Why are men absent from fertility theories?

Five years ago, I wrote a paper (pdf) critiquing the idea that HECS contributed to childlessness among female graduates.

Though my conclusion of no effect was supported by an article in the Journal of Population Research last year, using the HILDA survey which has a question on student debt, one of my main theories as to why female graduates have a low average number of children continues to be largely overlooked – and surprisingly so, I think.

My theory turns on the admittedly (and this is why it is surprising) rather obvious point that, despite advances in reproductive medicine, babies are more likely to be born if there is a man in the house, and one likely to stick around long enough to help raise the child. I reported data based on the 1996 census showing that married women in the professional jobs that graduates normally aspire to actually had near-replacement fertility levels. It was the large number of unmarried and childless women pushing down the average.

Unfortunately the marriage factor has been a blind spot in subsequent research that I have seen on this topic. In the Journal of Population Research article they controlled for half a dozen variables, but not whether or not there was a potential father. My suggestion that perhaps one solution to low fertility among female graduates was improved education for boys, to improve the dating market for educated women, was reported as ‘perhaps tongue in cheek’.

Another otherwise interesting paper on graduate childlessness, published this week by NATSEM, looking not just at graduates in general but by field of study and occupation, mentions marriage only in passing, focusing instead on the career circumstances of women.

The NATSEM paper finds that childlessness increased among women aged 30-39 in professional jobs between 1996 and 2006, though not by as much as women in other occupations.

Though it provides no numbers on children born, a People and Place article by Genevieve Heard on marriage and partnerships gives us a good idea of what might explain the findings of the NATSEM survey (both papers use the same census data source).

Between 1996 and 2006 the proportion of female graduates who were married declined in all age groups, but except in the 25-29 year old group not by nearly as much as women with other qualifications. That’s consistent with the childlessness pattern reported by NATSEM. A rise in de facto relationships means that for graduate women their overall partnered rate has increased slightly, but this less stable arrangement is not as conducive an environment to a 20-year childrearing commitment as marriage itself.

I’m not sure why marriage doesn’t get more attention in this literature. Perhaps the left-leaning politics of most social scientists has steered them towards explanations to do with career obstacles for women, rather the role of men in making babies and bringing up children.

17 thoughts on “Why are men absent from fertility theories?

  1. You’re angling for another Ernie Award aren’t you? 🙂
    Didn’t Pete Saunders have an op-ed on this a while ago?


  2. People love looking at that sort of stuff where I work — and I can tell you the answer is partly practical. If you did a study looking at attitudes to marriage, children or something similar to that, and didn’t go out and specifically find people, you would get around ten times as many females responding as males, and it is therefore likely your males would not be at all representative (hence the male data would be essentially unpublishable). You therefore end up knowing all about females attitudes (etc.) to marriage and kids but not males — which is problematic if there are dissociations, which there are sure to be.

    The other problem that is fairly obvious to me (which I can’t substantiate with empirical evidence right now), is that the majority of people that do work in this area are females (especially graduate students, who tend to look at the specific things rather than just the more general “mega” surveys), and they seem to inevitably look at things to do with mothers and not fathers.


  3. Conrad – The Journal of Population Research had some attitudinal variables, but most of this work is inference from observed sociological variables, which in these cases comes from sources (the census and HILDA) which are high quality. Married/not married would seem to me a far more important variable to look at than city/country, which both these studies examine.


  4. Maybe not Pete. I seem to recall an op-ed in the last while that talks about marriage and/or husbands in this context.


  5. Ah yes, Pete’s late career change to art critic. Though I think artists are rather freer to leave men out of the (literal) picture than social scientists seeking to explain reproductive behaviour.


  6. I agree with your point Andrew, I think the male absence from fertility theories is like the curious incident of the dog in the night. I attribute it to a combination of the exclusory politics of feminism in framing the parameters of the studies and of the practitioners of the studies, and the general self exclusion of men both in the theory and practice of forming families.


  7. Are men really absent from fertility theories?

    I certainly haven’t read them all (!), but a quick scan of
    the Google on “fertility, demography, men” gives about 1,770,000 results. (0.25 seconds) and suggests that people have looked at this, but obviously if you were looking at the HECS angle, you’d get a lot less material.


  8. Yes, my heading was broader than my post. But surely it is pretty surprising that people can write articles about how many babies women have and why without focusing on their relationship situation.


  9. Andrew, The effects of ‘age-at-marriage’ on fertility have been known about for over a century – the increases in ‘age-of-marriage’ among the Irish in the 19th century produced big declines in fertility.

    Not having a randy male in your bed reduces a woman’s chance of getting up the duff. It’s well known and by no means an oversight.


  10. Harry – That something is well known is no excuse not to mention it. That female graduates have fewer children was correctly predicted in the 19th century – it was one of the arguments against letting women into university – but we still write articles about it.


  11. There are some fairly interesting studies of the effects of the high incarceration rate for black males in the US on black females, including an examination of the number of child effects. My recollection is that the results were that the women were less likely to marry, but not less likely to have kids (but don’t quote me on that – last I looked at a paper on this was a year ago).


  12. There are some interesting comments here. I acknowledge the invisibility of men in theories of low fertility, and current research I am undertaking is seeking to address this deficiency. The day this blog began, I presented a paper at a national population conference dealing with this very issue.
    The paper can be found here.


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