Because of their similarities and differences, Sweden and Austria are particularly suitable for a comparison of women’s childlessness according to educational attainment. Both countries have small populations, a factor that influences their politics and policy formation process (Katzenstein 1985). Both have a long welfare tradition and can be regarded as strong welfare states in which social policies have had considerable influence on social structures. Both countries have coordinated market economies with strong employment protections for workers and employees (Estévez-Abe et al. 2001; Hall and Soskice 2001). In the 1970s and early 1980s, the Austrian federal social democratic government looked to Sweden’s welfare state as a model in its efforts to modernise Austrian society (Hoem et al. 2001). The two countries have also undertaken similar family policy reforms. For example, both countries have introduced individual (rather than family-level) taxation, established legal equality between marital and non-marital children, legalised abortion in the first months of pregnancy, amended their parental leave regulations to increase women’s employment, and actively promoted gender equality in many areas of public life. Moreover, in the late 1960s and early 1970s both countries reformed their educational systems to make higher education available to all social groups.
Despite these commonalities, the educational, gender, family, and social policies in Sweden and in Austria differ fundamentally in terms of their content and their aims. In political science, Sweden is classified as a proto-typical universalistic welfare state whose public policies are designed to achieve greater social and gender equality (Esping-Andersen 1990; Korpi 2000). By contrast, Austria is seen as a proto-typical conservative welfare state whose policies are designed to preserve social status differentials and perpetuate gender inequality (op cit., Marten et al. 2012). These basic orientations permeate all of the policy areas relevant to childbearing.
Since the 1960s, Swedish labour market and social policies have actively promoted the integration of all adults into the employment system, and particularly of mothers with (small) children. Institutional day-care facilities for children of all age groups were gradually expanded to guarantee each child a place in public child care. As a consequence, for the past 50 years Sweden has been among the European countries with the highest public childcare coverage rates for children of all age groups (Bergqvist and Nyberg 2002; Neyer 2003). Maternity protection was replaced by a gender-neutral system of parental leave which grants both parents an individual right to paid parental leave. The (paid) leave was extended successively from 6 months (1974) to 12 months (1989), and an extra non-transferable “daddy month” was added in 1995 to promote a gender-equal division of care (for details, see Duvander and Ferrarini 2010). Until the child’s eighth year of life, each parent has the flexibility to take this leave on a part-time or a full-time basis, continuously or in segments, or even as individual days. Parental leave may also be combined with periods during which the parent is attending (further) education. While on parental leave, each mother or father receives an income-dependent benefit which replaces a large percentage of his or her previous income. The income replacement rate was about 90 % in the 1970s and 1980s and was 80 % thereafter, up to a fixed income ceiling. In addition to making it easier for parents to combine employment and family, Sweden has implemented comprehensive regulations to enhance gender and economic equality across all social groups. This includes the active promotion of equality in employment, wages and salaries, career advancement, professional and political representation, and education (Bergqvist et al. 1999).
The Swedish educational system is designed to be open, flexible, and supportive of social equality. It is oriented towards life-long learning (for details see Henz 2001; Halldén 2008). To ensure that as many people as possible have access to higher education, the system does not channel pupils into segregated educational streams early in their educational career. It is also relatively easy for pupils to later revise their early educational choices. Swedish primary schools provide 9 years of compulsory comprehensive education for children between the ages of seven and 16. The curriculum is largely the same for all pupils at this level. After primary school the majority of pupils enter (voluntary) upper-secondary education. If there is competition for places in certain upper-secondary programmes, the pupils’ grades determine which programmes they can choose from (Erikson and Jonsson 1996). For the cohorts born in 1955–1959, upper-secondary education still encompassed both 2-year and 3-year lines of education; the 2-year lines were converted into a 3-year line in the 1990s. The focus of the 3-year line is on theoretical knowledge. After successfully completing upper-secondary school pupils are entitled to enrol in tertiary education. The focus of most of the 2-year (and now converted 3-year) lines is on occupational and semi-occupational training. However, to ensure that students have the opportunity to change to other lines of education, a large share of the coursework is in general subjects, while practical vocational training in firms makes up only a small part of the course of study. By taking additional courses pupils in 2-year lines could earn the 3-year qualification needed to enrol in the tertiary educational system (Halldén 2008). Since the 1970s, admission to tertiary education has been regulated by a numerus clausus. Standardised eligibility and admission regulations are applied to all tertiary programmes and to all levels (Erikson and Jonsson 1996). Tertiary education has three levels: (1) 2- to 3-year lines of study that mainly offer advanced vocational education, (2) lines of study of at least 3–4 years that lead to a bachelor’s or a master’s degree, and (3) further studies that lead to a licentiate or a doctoral degree. The third level is intended to prepare the student for a scientific career.
