Gender Equality and Fertility

In the Nordic countries, women enjoy a high degree of participation in working life while at the same time giving birth to a relatively large number of children. This is often interpreted as indicating that the Nordic family policy model has high sustainability with respect to equal opportunities policy. With fertility rates close to the reproduction level, the Nordic countries are better prepared than most other western countries to meet the demographic challenges associated with low population growth and a rapidly aging population. More detailed analyses of the development of fertility patterns provide only conditional support for this assumption. There are signs that a higher level of acceptance of equally shared parenthood is also necessary in order to maintain a sustainable level of fertility.

From the early 1960s to the early 1970s, all the Nordic countries experienced a demographic “gear change” from early to delayed first births. Rates of first birth have fallen sharply among young women under 30 years old and increased markedly among women in the 30-44 year age group. This change in birth patterns has had considerable effects on period fertility. There are three clear phases showing major similarities in development among the Nordic countries: First, sharply falling fertility rates up to a turning point in the middle of the 1980s. After that there were rising rates throughout the second half of the 1980s, followed by more stable and relatively high fertility rates just below the reproduction level throughout the 1990s. Sweden and Iceland show the greatest divergence from this main pattern. Sweden has experienced much more pronounced variations in period fertility than the other countries, while Iceland has shown a significantly higher fertility rate than the other countries throughout the period. From the end of the 1990s we see a marked convergence in fertility trends among the Nordic countries.

Small Differences

At the beginning of the 2000s there are small variations in fertility level among the countries, whether we consider period fertility (Figure 1) or cohort fertility (Figure 2). The trend in the direction of a common fertility level is even more pronounced for cohort fertility than for period fertility. The development in fertility after the “gear change” shows clear common characteristics, with effective recuperation of delayed births later in life. The rather large differences between countries in the average number of children for the cohorts of women born in the early 1940s have given way to significantly smaller differences for the cohorts born early in the 1960s. Icelandic women show the highest average and are still well above the reproduction level for the 1963 cohort (2.4 children). Behind them come Norwegian women, who are at about the reproduction level (2.1), while women in the remaining countries are below the reproduction level, with about 2.0 children in Sweden and 1.9 in Finland and Denmark.

Variations in Development


However, more detailed analyses of the fertility pattern show a good deal of variation in the development towards relatively equal cohort fertility in the four countries covered by the analyses. The first birth rates and the proportion of childless women have shown a generally similar development, but some variations are notable. The postponement of first births started first and was most pronounced in Finland. In the cohorts born in 1965-69, Finland still showed the highest median age for the first childbirth (29 years). Finland also has the highest number of childless women (17 per cent) at 40 years of age. Norway represents the other extreme, with the latest start of the delayed first birth process, the lowest median age (26.5 years) and the lowest proportion of childless women (12 per cent). The trend towards similar childbirth patterns is most pronounced among women with higher education. In the birth cohorts from the early 1960s, variations in childlessness according to country for women with higher education are very small (about 15 per cent in Denmark, Norway and Sweden and just under 17 per cent in Finland).

Greater Variations for Second and Third Births


With regard to the trend in birth rates for the second and third child, the variations between countries have been greater. The most important reason for this is the considerable variations in Swedish second and third birth rates from the end of the 1970s to the end of the 1990s. However, towards the end of the analysis period we see a clear convergence between the countries also with regard to the level of second-birth rates, and a more bifurcated pattern in the level of third birth rates. Finland and Norway show the highest third birth rates throughout the 1990s and have remained consistently close to each other in the entire period. Denmark’s third birth rates have also been stable throughout the 1990s, but at a significantly lower level. For its part, Sweden showed the highest rate of third child births in the 1980s and the lowest throughout the 1990s. However, as a result of the rising Swedish rate of third births after the mid 1990s, Sweden and Denmark are at approximately the same level at the beginning of the 2000s.

The Effects of the “Nordic Model”


A distinction must be made between the direct effects of changes and differences in welfare systems and family policy regulations and the indirect effects of an economic, social and political development with characteristics clearly common to the Nordic countries. We assume that the significant similarities in the development of the childbirth pattern can to a large extent be ascribed to such fundamental common characteristics in the development of the welfare state, among other things the early assumption of the right to education for women and an increasing emphasis on the introduction of family policy schemes in the post-war period, with possibilities for combining paid employment with child raising.

