It has been a really long time since I commented on any social phenomenon at all but reading through my Human Geography materials has forced me to develop some viewpoints about social issues I normally wouldn’t bother. The idea I was introduced to is about the ‘Equal Emancipation’ of women at both the level of the society and education. In one of Janadas Devan’s columns in The Straits Times a few years back (yea, we use newspaper articles across a range of years as materials for our study of population), he described the phenomenon of a seeming direct and proportional relationship between female participation in the workforce and fertility. Comparing figures between countries like Sweden and Spain, one realised that Sweden has a fertility rate above 1.5 while Spain’s fertility is below 1.5 while Sweden’s female participation in workforce is significantly higher than in Spain.
Such a counterintuitive observation is explained by the inequality in emancipation of females in education and society at large. In countries such as Italy and Spain, female enjoy same education levels as their counterparts in the other developed nation but generally enjoy lower status in the society. Experts believes that the inequality that the females in this more chauvinistic societies led them to go on a ‘womb-strike’ because child-bearing is seen as a form of adherence the traditional perceptions of women (which is that of lower status) and as these society is less understanding of the woes of working mothers, they enjoy less accommodation/encouragement by the employers – this would mean that it was harder for mothers to rise in the corporate ladders. This made females more determined not to give birth while they are into their career, dragging the total fertility rate with it. On the other hand, in the Nordic states like Sweden, with their strong support for working women, not only has social equality for females but also tailor policies to ensure that females do not lose their advantage in the corporate settings because of their family ‘responsibility’ of child-bearing. Excellent child-care services further relieve the burden of working mothers and reduces their worries linked to child-bearing. Father’s responsibility in child-care is also emphasized and there’s a mandatory paternal leave period.
In contrast, expectations of females to stay at home to care of the children without the husband’s aid in the family chores in the male-dominated societies of Spain and Japan pushes females who are working to stay childless. There’s is thus a very complex relationship between socio-economic development and fertility. While traditional theories that suggest that socio-economic advancements necessitates rising cost of child rearing and naturally leads to falling fertility rates, there is a bottom to this because cost factors is not the only concern of parents. The attitudes towards childbearing and the motivations involved have to be considered. While emancipation of women and the increasing proportion of working women has been singled out as factors causing the fall in fertility, we now realise that these factors only reduce fertility to particular extents and further reduction can be attributed to problems pointed out in this entry – the unequal emancipation (in terms of mindset of society at large and the females themselves).
In understanding of such a social phenomenon, there are policy prescriptions that can be applied to Singapore. Singapore must seek to ensure greater equality for females (a good start is to lift any gender quota in anything – study of medicine in particular) and churn out policies that would aid working mothers with balancing their duties. While we already have programmes promoting family bonding and highlighting importance of families, the campaigns that restructure social mindsets (trust me, our government can work this out) to recognize the importance of father’s role in the family would help give females greater opportunities outside the family. If the mindset now is such that forming families restrict their opportunities and makes it harder for them to compete in the society, then it must be changed. Financial incentives such as grants and tax rebates would remain important in encouraging birth but in long run, attitudes must be changed. In the past, the reduction of family size became successful because the two-child norm was successfully erected, this time, the justification for bearing children is weak and we tried playing on ideas of family and patriotism. It turned out that it wasn’t the justification for childbearing that our people need, but the social environment that is friendly to females bearing children and corporate settings that do not discriminate against mothers (or fathers who now must share the responsibility of child-rearing for that matter).
Of course, I am not saying that this unequal emancipation is the sole cause or the root of the fertility problem but it can have significant impacts on the effects of policies and long term fertility trends. Economic growth stands out as another important factor as affluence encourage people to believe in their ability to raise a child; moreover, parents would very much like to give birth in an environment they believe to be good for their children and would contribute to their success.