Motherhood Handwaving

In the New York Times Magazine on March 4, Sharon Lerner argued that “making it easier for women to work may be the best way to increase birthrates.” Certainly most European countries think so; all have some form of paid maternity leave, and many are trying to increase it. Lerner goes on to note a paradox, though:

“Curiously, Europe’s lowest birthrates are seen in countries, mostly Catholic, where the old idea than the man is the breadwinner and the woman is the child-raiser holds strong. Portugal, Spain, Italy, and Greece have among the lowest fertility rates in Western Europe. Meanwhile, countries that support high numbers of working women, like Finland, Norway and Denmark, have among the highest birthrates.”

That is curious, isn’t it? Stereotypically, Catholics breed like rabbits, while the ultra-modern Scandinavians are the ones who forget to have children. I was so intrigued that I decided to check. I pulled the relevant data from Wikipedia (specifically, birthrates, paid maternity leave, and prevalence of Catholicism) and ran some quick stats.

euromaternity.gif Surprisingly, there’s no statistically-significant relationship between the amount of maternity leave a country offers and its birthrate. The highest birthrates on the graph, by the way, are in Ireland, Iceland, and Cyprus. The lowest is Germany’s. As you can see, Spain and Greece are not especially low; in fact, they’re about average for Europe, as is Sweden, which offers by far the most generous parental leave. And contrary to Lerner’s claim, Portugal actually has a higher birthrate than Finland.

These statistics aren’t occult knowledge. It took me two minutes with Google and Wikipedia to find the numbers, and not much longer to type them into Excel and make some graphs. Don’t magazines employ fact checkers anymore?

eurocatholicism.gif I couldn’t think of an simple stat that measures a country’s sexism (sorry, I mean “traditional attitude towards women”), but the amount of Catholicism in a given population is a matter of record. There’s another surprising result if you plot popery against birthrate. It looks like both Lerner and the stereotype are wrong–Catholics are having neither more nor fewer babies than anyone else. (If anyone can think of how to test the sexism hypothesis, let me know. Better still, do the analysis yourself, post the graph, and send me the link.)

Why this disparity between the article’s claims and the data? I’m not a demographic theorist, and I’m completely ignorant of the extensive literature on birthrates. But if one wanted to claim that maternity leave raises fertility, the first problem to overcome, surely, is that the numbers don’t back you up. One possible response would be lots of handwaving to convince readers that it only seems like you’re wrong; in this case, mysterious hidden factors just happen to precisely counteract the positive effects of maternity leave.

It doesn’t help, though, that the quote above contains some basic factual errors, as well as a couple of weasel phrases (“among the lowest…in Western Europe”). Neither inspire confidence. Of course, they also raise the suspicion that the researchers’ conclusions have been decided in advance, and the numbers are being cherry-picked (which is the other way to deal with unhelpful data). Which strategy is being employed here? I don’t know. But it’s wonderful that we can fact-check on a Sunday morning from the comfort of our living rooms.

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