• Alaka BasuAlaka Basu
      Alaka M. Basu is Professor, Development Sociology, Cornell University, and a member of the Guttmacher-Lancet Commission on Sexual and Reproductive Rights and Health
      Alessandro RosinaAlessandro Rosina
      Professor of Demography and Director, Center for Applied Statistics in Business and Economics, Università Cattolica del Sacro Cuore
      Andrea BrandoliniAndrea Brandolini
      Head of Statistical Analysis Directorate, Bank of Italy
      Bruno MasquelierBruno Masquelier
      Professor of Demography, University of Louvain, Belgium
      Cheikh MbackéCheikh Mbacké
      Associate Professor, Sociology department, Laval University
      Cinzia ContiCinzia Conti
      Researcher at Istat, Head of Unit on Foreign Presence and Social Dynamics
      Corrado BonifaziCorrado Bonifazi
      Director of the Institute for Research on Population and Social Policies, National Research Council, Rome Italy
      Ernestina CoastErnestina Coast
      Associate Professor of Population Studies, London School of Economics
      Wang FengFeng Wang
      Professor of Sociology at the University of California, Irvine, USA, and Professor at Fudan University, Shanghai, China fwang(at)
      Francesco BillariFrancesco Billari
      Professor of Sociology and Demography, University of Oxford
      Gilles PisonGilles Pison
      Professor at Museum National d'Histoire Naturelle and Director of Research at the French National Institute for Demographic Studies (INED) (Paris)
      Gustavo De SantisGustavo De Santis
      Professor of Demography, University of Florence, Italy
      Jacques VallinJacques Vallin
      Emeritus Research Director at INED, Paris; Honorary President of IUSSP
      John KnodelJohn Knodel
      Research Professor Emeritus, Population Studies Center, Institute for Social Research, University of Michigan (USA) and International staff, College of Populations Studies, Chulalongkorn University (Thailand)
      Letizia MencariniLetizia Mencarini
      Associate professor of Demography, Bocconi University - Dondena Centre for Research on Social Dynamics and Public Policy & Collegio Carlo Alberto; P.I. ERC P.I. ERC project n. 313617 (2013-2018) SWELLFER
      Letizia TanturriLetizia Tanturri
      Associate Professor of Demography, University of Padova, Italy
      Massimo livi BacciMassimo livi Bacci
      Emeritus Professor of Demography, University of Florence, Italy
      Monica Das GuptaMonica Das Gupta
      Research Professor of Sociology, University of Maryland, USA
      Paula Miranda-RibeiroPaula Miranda-Ribeiro
      Professor, Demography Department and Cedeplar, Universidade Federal de Minas Gerais, Brazil.
      Peter McDonaldPeter McDonald
      Professor of Demography in the Australian National University. Honorary President of IUSSP and winner of the Irene B. Taeuber Award
      Roberto ImpicciatoreRoberto Impicciatore
      Assistant Professor of Demography, University of Milan, Italy
      Salvatore StrozzaSalvatore Strozza
      Professor of Demography, University Federico II, Naples (Italy)
      Stefano MolinaStefano Molina
      Senior Program Officer, Giovanni Agnelli Foundation, Italy
      our authors
    • N-IUSSP is a new IUSSP news magazine, which will disseminate scientific findings from demographic research carried out all over the world. The practical implications of current trends, the risks and potentialities of emerging situations, the pros and cons of specific laws are discussed in rigorous but plain language.

      Everybody is free to reproduce our articles, for free, provided the original source is cited.

      You are invited to contribute to this new publication: please check our guidelines and submit your 1000 word contribution to

Gender equality and fertility: is there a connection?
Égalité des sexes et fécondité: existe-t-il un lien?

Martin Kolk
Gender equality and fertility

In the last decades, researchers have suggested that gender equality may have a positive effect on fertility in high-income countries. While this conjecture appears to be true cross-sectionally, it does not seem to work longitudinally (same country over time), as Martin Kolk shows. There is still no clear understanding of what happens to fertility when countries move towards greater gender equality.

