Gender Equality - a Key to our Future Economic Prosperity?


 Gender equality - economic prosperity!

The link between gender equality, birth rates and economic prosperity is a new and thought-provoking approach to the gender issue set out by Professor Lena Sommestad in the new article in the ‘Current Sweden’ series.

The present demographic situation in Europe and elsewhere, with low birth rates and ageing populations, highlights the impact of gender relations and family life on economic development. According to a growing body of research, countries that fail to restructure their societies in line with modern women’s demands for equal rights and responsibilities run the risk of curbing population growth, accelerating the ageing of the population, and, in the longer term, slowing down economic growth.
Gender equality is usually understood as an issue of political and social rights. In Sweden, however, the struggle for gender equality has also been closely linked with long-term economic and social concerns. Swedish gender equality policies build on a strong tradition of pro-natalist and supportive social policies. This demographic tradition makes the Swedish experience highly relevant to the current European debate about declining birth rates and population ageing.

The Swedish welfare state is based on a dual bread-winner model. Sweden has, in other words, adopted a gender-neutral concept of social citizenship. Apart from circumstances directly related to childbirth, married women in Sweden are covered by the same labour, tax and social security legislation as men. No entitlements are targeted at women in their capacity as wives. The state uses separate taxation, generous public day-care provision for pre-school children, and extensive programmes of parental leave to encourage married women/mothers to remain in gainful employment.

The Swedish dual breadwinner model contrasts sharply with the predominant European welfare state model, which was designed around the single (male) breadwinner. The Swedish model grew out of a distinctive national experience, characterised by late industrialisation, widespread poverty and dramatic demographic challenges: first mass emigration, then declining fertility. In contrast to more affluent European societies, Sweden was for a long time highly dependent on women’s paid labour. The consequent strain on the birth rate encouraged the belief that extensive state intervention was needed to support families with children. Social policies have long recognised women’s dual role as both mothers and breadwinners.

The demographic and economic legacy of Swedish gender equality policies is of particular interest today, as Europe faces the challenge of declining birth rates and population ageing. Not only are European women today giving birth to fewer children than in previous decades but there is also a decline in the marriage rate, a large number of single mothers, and increasing child poverty. We are witnessing a process of female emancipation and a crisis of the traditional European male-breadwinner family.

These dramatic changes in European demographic and family patterns are a major challenge for Europe. Population ageing, problematic as it is, may prove to be a “window of opportunity” for radical, gender-equality reform. Yet in order to use the population issue to promote democratic, women-friendly policies, feminists will have to overcome their traditional suspicion of demographic arguments and develop a new, progressive population discourse.

In most countries, the relationship between feminists and pro-natalists has traditionally been fraught with conflict. Feminists have generally focused on women’s needs and rights, while population policies have aimed at supplying the country with more babies. Furthermore, population policies in Europe have often been closely linked to nationalism and militarism. A case in point is France, where the population issue became a top priority as early as the late nineteenth century.

The important lesson to be learnt from Sweden is that demands for more children do not have to conflict with gender equality. Women in Sweden, like their sisters in Europe, have refused to accept childbearing as a social duty, yet they have succeeded in making use of pro-natalist arguments to strengthen their own cause. This distinctive Swedish tradition of a women-friendly population discourse originates in the 1930s, when Gunnar and Alva Myrdal, well-known Swedish social-democratic politicians and social scientists, succeeded in raising the population question as a starting point for radical policies of social reform. Swedish birth rates had fallen dramatically, and the Myrdals argued that Sweden needed more babies in order to counteract population ageing. They also maintained, however, that pro-natalist policies should build on a democratic and feminist basis. Most importantly, higher birth rates should be accompanied by freedom of choice for women (for example access to contraceptives), and population policies must recognise employed mothers as a “social fact”. This capacity to combine pro-natalism and feminism helps to explain the success of Swedish equality policies. Later on, in the post war era, economic and demographic arguments have again been used in Sweden to argue in favour of public services – such as child care – to support women in their dual role.

The reason for the process of population ageing that we are witnessing is that most countries in Europé today have birth rates far below what is needed to reproduce the population. The only country in the European Union that will not experience substantial ageing in years to come is Ireland, where birth rates have fallen only lately. In some countries, most notably Italy, the process of population ageing will be rapid.

What then are the macro-economic implications of this scenario? We now know that age structure has a profound impact on macro-economic phenomena. Of particular interest is the impact of age structure changes on economic growth. Several studies show that children and the elderly have a negative impact on economic growth, while people of working age, and in particular the 50–64 age group, have a positive impact. It follows that the ageing of European societies in the coming decades will have a serious impact on economic development, with slow or even negative economic growth to be expected within a few decades. Population ageing has also been shown to be associated with other negative economic trends such as growing.public expenditure and budget deficits. This adds to the challenges that Europe now faces. It is thus clear that human reproduction plays a crucial role in the creation of national prosperity. The negative consequences of low birth rates do not show up immediately, since age structure changes are slow and gradual. Indeed, in the short term declining birth rates can have a positive economic impact as the child dependency ratio falls. In the longer term, however, the negative economic effects will make themselves increasingly felt as the share of the elderly grows.

