Sex Preferences In Western Societies Research Paper

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Since 1950, a great number of authors working in the field of anthropology, demography, sociology, and psychology in North America and Europe have tried to determine parental sex preferences. The authors have used various approaches and samples, but in general results are relatively consistent. In this entry, the four methods most frequently used in this field will be reviewed: (a) first-child preference, (b) only-child preference, (c) sex preference for the next child, and (d) the parity-progression ratio technique.

1. First-Child Preference

Many authors have tried to determine the sex preference of adult individuals with regard to their firstborn child with a question such as ‘For your first child would you prefer a girl or a boy?’ More than 30 studies conducted in North America, for the most part with samples of college students or respondents recruited for fertility studies, have indicated that most women and men prefer a boy rather than a girl for their firstborn child. These findings give the strong impression that the preference for a boy as a firstborn has been universal among people in Western societies since 1950.

Since these results are based on a hypothetical situation that might not happen in the respondent’s life, Steinbacher and Gilroy (1985) have argued that an assessment of sex preference when the women are pregnant would be more valid. A review of the literature in English and French found 16 empirical investigations in which it was possible to identify the maternal sex preference of pregnant women. In eight of these studies, the information concerning the expectant father’s preference was also available, either from the fathers themselves (in three studies) or from their pregnant wives (in five studies).

These studies clearly indicate that first-time pregnant women more often prefer a girl than a boy, especially after 1981, when a preference for a girl is shown in six out of seven studies. The data concerning expectant fathers are different; in fact, in seven out of the eight studies, men preferred a boy rather than a girl for a first child.

Concerning the variables associated with the sex preference for a first child, two studies have presented data on pregnant women (Uddenberg et al. 1971, Steinbacher and Gilroy 1985). First, Uddenberg et al. (1971) found that women who grew up with only female siblings more often preferred a son first in a small sample of 81 first-time pregnant women in Sweden. (Some other studies showed the opposite: namely, that the more sisters a woman has, the greater her preference for a girl.) In addition, women who desire a girl are psychologically more autonomous than women who desire a boy. Interestingly, Uddenberg et al. (1971) also found no significant difference between the age or the social classes of the women who preferred a girl or a boy, or who expressed no specific preference. Second, the study by Steinbacher and Gilroy (1985), which dealt with 140 first-time pregnant women in the USA, reported that older women more often chose the no-preference category, and that those who agreed strongly with the women’s movement preferred a girl rather than a boy. Otherwise, they did not find any significant relationship in variables such as race, income, marital status, or religion.

Interestingly, in this type of literature, the nopreference percentage has varied from 25 percent to 59 percent since 1981. An important point is to determine whether in fact many of the women who claim to have no preference use this answer to hide a preference, as has been suggested by Pharis and Manosevitz (1980). Marleau et al. (1996) consequently checked the validity of this traditional sex preference question by comparing the answers to that question with the answers to a ‘feminine/masculine’ scale which assessed how pregnant women imagined the sex of their future baby. It was shown that women having expressed no sex preference on a direct question had in fact no explicit image of their baby as male or female on the ‘feminine/masculine’ scale. This experiment seems to confirm the validity of the classical direct question.

2. Only-Child Preference

In reviewing the literature relative to only-child preference, Marleau and Maheu (1998) identified many studies in which it was possible to identify women’s and/or men’s sex preference(s). Two subgroups of studies are found. The first one consists of 11 studies in which the subjects were forced to select the sex of a child on the basis of the hypothetical situation that they would have only one child in their whole lives. In the second subgroup, five studies were designed to elicit the number of children the subjects desired in their lives. Some subjects declared that they wanted only one child, and it was possible from these answers to determine the sex of this child for further analysis. The results of these two subgroups of studies were collapsed together for the final analysis. It should be noted that all of these studies were made in the USA between 1951 and 1991, and that in the majority of studies the samples consisted of college or university students.

The mains results indicate that women, in general, prefer a boy to a girl for an only child. However, in three of the five most recently published studies, women more often prefer a girl rather than a boy for an only child. Results for men show that in nearly all studies, at least 70 percent prefer a boy.

Some of these authors have tried to determine whether any variables are related to the sex preference. The most frequently found connection has been to education; in the two most recent decades, the data indicate that women who have reached university level more often prefer a girl than a boy for an only child. Men, whether they have an university education or not, prefer a boy more often. Pooler (1991) has identified two other variables: the variable ‘wife retaining her own name’ and the variable ‘religion.’ Female students who agree with the idea of retaining their own name after marriage more often prefer a girl. In addition, Jewish students prefer a girl whereas Catholics and Protestants prefer a boy.

Some authors have hypothesized that the women’s preference for a female only child could be attributed to the fact that the perceived traditional female role disadvantage appears now to be significantly diminishing in Western societies. For example, Hammer and McFerran (1988) showed, significantly, that all subgroups of females (except unmarried noncollege females) would prefer to be reborn as a female.

3. The Preference For Sex Of The Next Child

Another method consists in asking individuals their sex preference for a next child, based on the existing family composition. This type of question is found habitually in fertility surveys. In general, the data indicate that women with only one child more often prefer a child of the opposite sex. Moreover, a high percentage of women prefer a child of the opposite sex when they already have two or three children of the same sex. (Men rarely participate in these fertility surveys.)

For example, Marleau and Saucier (1993) showed that almost half of the women who already had a child hoped that their second child would be of the opposite sex in data from the Canadian Fertility Survey of 1984. Nearly 80 percent of women who already had two boys desired a girl for their next child, whereas nearly 50 percent of those with two girls preferred a boy.

Some authors have worked with other measures, especially with the mean number of desired children. Here the results are mixed. Some studies have found that women with a boy and a girl intend to have the same mean number of children as those who have two children of the same sex, but other studies have found that the mean number of children desired is higher for the latter group.

Other authors have worked with a measure such as the use of contraception by women who have already had children. A study done by Krishnan (1993) with the Canadian Fertility Survey of 1984 on women aged between 18 and 49 showed a son preference: the women who already had two sons were more likely to use contraception than those who had two girls.

4. Parity Progression Ratio

A method used by many authors is the parityprogression ratio. This technique consists in observing real behavior rather than being satisfied with verbal statements of attitude as in the methods mentioned above.

The parity progression ratio is the proportion of couples at a given parity who have at least one additional child. If certain sex compositions of existing children are associated with a lower than average progression ratio, the inference is made that the predominant sex in those compositions is preferred. More than 30 studies were identified in the literature. In general, the data indicate that couples with one child continue to bear children regardless of the sex of the first child. Parents with two children of the same sex are more likely to go on than those with one child of each sex.

For example, it was shown (Marleau and Saucier 1996) in a large sample from the Canadian General Social Survey of 1990 that 58 percent of the couples with two children of the same sex were more likely to have another child as compared with 53 percent of couples with two children of both sexes. On the other hand, those who stopped childbearing the more often were those with a boy first and a boy second. No such differences in behavior occurred in couples with three children.

This method is interesting because it can be computed from large databases collected for other purposes. But, it remains a weakness of this method that it gives good results only if sex preferences are relatively homogeneous in the population studied.

5. Conclusion

When we compare the findings reviewed above, we note that a global tendency is revealed by the first three, namely the increasing preference among women for a girl over a boy since 1980. More research will be needed to verify whether this trend will continue and to understand the reasons for this recent shift. A further trend is revealed by the first method, namely the increasing proportion of women who have chosen the no-preference option since 1980. This trend is visible for both pregnant and nonpregnant women.


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