Demographers have long theorized that gender equality may be one of the determinants of fertility in both low- and high-income societies. In the 20th century, most researchers thought that as women got wider access to education and the labour market, more of them would choose to have few or no children (e.g., Lesthaeghe, 1995). Indeed, across the world in the 20th century, fertility was much higher in societies with low gender equality (Figure 1).

However, in the last decades this association has apparently switched to its opposite: among developed countries, fertility is now higher in societies with higher gender equality, such as Scandinavia (Figure 2). A few researchers have recently theorized that the relationship between gender equality and fertility is U-shaped: higher gender equality may reduce fertility at first, but eventually encourages it. This is explained by the fact that in post-industrial, high-income gender-egalitarian societies women do not have to choose between family and career, and family-friendly policies are more common (Esping-Andersen 2016, MacDonald 2000, Goldscheider, Bernhardt and Lappegård 2015). Such ideas are becoming widespread, not only in social science, but also in mainstream media such as the New York Times.

Greater gender equality leads to higher fertility. Does it really?

In a recent study (Kolk, 2019), I examined whether gender equality in a society is indeed related to fertility, but I tackled the issue from what I believe is a new perspective.

I tested this relationship by examining how fertility (TFR) has evolved with gender equality (female political empowerment) in 35 countries over the 20th century. Cross-sectionally, my findings did not differ from those of other scholars: since 2000, societies with greater gender equality have also had higher fertility (Figure 2).

However, I also checked whether the same pattern emerged when examining the relationship between fertility and gender equality over time within a country. And, contrary to much of the previous literature, I could not detect any such a pattern. It is true that when gender equality first increased, back in the 1960s and 1970s, fertility also fell, but later on I found no relationship between the evolution of gender equality and that of fertility. This conclusion (no relationship between the two trajectories of gender equality and fertility when gender equality is high) is robust: it is shown for each country descriptively in the article, and tested in a series of regression models shown in Figure 3.

While very low gender equality is usually associated with high fertility (likely because in such societies women are largely confined to the private sphere, i.e., they are primarily housewives and mothers), high gender equality may come in several different shapes, and the associated fertility may be low or (relatively) high. Of course, this may also depend on variables that are not controlled for by my measure of gender equality, such as the extent to which the cost of childrearing is socialized, for example through a generous family policy or subsidized public day care.

An open-ended story

My study is an example of a relatively common phenomenon in the social sciences: a pattern appears in cross-sectional analyses (different countries observed at the same point in time), but the same relationship does not emerge when studying a single country (or a group of countries) over time. In northwestern Europe, for instance, gender equality has improved massively in the last 50 years (as it has in most other countries in the world), but fertility has not increased.

This is not to say that the two variables are necessarily independent of each other; simply that their true connection is probably more complex than most observers, including demographers, tend to believe.


Esping-Andersen G. (2016). Families in the 21st century. Stockholm: SNS förlag.

Goldscheider F., Bernhardt E., Lappegård T. (2015). The gender revolution: A framework for understanding changing family and demographic behavior. Population and Development Review, 41(2): 207-239.

Kolk M. (2019) Weak support for a U-shaped pattern between societal gender equality and fertility when comparing societies across time. Demographic Research, 40: 27-48.

Lesthaeghe R. (1995). The second demographic transition in Western countries: an interpretation. In K.O. Mason and A.-M. Jensen (Eds.), Gender and family change in industrialized countries (pp. 17-62). Oxford: Clarendon Press.

McDonald P. (2000). Gender equity in theories of fertility transition. Population and development review, 26(3): 427-439



By continuing to use the site, you agree to the use of cookies. more information

The cookie settings on this website are set to "allow cookies" to give you the best browsing experience possible. If you continue to use this website without changing your cookie settings or you click "Accept" below then you are consenting to this.