• 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, Department of Social and Political Sciences, Bocconi University. • Personal webpage • francesco.billari(at)
      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 - Department of Statistical Sciences - University of Padova • Personal webpage ml.tanturri(at)
      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
      Università di Bologna.
      Salvatore StrozzaSalvatore Strozza
      Professor of Demography, University Federico II, Naples (Italy)
      Stefano MolinaStefano Molina
      Senior Program Officer, Giovanni Agnelli Foundation, Italy
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    • 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.

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Does childrearing affect women’s economic opportunities?
La présence d’enfants réduit-elle les perspectives économiques des femmes ?

John Bongaarts, Ann K. Blanc, Katharine J. McCarthy

As fertility declines in low- and middle-income countries, the time women devote to childrearing may also be reduced, opening up possibilities for women to pursue educational and employment opportunities. John Bongaarts, Ann K. Blanc and Katharine McCarthy analyze data from 58 low- and middle-income countries and show that the more children women have living at home, the less likely they are to be employed.

Would improving women’s ability to control their reproductive lives in low- and middle-income countries (LMIC) positively transform the global economy, or at the very least boost women’s economic empowerment?

The intuitive answer from any working mother is likely to be a resounding “yes,” and there is indeed evidence from high-income countries showing that as fertility declines, women are able to pursue educational and employment opportunities previously constrained by the demands of bearing and raising children. However, the answer to this long-pursued question is less clear for low- and middle-income countries where potentially large-scale implications for investments in health and development programs exist (Lee and Finlay 2017). Economic growth and development are enhanced if all members of the working-age population can contribute their potential.

We investigated the relationship between women’s employment (work for cash or in-kind payment) and assessed its relationship with the number of children living with them at home, using DHS survey data from 58 low- and middle-income countries (Bongaarts et al. 2019).

The findings show that, across these countries, the average number of children that women have living at home has declined in all regions of the developing world over the last few decades, although there has been the least amount of change in sub-Saharan Africa (Figure 1). We examined Southern Africa separately from the rest of sub-Saharan Africa due to its distinctively low levels of co-residence of children with their mothers. These downward trends are consistent with fertility declines throughout much of the developing world in recent decades.

Over the same period (roughly 1994-2012), female employment rates changed relatively little, but large and persistent regional differences exist (Figure 2). The lowest levels of female employment are seen in the Middle-East/North Africa while the highest are in sub-Saharan Africa. 

More children at home = less employment for women

The study found a consistent negative association between women’s employment and having children at home, meaning that across all regions, the more children women have at home the less likely they are to be employed. In fact, for every one additional child (ages 0-17) living at home, there was an average estimated 10% decrease in the proportion of women employed. It is also notable that regional levels of employment vary widely for a given number of children at home (see Figure 3). Most sub-Saharan African countries have substantially higher levels of employment on average than countries in Asia, Latin America, and Southern Africa, even with similar numbers of children residing at home. Employment among women is lowest in the Middle East and North Africa, regardless of the number of children living at home.

While the magnitude of the association varies substantially by region, its negative sign is evident in all of these disparate contexts, with both high and low levels of female employment. Simply put, the more children they have living with them, the less likely women are to be employed. And the negative effect is greatest for younger children and for women in ‘modern’ occupations, such as professional and managerial positions.

While having children at home makes it more difficult for women to work, those who want or need to work may also choose to have fewer children. Women and their families are likely to make decisions about work and children multiple times throughout their lives as their circumstances change. However, the number of children may have little to do with employment if work is needed for subsistence, as is often the case among the poorest women. To account for this complexity in a statistical analysis would require the kind of detailed data that are rarely collected in LMIC settings.

Reproductive choice and economic opportunity

Childcare is still mostly women’s responsibility in most places and children are more likely to live with their mothers than their fathers, including in developed nations. Women provide the majority of childcare and elder care , a type of work which is largely uncounted in labor statistics (Chopra 2015) and which is generally characterized by low or no pay and lack of social protection (ILO 2016). At the same time, the standards and practices of childcare differ among societies. For example, in some countries, it is not only commonplace but generally accepted that a mother can bring her young child to work with her, particularly if she is a market trader or an agricultural worker. In others, women in paid employment typically leave their children in the care of others.

The strength and nature of the labor market for women also plays a role in the extent to which childbearing and childrearing affect women’s employment. Gender inequalities in opportunity, the lack of gender considerations in economic policies, and discrimination in remuneration are all important factors.

Access to reproductive choice via the use of family planning opens up a new world of possibility for women. Without the ability to control their own fertility, women are limited in their opportunity to participate in the labor force, to fulfill their potential, and to contribute to their own economic well-being and that of their households, families, and communities (McCauley 1994; McNay 2005).

The ability to determine their own reproductive future is of paramount importance for women, but it does not address broader, structural issues that limit women’s economic empowerment. If we hope to harness the economic contributions of the entire population, women must be able to contribute meaningfully. When the dual roles of mother and worker are incompatible, women’s choices around having children and contributing economically are both constrained. This means that families, governments, and societies need to take steps to reduce the multiple barriers to women’s full participation in the economy.


Bongaarts, John, Ann K. Blanc & Katharine J. McCarthy (2019) The links between women’s employment and children at home: Variations in low- and middle-income countries by world region, Population Studies, 73:2, 149-163, DOI: 10.1080/00324728.2019.1581896

Chopra, D. (2015). Balancing Paid Work and Unpaid Care Work to Achieve Women’s Economic Empowerment. IDS Policy Briefing No. 83, Brighton: Institute of Development Studies (IDS).

International Labor Organization (ILO) (2016) Women at Work: Trends 2016. Geneva. doi:10.1038/443131a

Lee, M. and J. Finlay (2017). The Effect of Reproductive Health Improvements on Women’s Economic Empowerment: A Review Through the Population and Poverty (POPPOV) Lens. Washington, DC: Population and Poverty Research Initiative and Population Reference Bureau.

McCauley, A. P., B. Robey, A. K. Blanc, and J. S. Geller. (1994) Opportunities for women through reproductive choice. Population Reports 12: 1-39.

McNay, K. (2005) The implications of the demographic transition for women, girls and gender equality: A review of developing country evidence, Progress in Development Studies5(2): 115-134. doi: 10.1191/1464993405ps109oa


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