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Reader riposte: Prosperity depends on women

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This post is part of the Women and the foreign policy commentariat debate thread. To read other posts in this debate, click here.

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7 September 2011 12:18


This post is part of the Women and the foreign policy commentariat debate thread. To read other posts in this debate, click here.

Jess Hodder writes:

Your debate on women and the foreign policy commentariat inspired me to write a post on the Security Scholar blog calling for gender issues to be addressed more seriously. In my opinion, female underrepresentation in influential fields such as foreign policy is far from the only problem caused by social attitudes towards women and their role in society.

In 2010, The Economist dedicated an issue to 'Gendercide: the worldwide war on baby girls'. It graphically discussed the well-known problem of female infanticide and sex-selective abortion in China, often seen to be a direct consequence of the one-child policy, however it placed this phenomenon in the context of similar trends in north-west India, South Korea, parts of the former Soviet Union and in the Chinese diaspora, which it says are the result of traditional preferences for sons combining with the desire for smaller families and being facilitated by the greater availability of pre-natal screening. The skewed sex ratios that result have the potential to cause considerable political instability as the number of men unable to find wives in traditional family-centred societies inexorably rises.

Developed Western societies aren't just missing female babies, but male ones too. Western empowered women are now choosing to have fewer children and delay childbearing, often until past the peak of their fertility when their ability to fall pregnant declines rapidly. The demographic result is a national fertility rate of less than 2.1 (rate of replacement in developed countries). Low national fertility is being compensated for by immigration across most of the OECD, with Japan as the notable exception. Reliance on immigration is exacerbated by the other consequence of the decline in fertility rates, the aging of the population.

While population aging usually has more to do with declining mortality than declining fertility, although there are notable exceptions, countries where fertility rates dropped precipitously will experience similarly accelerated population aging. The most significant of these is China, whose population is aging so rapidly it is predicted to have a significant effect on long term growth potential and prospects for political stability. Chinese leaders will eventually need to stabilise the population, or at least slow the decline to a less damaging pace, however the situation in Taiwan, Japan, Hong Kong and Singapore (see rank order) makes clear that ending the one-child policy will probably not be enough.

Economically empowered Asian women are rejecting or delaying marriage because social values associated with family have failed to keep up with economic reality. Traditionally, wives were expected to devote themselves to the care of their husbands, children and elderly relatives, making it virtually impossible to continue to pursue a career. Until marriage and childbearing becomes a more attractive prospect, empowered women will continue to avoid them, in the East as in the West, with destructive long term economic and social consequences.

Social attitudes are difficult, not impossible to change. The successes of feminism in changing the law and raising awareness have slowly altered social attitudes in many countries, but more needs to be done, especially to promote gender equality in the home. Instituting compulsory home economics for all school students would probably have a positive impact on the division of household labour (thereby making marriage more attractive to women), and increasing choice and availability of quality affordable child care has been shown to be one of the best ways to support career minded women realise their plans to have children. For instance, a recent OECD report on government policies to support families emphasises childcare provision in a number of its recommendations.

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