Such inequality is hardly unique to the United States, however. In the following Q&A, Mary Brinton—sociology professor at Harvard University—answered a few questions about how the United States compares to other postindustrial countries on gender inequality, as well as how gender equality can help solve declining birth rates.
Q: What do you think is the biggest obstacle for gender equality in the workplace today?
It is important to incorporate men into the theoretical framework. Let’s talk about how workplaces need to adapt to the “whole person,” both women and men.
There is not a problem with female achievement. Women have caught up with men in terms of education. In fact, in the United States and a number of other countries, women now actually surpass men in educational achievement.
The problem arises when young adults try to balance work and family, and women end up carrying nearly all of the caregiving responsibilities.
If women put many more hours into these household activities than men, this greatly disadvantages women in the workplace. It is unrealistic to expect gender equality if workplaces demand that women be available all the time.
Q: Your research focuses on declining fertility rates in postindustrial countries. How do fertility rates connect with gender equality in the workplace?
A fertility rate—meaning birth rate—of 2.1 is necessary for a country to naturally replace its population. Since the 1980s, fertility rates have steadily declined around the world. In the United States, the fertility rate is 1.9. In Southern Europe and East Asia, rates are now below 1.3.
In Japan, for example, entrenched attitudes about women in the workforce and as mothers are likely contributing to the low birth rate. The cultural emphasis on being the ideal mother, along with a corporate culture that demands long work hours, makes motherhood very difficult for women with careers.
It’s interesting to note that the countries with high female labor force participation rates tend to have higher birth rates. The postindustrial countries that have made it possible for women (and men) to balance work and family typically have replacement-level birth rates. Increased gender equality—both in the workplace and at home—is an important part of the solution to declining birth rates.
Q: In your research on Japan, you describe a “demographic time bomb.” What is this?
Japanese women are getting more education and want to have a career. But within the home, gender equality is not on pace with workforce equality. Woman end up doing a “second shift” of housework and childcare when they return home from work. The result is that many women are waiting longer to get into a partnership. They are choosing, instead, to focus on their career. And when they do get married, they have fewer children.
Japan’s population is projected to drop by one-sixth by 2020, and by 2025, 40 percent of the population will be 65 years of age or older. This means skyrocketing health care and pension costs as the population ages. The reduced number of young, homegrown workers entering the workforce and paying into the pension systems could undermine Japan’s economy.
Q: What can Japan and the United States do to increase gender equality?
Gender stereotypes are hard to break and, like it or not, we are all prone to engaging in stereotyping at one time or another. It’s important to study our biases and quantify inequality, such as the work conducted here at Harvard, so that we can understand how to effect change.
In both Japan and the United States, public policy is an important part of increasing gender equality in the workplace and at home, but not all of it.
As a society, we need to continue to encourage people to go beyond stereotypes and recognize the contributions that each individual, male or female, can make to the workplace and to relationships at home.