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Why We All Thought Female Fertility Plummeted After 35

The Atlantic published a great article last week debunking the commonly held view that women must have children by 35 or risk high chance of infertility. Its a very interesting read, and one that I hope reassures young women who are feeling unnecessary pressure to choose between kids and careers.

But, what was especially interesting here was the article’s exploration of why this “fact” was so ingrained into our minds and the minds of fertility experts. Beyond just bad statistics (apparently the “widely cited statistic that one in three women ages 35 to 39 will not be pregnant after a year of trying is based on … French birth records from 1670 to 1830”), the article highlighted the availability heuristic: where top of mind experiences, even if they are statistically unrepresentative, twist your perceptions:

Women who are actively trying to get pregnant at age 35 or later might be less fertile than the average over-35 woman. Some highly fertile women will get pregnant accidentally when they are younger, and others will get pregnant quickly whenever they try, completing their families at a younger age. Those who are left are, disproportionately, the less fertile.

Given that fertility experts, by definition, treat wealthier women wanting children who are having trouble conceiving and routinely deal with in vitro fertilization (which is known to be less effective with older women), is it any wonder that they just assume older women have much lower fertility rates?

This sort of bias isn’t restricted just to fertility – its extremely common amongst entrepreneurs and investors who oftentimes fall into the trap of generalizing their own opinions and the opinions of their friends & family to the broader market, forgetting that the views of middle-aged, highly educated, Silicon Valley, upper-income, tech-savvy folks they know aren’t always indicative of what the broader population (i.e. the broader market) thinks.

Everyone is subject to bias – what’s important is that we constantly ask ourselves if our biases are creeping in.

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