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  • In Norway, both father engagement and gender equality boosted fertility, but father engagement had a stronger effect, per a new study. Tweet This
  • While feminism and/or gender equality have been heralded as the new natalism, new research suggests that promoting father involvement can support fertility even when it does not achieve gender equality. Tweet This

Nordic countries are frequently showcased as role models of what can go right when generous family policy and gender egalitarianism come together. Nordic countries have higher fertility than less generous states (e.g., Poland) or than countries that privilege the male-breadwinner/female-homemaker model either in their laws (e.g., Germany) or through their norms (e.g., Italy, Japan). National policy makers care because replacement fertility helps sustain elderly support and a productive workforce.

While there is general agreement that involved fathers can make a difference between one-child families and larger families, there is less clarity on what specifically about father involvement makes a difference for fertility decisions. Recent research on Norway by Trude Lappegård and Tom Kornstad adds to what we know about fathers and fertility decisions in two ways: 1) it clarifies that societal norms supporting involved fathers—not just the behavior of individual men—support fertility, and 2) it shows that father engagement matters more than gender equality, per se, to fertility decisions.

The first of these findings is really no surprise. We already know, for instance, that social norms about healthy eating have been shown to positively affect food choices, so it makes sense that living in places with lots of involved fathers would incline men toward fatherhood. The fact that this finding seems straightforward should not discount its importance, though: Lappegård and Kornstad provided evidence that policy changing the actual use of paternal leave can be expected to have multiplicative effects through social influence. For example, if a father is induced to take family leave after his baby is born because the state offers paid leave that would otherwise be “left on the table,” his action could matter in the lives of his neighbors. In particular, his female neighbor might have fewer reservations about becoming pregnant because she lives in a place where other mothers have not had to manage the home shift alone, and her male partner would be less likely to resist domestic tasks because they have become less rigidly feminine in his community.

The Norweigian context for Lappegård and Kornstad’s work matters because when men take available unpaid family leave, some employers view them as less dedicated workers. In contrast, employers don’t seem to judge men who take use-it-or-lose it paid family leave. A “father’s quota” in paid family leave policy is foreign to Americans, but Norway has provided paid family leave that cannot be transferred from fathers to mothers for more than a quarter of a century. Apparently, being a rational decision maker—not leaving a state benefit on the table—doesn’t violate workplace norms to the same extent as being an unpaid family man does.

Nonetheless, even in Norway, some men don’t make use of their full “father’s quota.” There are widely varied individual work and domestic situations, as well as a wide range of individual orientations toward both workism and famililism. Lappegård and Kornstad used spatial variation across over 400 Norweigian municipalities to show that men’s individual leave-taking after the birth of a first child increased the chance of having a second child (involved fatherhood mattered for fertility at the couple level), and that mothers were more likely to give birth a second time in municipalities where more men took at least some paid family leave (involved fatherhood, proxied by the proportion using the father’s quota, mattered for fertility at the community level).

Thus, their work moves beyond other research showing that individual women whose partners leaned in on the homefront want more children. They connect enough dots to make a strong case that a paid father’s quota changes social norms enough to increase the proportion of women proceeding from the first to the second birth. The proportion proceeding to the second birth is a critical determinant of overall fertility rates—far more important than either rates of childlessness or prevalence of large families in today’s low fertility countries.

In addition, Lappegård and Kornstad showed that clearing a bar far lower than gender equality in domestic work can boost fertility. They tested both the effects of making use of the father’s quota at all (which they called “father engagement”) and the amount of leave fathers took relative to mothers (which they called “gender equality”). These both measure “father involvement,” but one is an absolute measure and the other is relative to mothers (as measured by leave-taking, which is an imperfect, yet reasonable proxy). 

Both father engagement and gender equality boosted fertility in this study, but father engagement had a stronger effect. The authors explained that father engagement was enough to shift social norms. They went on to stress that whether the average father takes any leave at all matters more than the actual proportion of fathers taking leave (getting to 50% engaged makes a bigger difference in birth rates than moving from 60 to 90% engaged). They concluded that a social norm of father involvement was more important than how much fathers were involved.

Thus, while feminism and/or gender equality have been heralded as the new natalism, this new research suggests that promoting father involvement can support fertility even when it does not achieve gender equality (family leave wasn’t equally shared in any Norwegian municipality). Lappegård and Kornstad conclude: “For societies that are concerned about low fertility, policies that encourage father involvement could be a valuable investment.” This seems very consistent with the idea that familism is the new natalism.

Laurie DeRose is a senior fellow at the Institute for Family Studies, Assistant Professor of Sociology at the Catholic University of America, and Director of Research for the World Family Map Project.