Essential demographic terms


Total fertility rate (SFT):

A measure of the fertility level adjusted for age, in a country in any given year. Sometimes also referred to as the period fertility level. SFT shows the average number of children a class (born in the same year) of women will have if their birth pattern over their lifetime corresponds to the birth rates for the individual age groups of women in the same year.


Cohort fertility:

The average number of children a given birth cohort (born in the same year) of women at the end of their childbearing age (49 years of age). The birth rates of women in the age group 40-45 years has been stable at a relatively low level over recent decades. The average number of children at the age of 40 therefore gives a good indication of the final level of cohort fertility level for women born in that same year.


Reproduction level:

An estimated figure showing the average number of children that women born in the same year have to have in order to maintain a constant population size, see also e.g. Brunborg and Mamelund (1994), pp. 14-15 for a more exact definition. The figure is influenced by the infant mortality rates and death rates for women of childbearing age. Due to low mortality rates the reproduction level has remained stable at just under 2.1 children per woman in all the Nordic countries in recent decades.


Median age

– e.g. for the first birth for a given class (born in the same year) of women: The age by which half of the women of that year group had had their first child.


First, second and third birth rates

show the trends for different parities, that is the sequence of births (first child, second child, etc.). The “first birth” rates for a given year are estimated for example as the number of women who had their first child that year, divided by the number of women who still had no children at the start of the year. The “second birth” rates is the number of women who had their second child, divided by the number of women who had one child at the start of the year.


We interpret the convergence in cohort fertility and the trend towards a more similar childbirth pattern for women with higher education as indicators that these indirect consequences are an important element of the effect of the “Nordic Model”.

The Contraceptive Pill


The direct consequences of family policy schemes are most easily identified in the case of schemes which show variation and differences between the countries with regard to regulations and the time at which initiatives and regulations are introduced. For example, differences from country to country in the time of transition to delayed first birth can be associated with differences in when those countries made the new, self-administered contraception technology (contraceptive pills and IUDs) available to women. Finland was the first country to make the contraceptive pill generally available, in 1961, and Norway was the last, in 1967.

The Swedish “Speed Premium” (Repeated Pregnancy Benefit)


There is also clear evidence that the sharp increase in Swedish second and third child birth rates in the 1980s can to a large extent be ascribed to the effect of the so-called “speed premium”2 in the parental leave scheme introduced in Sweden in 1980 and expanded in 1986. At the same time it should be stressed that the cohort fertility has remained very stable in Sweden throughout the period, so this periodic increase in fertility in the 1980s has not resulted in an increase in cohort fertility. Even so, it is not impossible that the speed premium has contributed to keeping Swedish cohort fertility at a higher level than it would have been at without such incentives. Sweden is also a good example of how good general conditions in family policy cannot on their own maintain a high fertility level when the economic situation worsens. The fall in fertility in the 1990s is associated with a sharp increase in unemployment which particularly affected young people with only elementary education.

Finnish Homecare Allowance


The trend in the birth rate pattern in Finland, which was also affected by unfavourable economic conditions early in the 1990s, is in contrast to the development seen in Sweden. Unemployment in Finland was significantly higher than in Sweden, but the effects on second and first birth rates in the period were significantly smaller. Analyses of developments in Finland indicate that the Finnish homecare allowance3 scheme may have had a positive effect on the development of Finnish third birth rates and contributed to the increase in Finnish cohort fertility towards the end of the 1990s. At the same time, the development of Finnish birth rates indicates that economic conditions in Finland may also be one of the reasons why Finnish women have not compensated after the age of 30 for delayed childbirths to the same extent as women in the other countries.

Norwegian Transitional Benefit


A third distinctive feature of developents in fertility is the higher incidence of early births among women with elementary education in Norway. This must be seen in the context of the fact that Norway, by providing entitlement to transitional benefit4 from the National Insurance, gives more secure financial support to single parents than in the other Nordic countries, where corresponding benefits are generally associated with the unemployment benefit and social security system. There is reason to believe that this scheme may have been of significance in maintaining the higher level of early first births in Norway, especially early in the 1990s when Norway had a period of relatively high unemployment among young people. The increase in unemployment had little effect on Norwegian first birth rates.

