A new study from the Pew Research Center has highlighted that nearly one-in-five older women in the United States do not have children – twice as many as the percentage of women without children in the 1970s. This growing trend has been found across most racial and ethnic groups in the US.
The report includes an estimate of the number of women between the ages of 40-44, considered the end of a woman’s “childbearing years,” that have never had children. They find increases across race and ethnicity, level of education, and marital status, reaching a level of 18% of all women between 40-44 who were without children in 2008. The most highly educated women, those with advanced degrees (master’s, doctorate, etc.), are among the most likely to never have had a child. White women are more likely that Black, Asian, and Latina women to not have children, though rates of childlessness have increased rapidly among women of color, thus narrowing the racial/ethnic gap. And, women who have never been married are more likely than those who have been married/are currently married to be childless.
This increase in the number of women who have never had children has been accompanied by an increase in acceptance of childlessness in US public opinion; for example, almost 60% of the respondents of the 2002 General Social Survey, a nationally-representative survey of US public attitudes, disagreed with the statement that people without children lead empty lives, compared to 39% in 1988.
The Possible Explanations
The Pew Research Center has offered some possible explanations for the changing terrain of parenthood in the US, at least with respect to the increasing number of women who never have children. One possibility is that there has been a decline in the social pressure to have children, thus allowing women more personal choice regarding family formation. Another influence on women’s reproductive choices is the improved access to paid employment and contraceptive methods to prevent unintended pregnancies. There are unfortunate possibilities as well, including waiting too late to have kids because of the length of time required to pursue advanced degrees and establish a successful career, and that at least one-in-ten women between 15-44 is unable to get pregnant after trying for six months to a year. And, of course, they note that we consider the increasing number of women who are parents by adoption or step-parenthood.
…And The “Motherhood Penalty”
The same traditional gender roles that expect women to marry and have children also entail expectations that their only source of labor will be tending to home and family. Given these traditions, and the changes in attitudes regarding women in the labor force and motherhood, it may or may not be surprising that there is evidence of a “motherhood penalty,” or the discrimination mothers face in terms of being hired and in wages. In a study of the impact of parenthood on hireability and pay, a group of sociologists, including Shelley Correll, Indiana University professor Stephen Benard, and In Paik, found that women who have children are less likely to be seen as hireable and are offered less pay than women without children because they are assumed to be less committed to work and less competent than non-mothers. The opposite effect has been found for fathers; men who have children see an advantage over men without children. It could be the case, then, that in women’s efforts to establish and maintain a successful career, they are well aware of the disadvantages employed mothers face in the labor market, and, as such, some forgo parenthood all together.