Understanding the Gendered Experience Behind Ultra Low Fertility Rate in Hong Kong: Pronatalist Policy Recommendations for the Government
Author: Man Hei Chu
Advisor: Asst. Prof. Pobsook Chamchong, PhD
Co-advisor: Asst. Prof. Piyapong Boossabong, PhD
Aging population could post serious damages on the economic development of Hong Kong, whom as a labour-intensive economy. Apart from immigration policy, the government may also consider pronatalist policy and create a birth-friendly environment for sustained economic development and easing pressure on public finance posted by aging population, given the competition for talents across metropolitan cities in East Asia and Singapore.
The study raises the main question of finding an approach in dealing with low fertility rate in the context of Hong Kong. Among the analysis on demographic, socioeconomic, cultural and gender perspective, this research emphasis more on gender perspective on the effect of confucianism and experience of marriage and child-care of women and men to fertility rate or desire. It tries to fill the research gap by brining the gendered perspective of both sexes, rather than exclusively the female sex, on fertility issues and engaging the dynamics of different social economic and cultural factors in interpreting the LFR of Hong Kong.
The problem of low birth rate in East Asia, including Hong Kong, has been identified and there are studies on the social and economic factors correlated to ultra-low fertility rate in East Asia. A common pronatalist policy is financial subsidies or cash gift as an economic incentives and support for birth and childcare in East Asia. the low fertility rate, there are concerns over the efficiency of government subsidies and feasibility for government finance in continuously providing tremendous financial incentives for birth and childbearing. The cases in South Korea and Singapore imply strong financial support may not retrieve women’s willingness and confidence of bearing children, which implies fertility issue is a complex and complicated structural problem that contributed by multiple factors, for example the ultra-low fertility trap clearly illustrates low fertility not only involve different micro factors, but also the interactions of the factors. As a result, it is crucial to look into other factors that post constrains on fertility desire, apart from finance case by case, such as employment and income of the youth, knowledge and support on pregnancy and childcare people can received, public space and education for children.
Gendered perspective for both sexes is adopted in this study. Giving birth has been considered as the affairs of women traditionally, and the statistics and media reports on fertility unfairly emphases women. The narrative of blaming or mocking women on fertility topic in internet articles is not rare to see. It is not generally recognized but still noticing that marriage and birth are decisions with the involvement, consensus, and participation of both parties, especially under the trend of nuclear household and uncommonness of out-of-wedlock in East Asia. Therefore, the experiences of both sexes should be considered in the study, and this study tries to understand how the experience of women and men in the same society of Hong Kong affects marriage and birth decision.
For demographic factors, the marriage postponement and prevalence of sphincter-hood of women is generally stressed across studies and articles as the causing factor of LFR (Census and Statistics Department, 2023; HK01, 2023; Basten, 2015; Yip, 2006). Besides, both decreasing trends of local potential mothers and Mainland brides in cross-border marriage is not favorable to maintain fertility in Hong Kong, because the low-fertility trap suggested that fewer potential mothers in the future will result in fewer births. Nevertheless, it is noticeable that the decline in fertility rate could be contributed by either or both quantum and tempo effect. A statistic analysis concluded the decline in TFR in Hong Kong is contributed by quantum effect and the tempo effect was squeezed out in 1990s (Tu & Zhang, 2004), in other word, the effect of social setting on fertility desire is over the postponement itself, but this empirical study was conducted almost two decades ago. A review for recent situation is needed to better grasp the situation.
For social-economic factors, it is found that both small living space and financial stress to raise children limit the level of high-order birth, which contributes to low cohort fertility. The extremely inadequate childcare support, long working hours, and also with high living cost and small living space under high land price as mentioned above create a setting that discourages couple to have children. According to Kohler, Billari & Ortega (2002) institutional settings, such as policy, regulations, and social norms, that created a low quantum of fertility, which contribute to prevail of low fertility. Under the case in Hong Kong, on one hand, couple may consider the social environment is not suitable for children, such as high expectation and demands on academic performance under credentialism and economic structure, crowded and small living space for children, (un)happiness of children and limited time for children under demanding work culture. On the other hand, raising no or less children is believed to be a rational choice that safeguard basic quality of living in the city and career aspiration in knowledge-based society, result in low cohort fertility.
For cultural factors, comparing with the context of fertility issues in Europe, one major difference in Hong Kong or East Asia is the influences from Confucianism, including patriarchy and credentialism. In Cheng (2020) study, it is pointed out the patriarchy affects the role of modern women at home and slow down adaptation of pronatalist policy of government agencies, and prevalence of credentialism, which is out of traditional aspiration on academic success and low regard on vocational education, aggregates the stress of the younger generation, so as their parents, for human capital investment and prolong the duration of schooling. Also, Nakano study (2016) concluded from the interviews that Hong Kong has high acceptance of female singlehood and be childless. The acceptance of singlehood for women emerges from a history of marriage refusal among women in South China from the turn of the 20th century (Nakano, 2016; Stockard, 1989).
