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Ageing and fertility: biology comes second

10 August 2015

The association between a woman's age and her fertility never seems far from the news but recently there has been a veritable bombardment of opinion over what age a woman should have a child.

We are repeatedly reminded that a woman's fertility drops off a cliff after age 40. Or was it 35? Or 38? I don't remember. And it depends which week you ask.

How does this keep making headlines time and time again, when each finding seems so unauthoritative and inconsistent it might as well have been picked from a hat?

It would appear we cannot resist a biologically authorised opportunity to tell a woman what to do with her body. But all this talk of the age a woman's fertility 'drops off a cliff' is just a distractor from the truth – this phenomenon of women finding themselves 'up against' the biological clock is a cultural one, not a biological one.

Not so many years ago, a woman of my age would have been long married, have given up whatever menial job she was able to refer to as a career and cranked out a couple of kids.

Now we have these crazy notions that we would like to have careers of our own, don't have to get married to the first eligible gentleman who comes along (or at all) and that women are more than just baby-making machines.

The trouble is that, in reality, society has barely budged to accommodate women's changed expectations. And the result is that women are made to feel that having a family has to be traded off against a career – a dilemma that never seems to trouble men. Thus behold the perpetual reminders of the tick-tick-tocking biological clock.

Since the data over the biology of age and fertility are so murky, let's look at some social facts.

  • Women are punished economically for having children while men are rewarded. Findings by the Institute of Public Policy Research from 2012 showed that women born in 1970 who were mothers earned 26 percent less than men who were fathers by their late 30s. By contrast, fathers could expect to earn 19 percent more by the age of 40 than if they had stayed childless. This phenomenon – known as the 'motherhood penalty' is replicated in other industrialised countries.
  • The motherhood penalty contributes to the pay gap between men and women. In the UK, despite the pay gap gradually closing in percentage terms, it has stayed pretty consistent at around £100 more gross per week for men. When you factor in part-time workers (which is more likely to include working mothers), the pay gap rises from 9.4 percent to 19.1 percent.
  • As the costs of childcare increase, it becomes increasingly economically sensible for one parent to give up work to look after children. Currently only 10 percent of full-time parents are men.
  • The government introduced new arrangements for paternity leave at the start of this tax year to allow dads to share parental leave. But the Coalition Government itself said it expected uptake to only be in the region of two to eight percent. Additionally, there is no obligation for employers to pay more than the statutory minimum to fathers, while many companies have established systems that bolster maternity pay.
  • Despite changes in policy, recent statistics show that the uptake of flexible working is only 19 percent among women, and that 42 percent of men and women would feel uncomfortable discussing flexible hours with their employer.

But policy changes will do nothing without a cultural shift. We need to remove the social default of mothers doing most of the childcare and the social stigma of being a stay-at-home dad. We need to stop clinging on to the notion of the nurturing mother and recognise that men can be just as good at caring for children. Then, maybe, women could experience the same freedoms as men when it comes to parenthood and career.

Between becoming an adult and her early 40s, the average woman probably has about 20 to 25 years in which she could conceivably (pun intended) have a child. Does the fact that many women seem to be finding that time window too short not indicate something very wrong with our society?

What if we lived in a society where men were just as likely to be the primary caregiver as women, and just as likely to take extended parental leave? Where women don't feel like they have to have their career 'sorted' before having a child, because they know they will be able to pick up where they left off afterwards? Where childcare was affordable for all working parents? Would 25 years be enough then?

So, until that day comes, please hold the headlines. As long as we live in a society that expects women to sacrifice so much more than men to be a parent, we might as well stop talking about biology.

7 November 2016 - by Dr James Heather 
Twelve locations in the human genome have been linked with differences in reproductive behaviour...
1 September 2015 - by Arit Udoh 
Access to IVF may serve as 'fertility insurance' for women, making them more inclined to delay motherhood and focus on their career, a study has suggested...
17 August 2015 - by Kirsty Oswald 
Changes to the activity of cells in the ovary may contribute to poorer IVF success rates among women in their 40s...
3 August 2015 - by Ruth Retassie 
Researchers have developed a mathematical model for determining what age women should start trying to conceive...
20 July 2015 - by Associate Professor Hana Konečná 
What happens if you ask children what age they would like their parents to be, and should this influence the debate on age limits for assisted reproduction?...
8 June 2015 - by Ceri Durham 
Analysis of the genomes of thousands of women suggests that a woman's genes influence the age at which she first becomes a mother and the number of children she will have...
27 October 2014 - by Heidi Mertes 
Facebook and Apple's recently announced plans make egg-freezing sound like an insurance plan for women wanting to build their careers, but should be viewed as a last resort....
22 July 2013 - by Dr Archana Vasireddy and Professor Susan Bewley 
The science is clear: most women, even in their late 30's, will succeed in having children, but many will face more infertility, miscarriage and complicated pregnancies...
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