Gender Equity and Low Fertility in Postindustrial Societies

May 17, 2016
Mary Brinton stands in front of a building on Harvard's Cambridge campus.

Progress towards gender equality was substantial on many fronts in the decades leading up to the 1990s. Since then, movement towards gender equality has slowed. The gender wage gap has narrowed at a slower pace in the past 20 years, and the same can be said for occupational sex segregation. Postindustrial societies show variation in these patterns and in the consequences that ensue. 

My work examines the normative and institutional causes of gender inequality in a comparative framework, and the relationship between gender inequality and demographic outcomes such as late marriage and low birth rates. In a forthcoming AJS paper with Carly Knight, I show that while the prevalence of the traditional male-breadwinner ideology has sharply declined in European countries over the past two decades, there is not a straightforward movement towards liberal egalitarianism. Instead, two other types of gender-role ideology have increased in some countries, representing ideologies privileging women’s “choice” of combining parenthood and work or, alternatively, privileging the importance of family above gender equality. In a forthcoming paper in Population and Development Review with Dong Ju Lee, I show that these gender-role ideologies interact with labor market structure and the amount of state support for dual-earner families to either depress or support family formation. This finding is complemented by another line of work that is mixed-methods but primarily qualitative:  a five-country comparative study of gender inequality, marriage, and fertility based largely on in-depth interviews with young men and women in their late twenties and early thirties. This project is described in greater depth at

Together with Claudia Goldin, Sasha Killewald, Jason Beckfield, Kathleen McGinn, and Iris Bohnet, I am also developing a network of students and professors at Harvard who work on issues related to comparative gender inequality. This project (WIGi) is funded by the Weatherhead Center and is described at . This spring, the WIGi group began funding research proposals by undergraduate and graduate students, and awarded semester-long stipend fellowships to three graduate students. Funding of research projects and activities will continue over the next two years.