Gender in Demography Increasing Attention

How do we measure the amount and extent of scholarship on gender in demography? There are a number of signposts, and most suggest that work on gender has increased significantly over the last 15 years or so. Perhaps the best illustration of the recency of demography's attention to gender is the direct involvement of the International Union for the Scientific Study of Population (IUSSP) in issues of gender (see Federici, Mason, and Sogner 1993). Early discussions in IUSSP led to a 1988 conference on "Women's Position and Demographic Change'' and the establishment of a Gender Committee in 1990. Through a series of conferences on various topics related to gender, with many of the conference papers later published in volumes (Federici, Mason, and Sogner 1993; Mason and Jensen 1995; Presser and Sen 2000), IUSSP has provided a space for study and discussion of ways that gender is involved in demographic processes. This is not to say there had been no work on gender in demography before 1988, but it was at this time that more systematic and collaborative work began on this issue.

Whereas 20 years ago sessions directly related to gender were nearly absent from the Population Association of America's (PAA) annual meetings, now there are several sessions directly focused on gender at any annual PAA, dealing with a number of gender issues: from measurement of gender equality to gender influence on some demographic outcome to larger issues that certainly come from interests in gender, such as issues of domestic violence. In addition, questions related to or informed by gender research are integrated in additional PAA sessions, from those about teenage fertility in the United States to sessions on the impact of AIDS in Africa.

Another indicator of the attention to gender is the new interest in documenting the role of men in demographic outcomes, particularly in fertility outcomes. Men's roles in reproduction have long been ignored in most demographic projects. Even now, "most family demographic research on men has concentrated on the absence more than the presence of men in families'' (Bianchi 1998: 133). In their examination of men's roles in fertility in western societies, Goldscheider and Kaufman (1996: 88) find that "the level of commitment between men and women is the key variable missing in the current study of fertility.'' Greene and Biddlecom (2000) suggest more serious and extensive oversights, however, when they argue that demographic models and assumptions do not permit the easy inclusion of men in our understanding of fertility outcomes. This is due in part to the fact, as Poston and Chang (2003) have observed, that fertility rates calculated for females need not be, and seldom are, the same as fertility rates calculated for males. Even as men continue to be missing from most demographic analyses, there is larger agreement on the importance of including men in the assessment of demographic change and an increasing amount of research is being undertaken in this area (see also Bawah et al. 1999).

Attention to gender has also come from reproductive rights activists. Although such perspectives have been present for some time (Freedman and Isaacs 1993; Cook 1993; Dixon-Mueller 1993; Kabeer 1994), their voices were especially heard during and after the 1994 International Conference on Population and Development in Cairo. This conference, and the discussions surrounding it, put scholars and activists interested in gender, especially those from the Third World, onto the radar screen of demographers. Even in the disagreement of some mainstream demographers and in their concern of what was removed from the population agenda to make room for issues of women and gender (McIntosh and Finkle 1995), we see a new way of dealing with the issues surrounding gender. One of the most important contributions of the reproductive health activists has been the attention given to feminist projects. Feminist research is necessarily political, and the activist work relating to the Cairo conference made clear the connections among research, policy, and women's lives and encouraged those interested in gender to consider these connections (Petchesky 1997, 2000; El Dawla 2000; Desai 2000). While much of this work came from outside mainstream academic demography, it nevertheless has had an impact on the field. It has been influential in linking researchers and family planning practitioners, and has brought to demographers' attention feedback from actual users of contraceptives and family planning programs. Coming perhaps most forcefully from Third World feminists and practioners in health programs, these discussions have often been controversial, with parties from many sectors deeply engaged in the issues. These have not been merely ideological debates (see Presser 1997). Rather, while such discussions do continue, many have tried to incorporate the thinking and findings from the discussions into both research and health delivery programs. Thus, many of the recent changes in many family planning programs, from the dismantling of family planning targets in India to the role of the state in China, invoke, if they did not arise out of, discussions about reproductive rights.

Just how pervasive attention to gender has become is also seen in the way that issues of gender have become part of data collection projects. For example, the largest data collection project in demography, the Demographic and Health Surveys (DHS), seeks to collect information on gender in a variety of ways. In addition to several questions on the standard DHS questionnaire, there are now separate modules on women's status, on domestic violence, and modules for male respondents. While such modules are used only in selected countries, their development and use in such a large-scale survey endeavor are indicative of the understanding of the ways that gender is central in demographic change. In addition to the inclusion of these questions and modules, the researchers at DHS and its affiliates have focused on gender in their analyses and reports. For example, researchers at DHS (Blanc et al. 1996) reported on an experimental survey designed to measure the strategies and negotiations that women in Uganda use to achieve their reproductive goals. Using data from a DHS module on women's status in Egypt, Kishor (1994) reported on both the strengths and weaknesses of the survey measures and the survey's findings.

Also promising for the future of demographic work on gender is the number of new and younger scholars who have been working in this area to develop new techniques and theories to address old and new questions. At any large professional meeting of demographers, there are reports from new scholars who are working through some of these difficult questions. All indications, therefore, suggest that work on gender continues to draw significant interest and attention from demographers.

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