting: A discussion of the pressure for women to stay at home once they have children. From the Guardian on Italy, in the context of an engineering firms which decided to lay off only female workers, given that women should stay at home:
Italy has one of the EU's lowest female employment rates, partly because of pressure on women to give up their jobs when they become pregnant. One in five does not return to work after the birth of her first child.
And from the New York Times on Germany**, where similar expectations concerning stay-at-home mothering also prevail:

“There is a very traditional image of women and men that was taken to an extreme in the Third Reich: female mother cult and male fraternity. These mental stereotypes have not yet been culturally processed and purged.”

Alice Schwarzer, founder of the magazine Emma and perhaps Germany’s best-known feminist, likens this mindset to “a leaden blanket across all of German society.”

Despite a battery of government measures — some introduced in the past year or so — and ever more passionate debate about gender roles, only about 14 percent of German mothers with one child resume full-time work, and only 6 percent of those with two. All 30 DAX companies are run by men. Nationwide, a single woman presides on a supervisory board: Simone Bagel-Trah at Henkel.
Here's the connection: Note that Italy and Germany are also countries with some of the lowest fertility rates. Yet the usual way of writing about this doesn't mention culture or discrimination until deep in the body of the article, if at all. This article (from 2010) is fairly typical of the coverage of Germany. It begins with the usual scare-mongering:
Germany is shrinking — fast. New figures released on May 17 show the birth rate in Europe's biggest economy has plummeted to a historic low, dropping to a level not seen since 1946. As demographers warn of the consequences of not making enough babies to replace and support an aging population, the latest figures have triggered a bout of national soul-searching and cast a harsh light on Chancellor Angela Merkel's family policies.
But it does a bit better than some of this stripe by at least spelling out the cultural and institutional discrimination:
To explain Germany's low reproduction rate, Steffen Kröhnert, a social scientist at the Berlin Institute for Population Development, points to a number of factors. Many German women decide not to have children because of poor state-run child-care facilities. Most schools in Germany finish earlier than in other parts of Europe — some as early as 1 p.m. — leaving parents struggling to find and afford sufficient day care. And often women who take up part-time jobs to try to juggle work and family life end up paying a high financial price. "Many German women have to stop work and end their careers if they want to have kids," says Kröhnert. It doesn't help that German mothers are still often branded Rabenmütter — "raven mothers" — a pejorative label that accuses them of being bad mothers if they decide to put their children in nurseries and continue working.
Raven mothers? I bet there is no pejorative label for the fathers who continue working. But then if a woman does not have children, she is responsible for the downfall of her country.

All this is a partial explanation for the low birth rates in Germany and Italy. Those countries have decided to make motherhood an expensive proposition, given what the society expects of its members now. As far as I can tell, fertility is viewed solely as the women's responsibility, but the society sets strict expectations of how they should perform it.
* The other items in that post are, in fact, more important than the ones I discuss here. I chose those because of the connection which is not made as often as it should be made.
**I could not link to the NYT article because I haven't paid them yet.

Added later: I'm pretty sure that the statistics on women returning to the labor force after the birth of a child in the above quote on Germany is somewhat misleading. I've looked at various sources of data, and none of them gives such low numbers. Perhaps the quote applies to immediate return to work, and not to whether the women will ultimately rejoin the labor force?