How sustainable is the Nordic model?


In broader international comparisons the Nordic combination of high participation of women in paid employment and relatively high fertility rates is often interpreted as indicating that the Nordic family policy model has high sustainability with respect to equal opportunities policy. Lower numbers of childless women with higher education have also been emphasised as an important indicator with respect to the sustainability of equal opportunities policy. With cohort fertility rates close to the reproduction level, the Nordic countries are better prepared than most other western countries to meet the demographic challenges associated with low population growth and a rapidly aging population. More detailed analyses of the development of fertility patterns provide only conditional support for the assumption that current family policy schemes are capable of combining a sustainable fertility trend with a sustainable development in the direction of equally shared parenthood.

The Gender Equality Deficit


There are many elements of uncertainty in fertility trends in relation to sustainable population development. These are associated particularly with the increasing proportion of childless women and the falling cohort fertility in younger generations of women. All of the countries face a development where the increase in birth rates after the age of 30 does not compensate fully for the reduced fertility in the age groups before 30 years.


True, the Nordic development shows that a family policy which aims for a combination of career and childcare is a necessary condition and an important foundation for the relatively high fertility rate in the Nordic countries. Having said that, however, the actual development in the fertility pattern shows that the expression gender equality deficit can be a justifiable description of the development trends for young people of today and for coming generations.


An important trend is the increasing diversity in the fertility pattern among the younger generations of today. Norway and Sweden, for example, have higher cohort fertility than Finland and Denmark, but are also characterised by more gender-segregated labour markets and higher proportions of women in part-time jobs. The growing diversity in fertility trends within the cohorts can be associated with variations in fertility behaviour among women in different sectors of the labour market. So far, the positive fertility-related response to generous family political schemes among those with higher education has had consequences particularly among women trained for female-dominated occupations in the public sector. In these professions, there is a high proportion of mothers with reduced working hours, which tends to indicate limited equality with regard to work-sharing between parents.


Other factors which indicate a gender equality deficit are the increase in the proportion of childless women with higher education and the marked increase in the number of men without children. This may indicate that women with higher education experience difficulty in finding men who satisfy the requirements and expectations they have of men as partners and involved parents. Women who wish to combine the parental role with a professional career outside the more protected areas of the labour market will be dependent on a partner who is available and shares parental responsibilities to a higher degree than we see among couples who practise only limited equal opportunity.

Motivation for Equally Shared Parenthood


In recent generations the number of women with higher education has increased more rapidly than that of men with higher education, which probably implies an increase in the number who stress equally shared parenthood as an important condition for having children. The pronounced increase in childlessness among Norwegian men and the increased recirculation of resourceful men to renewed fatherhood in the younger generations seems to indicate increased competition for men on the “top shelf ”.


The development of the fertility pattern suggests that it is necessary to increase the understanding of men and their employers of the necessity of both parents, as well as the public and private sectors, sharing responsibility for social reproduction. The Nordic family policy model faces major challenges with regard to motivating men and their employers to show more support for, and become more extensively involved in, family policy schemes which promote equally shared parenthood.

1) Mothers can retain the same benefits from one parental leave to the next without returning to work, provided that the next child is born within 30 months (24 months before 1986).

2) The Finnish cash benefit scheme gives parents with small children the option of a cash payment for a limited time or a place in a municipal day-care centre. The scheme was introduced at the end of the 1980s and was fully implemented in 1990. See Rønsen (2004) for a detailed description of this scheme.

3) The benefit is in the form of a guaranteed minimum income for single parents who qualify for benefits (means tested according to the income of the single parent). The scheme was modified in 1998. See, for example, Kjeldstad and Skevik (2004) for a more detailed description of the scheme and the modifications in 1998.


This article is based on the research project, “Family policies, fertility trends and family changes in the Nordic countries: How sustainable is the “Nordic model” of family welfare?”. This is a network project which co-ordinates ongoing research into the development of fertility in Denmark, Finland, Norway and Sweden on the basis of recorded data from these countries. The results of the project has also been presented in an expanded version of the article in Statistics Norway’s periodical “Samfunnspeilet”No. 2/2006. Reference should also be made to the more thorough analysis in Rønsen and Skrede (2006).’

By Kari Skrede and Marit Rønsen

First published in NIKK magasin 3 2006 © NIKK

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