Americans Might No Longer Prefer Sons Over Daughters
Posted March 5, 2018 2:17 p.m. EST
Around the world, parents have typically preferred to have sons more than to have daughters, and U.S. parents have been no different. But there are signs that’s changing. It may be because there’s less bias against girls, and possibly more bias against boys.
Gallup surveyed Americans 10 times from 1941-2011, and their answers remained virtually unchanged: If they could have one child, 40 percent would prefer a boy and 28 percent a girl (the rest showed no preference).
A new study, however, measured that preference in a different way. While having a daughter versus a son used to make U.S. parents more likely to keep having children, theoretically to try for a son, now the opposite is true: Having a daughter makes it less likely that they keep having children. Some data from adoptions and fertility procedures that allow parents to choose the sex of their baby also shows a preference, to varying degrees, for girls.
First- and second-generation U.S. immigrants, the new study found, continue to show a preference for sons. They are more likely to keep having babies after having a daughter — particularly if they are from countries with less gender equity and lower female labor force participation.
Across cultures, the bias against daughters has been closely tied to women’s second-class status. Sons have been more likely to be successful, carry on the family name and earn money to support family members in old age.
But the status of women in the United States has undergone a revolution in the last four decades. Women still face deep inequality and sexism, but they are now more likely to pursue rewarding careers and have a greater role in family decision-making. They are also more likely to be college graduates than are men.
Men without college degrees are struggling in the modern job market, which rewards brains more than brawn. And teenage boys and men are almost entirely the bad actors in certain crises the nation is facing, like mass shootings and sexual harassment. The diminishing preference for sons could indicate, among some parents, a growing bias against boys.
“It should be celebrated that parents want to raise confident young women,” said Michael Thompson, a psychologist who studies the development of boys. “But there is now a subtle fear of boys and the trouble they might bring. Parents think: ‘My son might have ADHD, might not fit in as well in school, there might not be jobs for him. Life is going to be a little tougher for him as a boy.'”
Economists have measured preference for sons in several ways. A pathbreaking study by Enrico Moretti and Gordon Dahl in 2004, using census data about fertility from 1960-1980, found that parents who had a daughter were more likely to have another child than parents who had a son. The effect was more pronounced as parents had additional daughters.
The new study, a working paper published in September, used the same technique, but with fertility data from 2008-2013. “We were surprised to find that it was not true anymore that having a girl encouraged additional births,” said Francine Blau, an economist at Cornell and one of the paper’s authors. “There could be a daughter preference.”
Blau and her colleagues said the new data shows that other factors now outweigh the preference for sons. That could indicate a preference for daughters, or it could be a combination of things.
In general, Americans — especially men — have been more likely to say they want a child of their own gender. In the 2011 Gallup survey, 31 percent of women wanted a boy and 33 percent a girl, while 49 percent of men wanted a boy and 22 percent a girl.
Part of the reason is parents want to share interests and hobbies with a child, research shows, and think this will be based on gender. Now that girls play sports and do other things that used to be considered masculine, fathers might feel more of an affinity for them. Stereotypes about what boys spend their time doing have not changed as much.
As women have gained more decision-making power in marriages and become more likely to be single mothers, they might be exercising their daughter preference more often than they used to. That could explain the difference between the Gallup survey responses and the results from the new research. (Gallup said it was planning another survey on this question this year.)
“It could be men are just as biased as they always were, but have less of a say in having another kid,” said Dahl, an economics professor at the University of California, San Diego. There could be explanations other than a preference for daughters. For example, people might stop having children after having daughters because daughters cost more than they used to since they are more likely to go to college, researchers said, though it’s unclear if this has affected people’s family planning decisions.
The new paper found an indication that some son preference remains. Unmarried fathers are less likely to marry pregnant mothers if an ultrasound shows that the baby is a girl, and parents of daughters are more likely to divorce. This effect was much smaller in the new paper, which used data from 2008-2013, than in the earlier paper, using data about family structure from 1960-2000, but it was still there.
Men, particularly white men, still have many advantages in U.S. society — whether being paid more or being disproportionately represented in government and business. But overall, they are falling behind in school and work.
Early elementary school has become more academic — more work sheets and less play — and teachers report that boys, as a whole, have more trouble sitting still, behaving and earning high grades. In the labor market, the jobs that have consistently grown in recent decades require social skills, like cooperation and empathy. Jobs that have tended to shrink are male-dominated physical ones, like machine operators.
“The economic trends are pretty clear,” said Moretti, an economics professor at the University of California, Berkeley. “Women are more involved in the labor force, and less skilled men are less involved, and women are getting more educated and men are not.”
For parents, raising a girl can seem as if it’s about showing them all the things they can do, while raising a boy is telling them what not to do, researchers say.
“There’s been a much more complete gender revolution for women than for men,” said Dan Clawson, a sociology professor at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. “If I’m raising a daughter, I’m raising someone who can challenge conventions, and that’s an attraction. On the other hand, if I’m raising a boy, am I raising someone who’s going to get in trouble, who won’t do well in school and so on?”
The fading bias against girls should cheer all who desire a more egalitarian society. But there are risks to society if what replaces it is a bias against boys.