Why we should break gender stereotypes around infertility

A fertility consultant debunks infertility and advocates why feeling ‘complete’ should not be associated with the ability to procreate.

Harper's Bazaar India

Conversations around infertility, especially in India, are laden with stereotypes and biases against women. In fact, a woman’s worth and ‘completeness’ is measured by her ability to reproduce. While this outlook is changing gradually, there is much work to be done around it. These myths have no ground to stand on, where 12 per cent of married couples struggle with infertility. It is about time society breaks these gender stereotypes, catches up with changes in parenting and procreation, and stops associating fertility with a person’s worth.

Then and now

Throughout history, preconceptions about women were based on fertility and motherhood, and the inability to reproduce was seen to be the result of problems specific to women. Women who were not mothers were frequently shunned by society, mainly if they were single. Conversely, men were always seen as ‘blessed’ with fertility.

Now, we know that infertility can be caused by many factors and can affect both sexes. Worldwide about 15 per cent of couples of reproductive age experience infertility. The World Health Organisation estimates the frequency of primary infertility in India to range from 3.9 to 16.8 per cent. The prevalence of infertility varies by state—from 3.7 per cent in Uttar Pradesh, Himachal Pradesh, and Maharashtra, to 5 per cent in Andhra Pradesh and 15 per cent in Kashmir—and also by tribe and caste within the same region.

Dealing with pain in different ways

Infertility can cause a lot of emotional distress among couples, and each gender handles pain and disappointment in different ways. Research indicates that males typically turn to their partner as their primary emotional support when working through their feelings over a significant and life-changing event like infertility. Most men don't seek external emotional support as they are conditioned to associate infertility with being less manly. Thus, despite going through a rollercoaster of emotions, they end up suppressing their feelings or burdening their significant other who is also going through the same phase. It’s important they are given enough space to express and deal with the emotion.

The medical community's understanding of infertility does not conform with these cultural norms, but society has not yet caught up with this knowledge. Several frequent infertility myths ought to be dispelled as reproductive care develops and more individuals can have biological children.

A stereotype fading fast is about gay couples bearing biological children. As a result of shifting societal perceptions and improvements in reproductive medicine, it has become possible and common for them to become parents. They are giving motherhood a new meaning and we should celebrate it. 

The need to change for the better

According to recent studies, gender role conformance and the discomfort associated with infertility for both men and women are significantly correlated. This demonstrates that individuals who closely align their identities with prevailing gender norms may display greater anguish while speaking or thinking about their infertility than others. People are herd animals and seek to fit in. In most civilisations, people identify with the traditional male and female stereotypes, therefore, to eliminate the stigma associated with infertility, we must alter the way we view male and female roles. It is time to address the issue rationally and use available medical treatments and breakthrough innovations in fertility.