Should Governments in Europe Be More Aggressive in Pushing for Gender Equality to Raise Fertility? the Second "NO"1

By Neyer, Gerda | Demographic Research, January-June 2011 | Go to article overview

Should Governments in Europe Be More Aggressive in Pushing for Gender Equality to Raise Fertility? the Second "NO"1


Neyer, Gerda, Demographic Research


Abstract

This paper argues against the suggestion that governments should push for gender equality more aggressively in order to raise fertility. The paper presents a threefold "no" to this proposal. It takes issue with the goal of raising fertility, arguing that the claims that fertility must be increased are based on myths. It rejects a more aggressive pursuit of gender equality for demographic purposes, maintaining that this method preserves inequality. It warns against using gender equality for fertility purposes, stating that this narrows the realm of gender equality.

The paper is based on a debate held at the Max Planck Institute for Demographic Research in Rostock, at which the author was asked to argue against the gender equality-fertility proposal. The other participants in the debate were Laurent Toulemon ("yes"), Dimiter Philipov ("no"), and Livia Oláh ("yes").

1. Introduction

Women have struggled for gender equality for almost 220 years3, but Europe is still far from having achieved it. Women in the European Union now clearly outperform men in educational attainment; there are more women than men among the graduates of secondary- and tertiary-level educational institutions, and among participants in life-long learning programs. Nevertheless, women are still less likely than men to attain decision-making positions in academia, in politics, and in economic life. Women still earn less than men, have lower employment rates and higher unemployment rates, are more likely to work part-time, are at higher risk of poverty, and still do most of the domestic and care work (Commission of the European Communities 2005a). Progress towards gender equality has varied greatly across time, across countries, and across policy areas. Successes in reducing gender gaps have often been followed by backlashes, and increasing gender equality in some areas has been accompanied by growing gender inequality in other areas.

The low fertility rates in Europe have given another twist to gender equality policies. In recent years, we have observed a general shift in policy focus and efforts, namely, from gender equality policies to family policies. Making private matters an issue of public policy has been a central goal of European feminist movements since the 1960s, but the shift in public attention to family policies has also narrowed the range of gender issues to private relationships. Given this turn in the content of gender equality discussions, and given the still unfulfilled hopes for genuine gender equality, should we not answer "yes" to the question posed in this debate, grasp the opportunity for more active gender equality policies that has opened up, and refrain from asking why and how we will get (more) gender equality?4 I maintain that we should resist these temptations, and respond to the question with a threefold "no":

"No" to the goal, which is to raise fertility.

"No" to the method, which is to push for population policies more aggressively.

"No" to the means, which are to use gender equality policies to promote fertility issues.5 Here is why I go in for this triple "no."

2. "No" to the goal of raising fertility, or why we should resist political endeavors to raise fertility

Any claim that fertility should be raised rests on three assumptions: first, that fertility levels are too low; second, that low fertility levels will have negative consequences for Europe; and, third, that policies can actually raise fertility. However, neither an assessment that fertility levels are too low, nor the conclusion that this will be detrimental for Europe, describe a demographic reality or a demographically determined future; instead, these assumptions construct them. As Laurent Toulemon has pointed out in this debate, demographic measures are subject to interpretation, and are not immutable facts of reality. It is thus a matter of convention whether fertility is regarded as "low" or "high" or "normal.

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