Why Gender Stereotypes Are Preventing Women From Having More Babies


Iran has a problem. Over the past several decades, the country’s fertility rate has dramatically declined, and Iran is now on track to have the lowest percentage of residents between the ages of 15 and 24 in the Muslim world. “If we move forward like this, we’ll be a country of elderly people in the not-too-distant future,” Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei recently warned. In an attempt to reverse that potential future, Iran might criminalize birth control surgeries. At the end of June, lawmakers approved a measure that threatens people with up to five years in jail for getting their tubes tied.

Unfortunately for Iran, however, new research from a team of Harvard sociologists suggests that’s not exactly the right approach. If countries want to increase their fertility rates, they should actually reexamine what kind of messages they’re sending to their citizens about motherhood.

Mary Brinton, who chairs Harvard’s sociology department, agrees with Iran’s leader about at least one thing. She believes the recent fertility decline in industrialized nations is a problem, pointing out it’s contributing to a so-called “demographic time bomb” that threatens to strain the labor force and dramatically increase health costs as countries’ populations become disproportionately elderly.

But Brinton’s research into those dropping rates ultimately concludes they’re linked not necessarily to birth control, but rather to stereotypical attitudes about women.

Brinton and her colleagues conducted several years’ worth of research into countries in Southern Europe and East Asia where the birth rates are particularly low. As part of that work, the team analyzed 400 in-depth interviews with young men and women in Japan, Sweden, Spain, South Korea, and the United States. Those participants were asked about their attitudes toward work, marriage, and family — including questions intended to gauge their opinions about women’s role in society, like, “Should mothers work outside the home?” and “Do men make better business executives than women?”

They found that the countries that maintain traditional ideas about gender norms are effectively convincing women to choose between a career and a family. For instance, the people who live in South Korea and Japan largely believe that women should quit their jobs once they have kids. As more highly educated women enter the workforce there, having both a career and a baby doesn’t seem like an option.

“Something has got to give. What gives in Japan is that a lot of women don’t get married and have kids, but instead have careers,” Brinton explained in an interview with the Harvard Gazette. “It’s either/or.”

In the United States, fertility rates haven’t dropped as much as they have in some other countries. Women are delaying childbirth, but most of them are still choosing to eventually raise a family, and many of them continue to work. But while there’s perhaps a bit more cultural acceptance in the U.S. for women who want to “have it all” than there is in South Korea or Japan, that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s easier to accomplish. Gender equality continues to lag behind in this country, and women aren’t guaranteed paid maternity leave or affordable childcare options.

“People who are happiest in the U.S. are the ones who have some flexibility in their working hours. But it’s up to you to solve those problems with your employer,” Brinton noted. “You have to negotiate every piece of it.”

Meanwhile, in countries with a strong government safety net for working parents, the birth rates are holding up. Brinton’s team observed that dynamic playing out in Sweden, where survey participants indicated that public child care and generous parental leave make it much easier for young couples to start a family.

Their research isn’t the first to make this connection. Previous studies focusing on Scandinavian countries have found a similar link between good work-life policies and higher birth rates. And case studies of other countries with dwindling fertility, like Germany, have concluded that part of the solution involves “remaking values, customs and attitudes” about women and working mothers. However, gender stereotypes about what makes a good parent are often deeply entrenched — for instance, here in the United States, where the cultural norms aren’t as pronounced as they are in some of the other nations that Brinton examined, a third of Americans still think that it’s best for children to have a mother who doesn’t work.

Political leaders in Iran initially appeared to be open to a broader policy solution to its dropping birth rate. In May, Khamenei announced new national policies regarding population that emphasized “supporting young couples and enabling them to afford the cost of living” and “providing mothers with special resources” to help them throughout pregnancy and childbirth. He’s now being criticized for taking such a drastically different approach with the potential birth control ban.