Declining birth rates in a society are brought about by a combination of factors. Unemployment and lack of housing, for example, can hamper family formation. But the crucial variable today is women’s own choice, and in this context, it is important to know that an increasing number of studies now show that gender equality matters.

As has already been mentioned, this association between gender equality and childbearing was already recognised in Sweden in the 1930s. Alva Myrdal’s idea that declining fertility rates should be fought with increased gender equality was, in fact, a major contributory factor to the development of the Swedish dual breadwinner model. A law from 1939 made it illegal to fire women on grounds of pregnancy or marriage. Although single (male) breadwinner families became common in Sweden in the 1940s and 1950s as the urban population grew and average incomes rose, the idea that women should be able to combine work and motherhood survived. From the 1960s and onwards, a growing number of Swedish women returned to gainful employment, and by the early 1970s, the two-breadwinner norm had been firmly established.

According to the traditional view, women choose between children and a professional career. Therefore, it is often argued, birth rates would improve if women returned to their traditional role in the domestic sphere. However, recent research on the fertility decline in Europe and elsewhere indicates that the return of women to the home is no longer an appropriate measure if we want more children to be born. Cross-country analyses demonstrate, namely, that birth rates are particularly low in countries that support traditional patterns of marriage and breadwinning. In fact, since the early 1980s, high birth rates in the industrialised world have tended to go hand in hand with a high level of female labour-market participation, while low birth rates are found where female labour-market participation rates are low. In short: women’s access to the labour market appears to be a prerequisite for higher birth rates. Women no longer choose between children and careers. It has furthermore been shown that countries that do not stigmatize non-marital cohabitation or extra-marital births have a better chance of maintaining higher fertility levels. Since there is a decline in the marriage rate all over the industrialised world – with later and fewer marriages and more divorces – non-marital births are needed to compensate.

Finally, a number of studies show that social adjustments and public policies matter a great deal when women are trying to reconcile family obligations with roles outside the home. Higher fertility rates are often observed in countries where such adjustments have taken place and where public policies are supportive of gender equality. In contrast, it is clear that countries that have not managed to adjust and to accept multiple roles for women are those facing the most severe problems. Italy, Spain, and Japan are examples of countries where resistance to change goes hand in hand with low birth rates and rapid population ageing. Women’s education and employment levels have risen dramatically in both Italy and Spain in the past two decades. Yet these changes have met with the resistance of society as a whole – and especially of men, who have insisted that women should continue to play their traditional role of mother and homemaker. This inability to adjust means that Italian and Spanish women – in contrast, say, to women in Sweden – have resolved the conflict between career and domesticity by post-poning childbearing. Similar observations have been made in Japan, where low birth rates are largely due to the inflexibility of the marriage institution.

The new insights into the role of population dynamics in long-term economic growth give feminists an opportunity to challenge the widespread assumption that households and families are primarily units of consumption. Instead, it can be argued that households should be seen as productive units that supply our economies with a crucial input: human capital. Enabling households to function well and providing them with adequate resources in terms of time and income is just as important as developing competitive markets.

Equally, the crucial role of households in economic development makes it reasonable to demand that men should take on a greater responsibility for this sphere of the economy. It is clear that the participation of men – and in particular of fathers – in the daily chores of domestic life is important if motherhood is to attract young women in the future. Here, again, the Swedish experience may be of interest. In a Swedish survey about attitudes towards families and children, presented in the spring of 2001, 90 percent of the women interviewed stated that they could not imagine having children if the father was not prepared to share the daily responsibilities of the household. It is clear that generous public services for working mothers are not enough to make motherhood an attractive choice for modern, emancipated women.

Can we now expect a progressive, women-friendly population discourse to develop in Europe? This remains to be seen. The traditional conflict between feminists and pronatalists is one major obstacle. Another is the strong resistance which can be anticipated from economists and policymakers, most of whom are still deeply influenced by the classic idea that households and markets belong to separate social spheres. Childbearing is viewed as a private and emotional issue, not as a part of the macro economy. Challenging this classic idea of separate spheres is a difficult task indeed – both intellectually and culturally. The current debate about population ageing in the European Union and elsewhere is a good illustration of this. Most experts and politicians prefer to discuss population ageing as an issue related to the labour market only. To counteract the process of ageing, they typically propose strategies such as postponing the age of retirement or investments in life-long learning. If issues of gender equality figure at all in these discussions, women are seen as a potential future source of labour. Female labour-participation rates must increase, it is argued, when the share of people of productive ages starts to decline. Few want to confront the challenging fact that the supply of labour ultimately depends on women’s unpaid labour in the family, and that gender inequality in the home therefore matters to the macro economy.

Lena Sommestad is professor of economic history at Uppsala University and director of the Swedish Institute for Futures Studies, Stockholm. Her main research interest is gender history, welfare state history, and economic demography. The present article first appeared as a lecture for the seminar series Equality at Work – Equality at Home: Men, the Family and Working Life. The series, with seminars in Paris, Luxemburg, London, Brussels, Madrid and Naples, was arranged by the Swedish Institute as part of the official events during the Swedish presidency of the European Union.

The author alone is responsible for the views expressed in this article.

Published by the Swedish Institute
No 432