Study reveals 'women are driven by status and wealth rather than wanting babies'

15 October 2014

A new study suggests that women are more driven to seek wealth and status than they are to reproduce. The research by Oxford University and Sheffield University says although low fertility may seem to go against traditional ideas about evolutionary success, a woman will delay and reduce her fertility if it brings her opportunities for higher status. The findings are based on interviews with 9,000 women in Mongolia, a country that underwent a sudden transition from a Soviet-style state to mass privatisation. While the older cohort who lived under a Communist-style regime were likely to have bigger families if they were wealthier, the younger women experiencing  a more capitalist system were more likely to seek their own fortune and a mate with social standing before starting a family, says the paper.

In the research, published in the latest issue of the journal, Proceedings of the Royal Society B, the authors describe this as a ‘demographic-economic paradox’. They say an unequal and skills-based society enables women to rise up the social ladder and make money through education (providing gender equality is promoted). As the free market takes hold, women who have children later in life to pursue education get wealthier.

The paper comments that the fact that the wealthy and socially successful have small families may appear to go against the classic theory of evolutionary success as lower fertility results in fewer genetic descendants. However, it suggests this research builds on other studies that have shown that people are primarily driven by status. If status-seeking behaviour translated into reproductive success across evolutionary history, it may have been favoured by natural selection, it explains.

The research investigated the relationship between women’s attitudes towards child-bearing and wealth between and within regions (varying by their level of urbanisation). The researchers analysed survey data on 9,000 women, aged from 15-49 years old, and over 4,000 husbands. They were asked about income, household amenities, educational level, the total number of children born, and how many children they already had when they first used contraceptive methods.

In the older cohort, the education of women both in the countryside and the urban areas was broadly similar under the Communist-style regime; and in all regions, the wealthier women had larger families as predicted by classic evolutionary models. In the younger cohort, however, the relationship reverses. Wealth becomes linked with small family sizes and women who live in the wealthiest households start using contraception before the birth of their first child or after one or two babies, while women who live in the poorest households start using contraception after three, four or five children.

The research argues that this pattern of behaviour has emerged because the transition to a market economy has created more economic opportunities for educated women. They found that this effect was three times stronger in urban as compared with remote, rural areas. The paper is one of the few empirical studies to look at how decision-making on reproductive behaviour is shaped by a woman’s access to resources and economic opportunity.

Anthropologist Dr Alexandra Alvergne from Oxford University said: ‘For a long time scholars have associated later child bearing with the length of time a mother has spent in education. However, we find that education on its own does not drive the decision on when to start a family. Rather, how much education translates into future wealth best explains fertility patterns across regions. It seems that women’s prime objective is to accrue wealth and status. This might be securing a well-paid job or finding a partner who has relatively high social standing.’

The paper says a woman’s quest for status can depend on context: so whereas household wealth predicts a higher incentive to have children later in life in the urban areas of Mongolia, in Addis Ababa, fertility is highest among the wealthiest as big families carry status for women within that population.

Dr Alvergne concluded ‘Most programmes in developing countries focus on getting girls to go through schooling in order to encourage smaller families and economic growth. This study shows that girls and women are very aware of the value education may have in helping them rise through society and become wealthier. However, education does not always translate into socioeconomic returns. What we need to concentrate on now is the quality of the teaching they are offered.’

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Notes for Editors:

  •  The paper ‘Ecological variation in wealth – fertility relationships in Mongolia: the central theoretical problem of sociobiology not a problem after all?’ by Alexandra Alvergne and Virpi Lummaa will be published by Proceedings of the Royal Society B.
  • The researchers used the 2003 national reproductive and health survey, carried out by the National Statistical Office of Mongolia and funded by the UNFPA. It covers all regions of the country for a nationally representative sample of 8,399 households. It included data on ca. 9,000 women aged from 15-49 years old and over 4,000 husbands. They compared individuals within and between regions, depending on whether they were living in urban or rural areas.