Parents in the US don’t prefer boys anymore, according to new research

Race for affection.
Race for affection.
Image: Reuters/Mike Segar
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Parents in the US used to want to have boys. New research suggests this is no longer the case.

In 2008, economists Gordon Dahl and Enrico Moretti published a landmark study (pdf) about whether American parents preferred to have boys or girls. Based on an analysis of US Census data from 1960 to 2000, the researchers concluded that, on average, parents appeared to favor sons. Their belief was based on two findings:

1️⃣ If a couple’s first child was a girl, it was more likely the father would leave. A female firstborn was associated with a 3% higher chance that there was no dad in the house.  The researchers argued that the most likely reason was that fathers wanted male children, though they also acknowledged there were other possible explanations. For example, fathers may have thought a male role model was more important for boys.

2️⃣ For families that stayed together, a female first child led to more children in the future. The fertility rate of families with a female firstborn was 0.3% higher than those that had boys first. The researchers interpreted this as the result of parents persisting in having more kids in hopes of having a boy. Though 0.3% may not seem like a lot, this implies about 220,000 additional births from 1960 to 2000.

Though inequities still exist, there has been significant progress in gender equality over the past several decades. Americans today are far less likely to assume a mother should stay home and take care of the family, the gender pay gap has shrunk, and the representation of women in politics has risen. So, has the parental preference for boys also evolved?

In a recently released paper (pdf), economists from Cornell University, the University of Alabama, and the University of Pittsburgh updated Dahl and Moretti’s analysis using 2008-2013 Census data. The news is mostly good. The researchers found that while it is still true that female firstborns are more likely to have a single-parent mother, the difference is half of what it was between 1960 and 2000. Even more notably, the researchers showed that, in a reversal of the earlier study, families that stay together and have a girl first have fewer future children.

One interpretation of these results is that the preference for sons has waned, according to the researchers. It could be that fewer parents have the sexist belief that sons are inherently better, or think think that that sons will be better able to support them in old age. Another, more intriguing explanation is that mothers, for whom evidence suggests never have had an inclination towards boys, now have more power in households. 

The change “may reflect an increase in women’s bargaining power in the family, perhaps due to rising female labor force participation and relative wages,” write the researchers.  This would explain why fathers continue to be more likely to leave households when a girl is born first.

But why would a female first child now lead to fewer children in the future? The researchers say the best explanation is that parents recognize that girls are more expensive to raise because they are more likely to go to college than boys. Times really have changed.