Interpretative approach from gendered perspective
From the analysis of expected domestic role of men and women in family it is found that the confucianism teaching still influences domestic division of labour and the experiences of men and women in marriage and child-raising, which could affect their fertility desire so as the fertility rate.
Firstly, Confucianism fuels the gender equity gap by creates an social assumption that children grow in a family with both fathers and mothers, and hegemony of male in the family, in which it decreases the fertility desire of women and endow more difficulties for men to play their original roles in a more equal modern society.
From the view of confucianism, daughters are considered as outsider move into husbands’ home and as the subordinate in the new family serving the parents-in-law, housekeeping and childrearing as her primary responsibilities, (Cheng, 2020), in the contrary, women in Hong Kong are expected to work outside to be “employed women” or “working mum” with provision of equal education, employment and payment in the society. The gender equity gap proposed by McDonald (2000) can explain the reduce in fertility desire of women in this case. The presence of gender equity gap between individual-oriented institution and family-oriented institution, given the family setting is slow to respond the social change but still influenced by Confucianism, discourages women to enter family setting. In addition, the Confucian teaching posses more obstacles for women to give birth by themselves, by expecting that marriage between husband and wife is the pre-requisite environment for children, discrimination on out-of-wedlock, and it also results in inadequate support on single mothers of the Hong Kong welfare system that established based on the assumption that child-care is family affairs be carried by mother.
Men in Hong Kong considered their role is the financial income provider, and it is also core in their masculine identity (Gender Research Centre, 2012). Apart from this, Liong (2010) provided an analysis that the foundation of fatherhood in Hong Kong, which is supported by confucianism teaching, includes (1) economic provision, (2) education, (3) establish and maintain education of a child-oriented family through marriage as the three main paternal responsibilities. Gender Research Centre (2012) found that men in Hong Kong are still abreast of many traditional cultural norms of male identity without the base of upholding these traditional ideas under new economic and social environment. It is noticing that setting of hegemony in family by Confuciansm also fosters and solidifies the conservative male identity posted by men themselves and the hegemony itself. The carrying of such ancient thinkings not only, on one hand, lower women’s willingness in entering family, as men have been praised as the master who lead his subordinate. On the other hand, it also poses more “obstacles”, for men to perform his roles in context of Hong Kong, for example establishment of a child-oriented family while the fertility desire of women is decreasing and the cost of living in the city is high, trying to be the breadwinner but the vast majority family income model is dual-earners model in reality, and taking the role of education, given that the government provides 12-year compulsory education and the percentage of female enrolled in UCG-funded higher education programmes has been higher than male since 1997/1998 academic year.
Secondly, for marriage experience of women, through labour participation and financial independence, women in Hong Kong no longer needs marriage to safeguard their living, the fertility rate decline naturally with the higher singlehood and postponement of marriage. For the marriage experience of men, there is no research discussing the experience of marriage of men in Hong Kong, however, the expectations of “do better than women” may posses difficulties for men to find spouse, form a family and raise children, given the fact that the out-of-wedlock is still rare case in Hong Kong.
In Yip et al, (2006) study, it is concluded that the significant improvements in women’s education levels, particularly at the tertiary level, contribute to lower fertility rate, in which higher labor participation rates and increased financial independence among women have led to getting married being viewed as less of a priority.
As mentioned by Liong (2010), marriage was deemed as a masculine mission (power to influence), foundation of his fatherhood and fulfilling his filial duty as a son, and wives is supposed to be functional to serve as a mean to provide a mother to taken care of children, that is “continuation of father”, rather than romantic alliance. At the same time, the connotation core standard of male identity in Hong Kong is “Do better than women”, and they also consider improvement of women status as a threat (Gender Research Centre, 2012). If we took a look into “do better than women”, we will found that this statement also carries the prospect of “women perform worse than men”. The outperformance of men serve to builds their male identity, but it also enable husband to have say and power over the wife in the domestic discourse, which echos to the domestic power relationship in Confucianism where wives are the subordinate and husbands are the masters. However, given higher education attainment and career aspiration of women than the past, it is relatively difficult for men to outperform their female partners to attain their conservative male identity in family because available women who are underperform than men are less, when men do not hold the privilege in study and work as pre-industrial period anymore, which is not favourable for union formation for men, so as fertility issue afterward. Nevertheless, more researches are needed to study how traditional gender stereotyping on men affect their marriage and fertility, and association of their attitude on traditional view with fertility desire of their partners.
Thirdly, for experience in child-raising, childcares is generally considered as the second shift for women exclusively, even under long working hours, high living cost, and not family friendly public policies. Women have to sacrifice more than men with higher opportunity cost of their career and sink cost of their investment on education to child-care, which may lower the fertility desire of women; while men are not expected to invovle child-care by men themselves and society, and this notion also been reinforced in the setting.