Despite the selection process applied to upper-secondary-level and tertiary-level programmes, the Swedish educational system aims to equalise educational attainment and reduce class differentials (Erikson and Jonsson 1996). It is flexibly organised, highly permeable, and has special procedures to allow for late entry into (higher) education. Interruptions in education, moves out of and back into education, and changes in the educational line are always possible, and are often used. Individuals have a right to interrupt their employment to further their education. An extensive system of adult education and of active labour market policies facilitates and promotes (re-)education, training, and skill enhancement. Education is tuition free. A generous system of financial support, consisting of grants and loans, for individuals in higher education encourages and facilitates educational participation throughout the life course. This has resulted in high levels of educational participation and the widespread use of opportunities to earn new or improved qualifications on a flexible basis (Tesching 2012).
Austria has remained a conservative corporatist welfare state in spite of the reforms of the 1970s and early 1980s (Neyer 2003; Obinger and Tálos 2010). The education, employment, and welfare systems are not aligned as closely with the equality principles as the Swedish systems are. Austrian labour and social politics have focused more on securing the branch- and occupation-specific rights of workers and employees and on supporting the male breadwinner model than on ensuring the gender-equal integration of women into the labour market or on reducing gender, social, and economic inequality (Biffl 1997). Fertility-related family policies were designed to make it easier for mothers to leave the labour market and focus full-time on caring for their children. Until 1990, parental leave lasted until the child’s first birthday, and was for mothers only. In 1990, parental leave was extended to the child’s second birthday, and restricted options for part-time leave and father’s leave were introduced. Under a 1996 amendment 6 months of the parental leave were reserved for fathers. During the leave, previously employed mothers and fathers received a low, flat rate benefit which was independent of their previous income, but dependent on their partnership status. Because of the low benefit level and the complicated regulations on part-time work and on how the leave could be split between the mother and the father, parental leave was almost exclusively taken by women as full-time leave (Hoem et al. 2001; Neyer 2010).Footnote 2 Until recently, there were very few childcare places for children under age three or for children of school age (Statistik Austria 2014: Table 19). Thus, many women leave their job after taking parental leave or interrupt their employment for several years.
The Austrian school system has three distinct features: the early streaming of pupils into a complex set of educational paths, the “dual system” of apprenticeship and its separation from the main educational system, and the limited options for revising previous educational choices. As in Sweden, compulsory education in Austria lasts 9 years. However, in Austria the common primary school lasts only 4 years, up to the age of ten. Thereafter, the educational lines separate, with pupils being channelled into an upper level of primary school or a lower secondary school (Hauptschule), both lasting 4 years; or into an 8-year high school (Gymnasium) with a lower-secondary and an upper-secondary level. Pupils’ grades determine which type of school they can attend. To attend a Gymnasium, the pupils of our cohorts also had to pass an entrance exam. The Gymnasium and the Hauptschule are further subdivided. In the Hauptschule the pupils are grouped according to educational attainment (usually grades). In the Gymnasium pupils have to choose a specific subject line for their upper-secondary level education, such as a concentration on humanities, natural science/mathematics education, or home economics.
Pupils who have completed the Volksschule or Hauptschule or who have left the Gymnasium after completing its lower-secondary level have several options for continuing their education: (1) They can go on to a vocational middle school (berufsbildende mittlere Schule), which generally lasts 3–4 years and offers both vocational and general courses. (2) They can choose an apprenticeship (Lehre), which usually takes 3 years. The programme consists primarily of vocational training in firms, complemented by occupation-specific theoretical education in special vocational schools (“dual system”). Apprenticeships are not integrated into the “regular” educational system.Footnote 3 (3) Pupils with good grades can transfer to an upper-secondary high school (Oberstufenrealgymnasium), which is a Gymnasium that only offers the upper-secondary level.Footnote 4 (4) Pupils can transfer to a vocational upper-secondary high school (Berufsbildende höhere Schule) that takes 5 years to complete, and that offers vocational training together with a programme of general education equivalent to that of the upper-secondary level of a Gymnasium. (5) Pupils who do not make use of any of the options above can attend a 1-year poly-technical school that offers a preparatory vocational education programme. Upon completion of the Gymnasium, the Oberstufenrealgymnasium, or the berufsbildende höhere Schule students take a special maturation exam (Matura). After earning their Matura qualification, students can enrol in a tertiary education institution (a university or a post-secondary vocational college).
Austria has an open university system. Most tertiary education programmes have no numerus clausus, entrance exams, or other selection processes; and students are free to choose any line of study (irrespective of their Matura grades). There are also no formal restrictions on doctoral studies. Universities do not charge tuition, and students may qualify for financial support in the form of a non-repayable scholarship, depending on their own and their parents’ income. While there have been efforts to provide special scholarships to former students to resume their studies, these programmes have been less systematically developed in Austria than in Sweden.
