How many British women want to have no children?

I was astounded by a particular statistic in a piece about Mother’s Day by Donna Ferguson in today’s Guardian:

About one in five (18%) of British women aged 45 are childless, the Office for National Statistics revealed last year, and Britain has one of the world’s highest rates of childlessness among women aged 40-44.

For some women, this will be by choice – but for many others it will not be. Only 0.67% of British women aged 15-39 do not want to have children, according to a global survey by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). To put this in context, the eurozone average is 1.5%, meaning fertile women in Britain who do not want to be mothers are among one of the smallest minorities measured in Europe.

Only 0.67% – really? Less than half the EU average? I was so surprised I had to look up the original source. Sure enough, the story is more complex. Here’s the full table from the OECD Excel file containing the 0.67% figure:

According to the table, 20.26% – over a fifth of British women – have no ideal number of children, or they don’t know. That’s the highest proportion in the EU, and very possibly the sort of socially-acceptable response a woman might prefer to give in place of the truth that they’re embarrassed or afraid to say. As a paper on “childlessness” by Professor of Demography and Social Statistics Ann Berrington notes,

…there may be a social desirability effect whereby British respondents may be unwilling to express a desire to remain childless, as British society and media tend to have a pro-natalist bias

There are other peculiarities. How is it possible that 0.00% of women in Estonia want no children? A glance at the population pyramid for Estonia shows there are roughly 180,000 women aged 15-39. 0.0049% of that is 882. So, in all of Estonia, there are only 882 women in that age range who truly don’t want any children? At the very least, the use of two decimal points implies a level of accuracy that is almost certainly unwarranted.

(Update: In the comments, sev points out that the table I show above, which is the same used by the Guardian as the basis for their article, is about the ideal general number of children in a family. That’s very different from the personal ideal number of children. The former would pose the question “Generally speaking, what do you think is the ideal number of children for a family?”; the latter would ask “And for you personally, what would be the ideal number if children you would like to have or would have liked to have? ” So, in conclusion, the Guardian article is completely wrong, and you can more or less ignore the paragraphs above as well…)

I haven’t been able to find any information about how the OECD figures were gathered so it’d be premature for me to go much further, but this wouldn’t be the first time a survey didn’t accurately reveal people’s true preferences; just for comparison, a 2014 paper by Berrington and Pattaro, using data from a large British cohort study, showed that in 1980, 6.2% of women aged 23 wanted no children – a number ten times that of the OECD results.

Numbers have power. If you’re going to use statistics in an article as emotive as one about “childless” women (or “childfree”, as many prefer), you best be sure they’re rock solid. Because if you confidently state that practically zero women in the UK want no children, and in reality there are more, then you are unnecessarily othering those women and their choices.

This article is trying to be sympathetic, but in reality, it’s making people feel alone – and it might be totally wrong.

4 Replies to “How many British women want to have no children?”

  1. But a useful reminder that people quite often answer surveys with the answer they think they ‘ought’ to give, rather than what they really think. Shy Conservatives, and all that. Revealed preferences (i.e. the actual number of childfree women) on the other hand, speak louder.

  2. Also, that chart says ‘ideal *general* number of children, which implies that the question actually asked was ‘how many children do you think a person [not necessarily yourself] should have’, which is a very different question from ‘how many children do you personally want to have’.

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