Lo, Stone & Ng’s study (2003) about work-family conflicts of female married professionals in Hong Kong figured that the female professionals have to lower their career expectation and outsourcing the traditional domestic role on women, such as child-care, education and housework, to maid and tutors to balance their multiple roles as mother, daughter and professional. This experience may also shared or worsen in the case of female non-professional, as it is more prevail for people with lower hourly wage to worker longer hours in exchange of higher salary for high living expenses, and women with lower income are under financial constrain to hire domestic helpers to outsource the expected work on them. Household income is not the only constrains for hiring domestic helper to alleviate domestic burden. Coexistence of husband’s traditional gender attitude and his wife’s high income sharply increase the likelihood of hiring domestic help (Cheung & Lui, 2015). In the survey of Lau, Ma & Chan’s paper (2006), Since the first child was born until the schooling of last child, the major reason (>90%) of women not working has been taking care of children. The huge opportunity cost and sink cost of women lower the priority and preference for women to have birth. Furthermore, the current provision of childcare services is insufficient to guarantee the equal use of childcare among children of different socioeconomic backgrounds, or to ease the tension between the needs of childcare and job in a family, or to emancipate married women from the domestic sphere (Xia & Ma, 2019). As a result, women in Hong Kong who are expected to carry the domestic roles considered whether marriage and childrearing might result in a decline in their standard and quality of living, and it lowers their fertility desire.
Men are not expected to invovle child-care by men themselves and society. Even stay-home-father interviewees shared the habitus of mainstream Hong Kong society, dictating that men should take care of the financial needs of the family, whereas women should take care of the housework and children (Liong, 2017). This view on men’s domestic role implies that despite the acceptance of working women and employed mother, it does not reject the male breadwinner model rooted in people’s mind but it is adapted in modern world by allowing financial contribution of women; it does not impinge men to be the role of major income earner, whose economic power and career is superior and prioritised to childcare and housework that is the role of female traditionally. The unwillingness of shoulder the responsibility of taking care of their offsprings by men in Hong Kong illustrates, again, how the gender equity gap is contributed by the lagging masculine identity to a society that allows women to be educated and employed. Furthermore, this could be interpreted as misogyny, where the female domestic role is obviously refused by men to shoulder or share because the core of their male identity, being the financial provider, is superior than both the raising and caring of their children and the career of their female partners, and any bebavour could potentially harm their superiority, including the participation of caring, housework, and sacrifuce of men’s career for a tradinonal female work, shall not be accepted.
In short, on one hand, the effect of the deficit in childcare service and pronatalist incentive on fertility was execrated by high living cost and densely living environment, which reinforce is not an environment favourite for birth. On the other hand, gender equity in family-oriented institution is not able to catch up with the gender equity in individual-oriented institution under opportunity for education and employment for women within the past few decades, contribute to decrease in fertility rate and marriage. This is because the public welfare and company welfare was developed based on sole-breadwinner model that is not consistent with present common dual-earner model, and this conservative setting from government and corporations reinforce the traditional attitude in family-oriented institution.
Although the tradition gender ideology is prevalent among men in Hong Kong, the government may improve the environment to narrow the gender equity gap between institutional and family setting, given the gap not only discourage women to enter family or fertility desire, the gap also is also not favourable for both parties in the family to participate child-raising business, given high living cost.
It is suggested that Hong Kong government implement 2-week of paternity leave with use-it-or-lose-it and full-day only principle, and the duration should further increase to at least 4 weeks in the future. In “Use-it-or-lose-it principle”, if the father of newborn does not take the paternity leave, then he will lose the reserved day-off quota for father. This policy in Norway promotes participation of fatherhood at the early stage of childcare, ensure the equal right of fatherhood and helping mother to return to workplace (Brandth & Kvande, 2009). Paternal leave also receives promising results in Singapore. Taking two weeks or more paternity leave was significant related to lower family conflict, less parent aggravation, higher marital satisfaction, fathers’ involvement, likelihood of having closer father-child relationship and lower level of children’s externalising behaviour problems (Yeung & Li, 2022). This policy is expected to promote more equal gender role in family affairs by encouraging fathers’ involvement in childcare at early stage and building mutual understanding during co-parenting.
The extension of paternal leave is also responding the needs on the support for paternity. Qualitative research by Ngai, F. W., & Lam, W. (2020) reported that the father in Hong Kong faced issues like sleep deprivation, childcare and emotional challenge of shifting to the role of father, which can be alleviate by taking leave. The protection on equal father leave should under consideration given long-hour and demanding work culture in Hong Kong. Fathers with labor-intensive jobs or lower household income are less likely to take paternity leave (Yeung & Li, 2022). It is hoped to promote a more equitable distribution of parental duties, prevents the unilateral wives’ sacrifice on their career and private time and support mothers return to workplace by a fair domestic division of labour, which may deal with the fertility rates positively.
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