A top University of Cambridge official recently caused a stir by announcing plans to organise seminars on fertility with the purpose of "empowering" female students. Dorothy Byrne, who heads the Murray Edwards College, said young women were being taught to do everything in life – get a degree, succeed in their careers and be beautiful – except having babies.
Predictably, Ms Byrne received harsh criticism for her remarks, with one comment reading: "The 19th century called – and they want their curriculum back."
It does seem an odd hill upon which to stake progress for women, especially given Ms Byrne's own successful career in television and journalism. Moreover, the Murray Edwards College was founded in 1954 precisely to increase the proportion of women at the university, which began admitting female undergraduates about 150 years earlier.
The controversy reminded me of the pressure I faced to get married before I became "too old", even though I was only in my 20s then. My parents were asked why they let me go to university at all. Wasn’t I going to just get married and have children, they rhetorically said. The objective for all women, according to some of these people, is ultimately child bearing. Once married, women like me are asked when we are going to have our first child. At the next stage, the demand is to bear another child, because the first child needs a sibling. Common, too, is the call to have sons, if one has had "only" daughters.
While the blowback against Ms Byrne's remarks is understandable, she has raised an important issue: which is that women should be able to raise a family while having a successful career – if that is what they want – and that society must do its bit to help.
Often, women delay having children or not have any, not because they don't want to become mothers, but due to their personal and financial circumstances. And yet, women are usually blamed for not having children. And when women do end up bearing them, they are told not to complain about the challenges they face in balancing life and work, because, after all, it was their choice to do so.
It can be hard for those who can't afford child care. Sometimes, women have to work, even if they want to spend time with their children, to support their families. Yet, they are castigated as bad mothers. The reverse is true, too: being labelled lazy if they don't have a job. It is, often, also difficult to choose when to have children. If women get pregnant early in their lives, they struggle to find work later. If, on the other hand, they choose employment and financial security over marriage and child bearing, dropping fertility rate becomes a problem and one more reason to be criticised for their so-called misplaced priorities.
Rather than shining the spotlight only on women over the issue of child bearing, it makes more sense for society to reflect on the conditions it has created that push women into these difficult situations, for which women then get the blame.
Are men stable enough, on the various metrics, to support their families? How can workplaces ensure that men step into paternity roles with minimum fuss and without losing pay? These are pertinent questions.
Maternity benefits are undoubtedly important, too, as they have historically paved the way for more women to enter the workforce. Inadequate paternity support, pay stagnation for mothers, and the lack of suitable child care or flexible policies are all factors that adversely affect women's incomes when they have children. This is unfair, as is the still prevailing attitude that women should prioritise having a family over pursuing personal ambitions. The result is that this makes women disproportionately poorer.
Gender balance in this regard is key, for, just as women have the right to seek personal fulfilment in the public space, the notion that men might find fulfilment in looking after their children should be entertained by society.
Changing circumstances and attitudes on the part of women and men to not bear children are having an impact on the fertility rate across the globe.
At the end of the first quarter in 2021, it stood at 1.53 in the UK – the lowest in 80 years. In the UAE, meanwhile, the rate has declined year-on-year from 4.45 in 1990 to 2.4 in 2000 and 1.82 in 2010. In 2019, it dropped to 1.39. According to the UN Population Division, the replacement fertility rate to keep population stable is 2.1. These figures are inversely proportional to the average maternal age. Thirty years ago in the UK, it was 27.7. By 2019, it had risen to 30.7.
Whether one agrees with Ms Byrne or not, an important issue has been raised. Because, when people criticise women by claiming that they want to "have it all" – including a career and a family – what they are really saying is that society expects women to do it all. But when, inevitably, women need input and support, the blame gets laid at their door. It is time to put an end to this blame game and find constructive ways for society to help.
A conversation in this regard may well have begun.