Academic journal article Demographic Research

Understanding Low Fertility in Poland: Demographic Consequences of Gendered Discrimination in Employment and Postsocialist Neoliberal Restructuring

Academic journal article Demographic Research

Understanding Low Fertility in Poland: Demographic Consequences of Gendered Discrimination in Employment and Postsocialist Neoliberal Restructuring

Article excerpt


After the state socialist regime of Poland collapsed in 1989, the nation's total fertility rate plummeted from 2.1 to 1.27 by 2007. Simultaneously, Poland severely reduced social service provisions and restricted access to family planning. A three-month mixed-methods research study was conducted in 2007 in Gdansk to investigate Polish women's reproductive intentions and decision making. These data reveal that discriminatory practices by employers against pregnant women and women with small children are decisive in women's decisions to postpone or forego childbearing. The case of Poland demonstrates the urgent need to redress fundamental gendered discrimination in employment before work-family reconciliation policies can be effective.

1. Introduction: Eastern Europe and fertility decline

In recent decades fertility has declined in most locations around the world, with the notable exception of sub-Saharan Africa. After the fall of state socialism in Eastern Europe in 1989, the region's Total Fertility Rate (TFR) began to decline rapidly and recently fell to one of the lowest levels in the world. Eastern European nations currently constitute the majority of what are termed "very low fertility countries," i.e., with TFR below 1.5. Eastern Europe is by no means politically, economically, or culturally heterogeneous and scholars have demonstrated the different permutations of socialism experienced in the region. Yet, the shared history of state socialism and similar global economic pressures to which these nations have been subjected result in many common post-1989 experiences that are significantly associated with fertility decline.

As a capital-poor system, state socialism relied heavily on labor and created an inflexible employment structure that provided a great deal of job security with virtually no threat of unemployment. This was especially significant for women who were for the first time able to easily enter the job market, interrupt their work for childbearing, and return to the safety of their jobs with minimal or no loss of wages. Simultaneously, and consistent with the socialist gender equity rhetoric, the state greatly expanded women's access to education and reproductive rights (except in Romania), and established extensive state infant and childcare provisions. Food was relatively inexpensive and healthcare was free, although not always adequate. Consequently, gender relations were significantly reconfigured as women pursued careers, financial independence, and greater reproductive and sexual autonomy. The socialist state established itself as the "benevolent father" providing for the basic welfare of all (Verdery 1996:24). Women; however, were the major beneficiaries.

Following the collapse of state socialism in 1989, Eastern European nations underwent profound economic transformations, shifting from the security provided by generous welfare states with guaranteed education and employment to the instability of free market economies marked by large scale deregulation. The policies which had been critical in encouraging women's entry into paid employment began to be rapidly dismantled. In particular, maternity leave and subsidies for childcare were substantially reduced, and efforts to privatize healthcare placed fees on many essential services. Employment was no longer guaranteed, unemployment soared and preferential hiring practices began to favor applicants with inside connections. Job opportunities became elusive and required greater dedication of time, making planning one's future more difficult. It is within this context that scholars began to describe demographic trends such as the postponement of childbearing and marriage, higher divorce rates, greater numbers of extra-marital births, and an increase in cohabitation (Caldwell and Schindlmayr 2003; Dey 2006; Fratczak 2004b; Sobotka et al. 2003; Sobotka 2004).

In the past high female unemployment and employment structures that deterred women from working have been associated with higher fertility. …

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