Having the Matura diploma is an important pre-requisite for many subsequent educational options. Not only does it open the way to tertiary education; it is also a precondition for many kinds of qualified work, particularly in the public sector. The Matura thus serves as a marker that keeps educational groups and classes apart. Individuals who have completed a course of study that did not finish with the Matura have the option of attending special schools or programmes which prepare them for taking the Matura examination. Individuals may also be admitted to specific lines of tertiary education without having earned the Matura, provided they can prove (e.g., based on their employment history) that they have the qualifications for the chosen line, and pass a special admission examination. However, the availability of preparatory courses for the Matura (outside of high schools) or for the special admission examination varies from region to region, and taking them often involves considerable effort and cost.
9.2.3 Sweden and Austria – A Comparison of Their Institutions
There are certain aspects of the Swedish and the Austrian institutions that should be highlighted here because they appear to have especially strong effects on the relationship between education and childlessness:
First, the Austrian educational system segregates pupils at an early age, and is not organised with the purpose of giving as many people as possible access to higher education. This is mirrored in the distribution of Swedish and Austrian women born in 1955–1959 across educational levels (Table 9.1). In Austria, 31 % of all women in these birth cohorts have completed no more than compulsory education. In Sweden the corresponding figure is as low as 17 %. Conversely, 80 % of the Austrian women have no upper-secondary (Matura), post-secondary, or tertiary education, while in Sweden the corresponding figure is 53 %. Only 13 % of the Austrian women of these cohorts have completed post-secondary or tertiary education, while among Swedish women the corresponding figure is 33 %.
Second, in Sweden vocational education is integrated into the educational system. It prioritises the transmission of general, “transportable” skills over occupation-specific vocational training. A considerable share (30 %) of vocational education is at the tertiary level (Culpepper 2007). Having transportable and higher-level skills makes it easier to move between the various lines of study, and facilitates occupational mobility in the labour market (Estévez-Abe et al. 2001). By contrast, the Austrian apprenticeship system is largely segregated from the general school system (Graf et al. 2012). It offers a high level of occupation-specific vocational training, but little general, non-occupation-specific or transportable coursework. Thus, pupils in Austria have difficulties moving from an apprenticeship to a general course of study or switching between apprenticeships. Only 4 % of vocational education is offered at the tertiary level (Culpepper 2007). On the other hand, having firm-based training, which tends to be high-quality and standardised, can greatly ease a pupil’s transition from school to work. As a consequence, unemployment rates among young people, and particularly among those who complete apprenticeships, have been much lower in Austria than in Sweden (Lindahl 2011; Lassnig 2013).
Third, the Swedish educational system is oriented towards life-long learning, and therefore provides a broader spectrum of flexible options for participating in educational programmes, for leaving and re-entering education, and for earning new qualifications or enhancing existing qualifications over the life course. Austria has a more closed system, and limits participation in education to children and young adults to a much greater extent than Sweden.
Fourth, the Swedish school system is oriented towards promoting class and gender equality, and towards minimising corresponding differentials. Despite this aim, levels of sex segregation by field of education have remained high (Jonsson 1999). Sex segregation is even more pronounced in Austria, where special educational lines directed at women were maintained for much longer than in Sweden. Almost one-third of all of the women who attended the Gymnasium in the 1970s and early 1980s, and more than half of all of the women who attended a vocational middle school or enrolled in an apprenticeship, were in an educational stream in which almost all of the pupils (95 %) were female. These streams had curricula with gender-stereotypical content oriented towards family work (Lassnig and Paseka 1997).
Finally, Austrian family, social, and labour market policies have been designed to encourage women to leave the labour force when they have children. Yet employment protection, social security rights and benefits, and opportunities for promotion in the labour market have largely been tied to having an uninterrupted (and mostly full-time) career. By contrast, Sweden has more consistently pursued policies aimed at helping both parents balance family and work, and at ensuring that men and women have equal career opportunities throughout the life course.
We might expect to find that such national differences influence the connection between educational attainment and childlessness. In particular, we would expect to observe that rates of childlessness are higher in Austria than in Sweden, simply because it is harder to have children and pursue employment in Austria. On the other hand, we might also expect to find that childlessness rates are lower in Austria than in Sweden because of the large share of highly educated women in Sweden and the prevalence of feminised educational fields in Austria. Moreover, it is not clear whether women with similar educational paths in the two countries have similar levels of childlessness. Rates of childlessness among women with all types of education may differ between the two countries because of institutional differences. But if we assume that preferences are more important than institutional conditions, we would expect to observe the same levels of childlessness by educational field in both countries. In the following chapters, we investigate these assumptions by analysing childlessness by educational field and educational level in greater detail.