Saturday, November 29, 2003

Oh, Baby!

Imagine yourself as not yet existing (behind the Rawlsian 'veil of ignorance' if you wish). Imagine that you can choose the sex you are going to be born into, but nothing else about your forthcoming life. Would you choose to be born a girl?

Not very likely. Pure statistical odds would mean that you'd probably be born in one of those countries where the birth of a girl can be a family disaster. It's kind of hard to grow up into a confident and productive human being if your very existence is a misfortune. If you're allowed to grow up, that is.

Life is a crapshoot, anyway, and being born poor is pretty bad. But being born a poor girl baby in a country such as India is a calamity. In India, a traditionally patrilinear society, sons are important both as workers and as the future caretakers of their parents in old age. Daughters, on the other hand, are to be married off to some other family. On top of that, their marriagibility depends on providing a dowry. So the birth of yet another daughter to a poor family is no cause for rejoicing. Not another pair of hands to guarantee a safe old age for the parents, but another dowry to scrape together.

India is of course not the only country that doesn't value daughters as much as sons. China is famous for its strong preference for sons, and most countries show this preference to at least some degree.

Even the western world, it seems. Several recent studies suggest that marriages where all the children are daughters are more likely to end than marriages where all the children are sons and that parents invest more wealth in their male children. The differences these studies find are very small and may not reflect an actual parental preference for sons. But if they do reflect this, and if the reason for preferring sons is in their value as manual laborers and old age insurance policies, these differences shouldn't exist at all in post-industrialized countries with functioning pension systems. If anything, one might have predicted a slight preference for daughters, given that it is largely the daughters who provide informal nursing care to aging parents.

Steven E. Landsburg gives his take on these study findings in a column fetchingly entitled:
Oh, No: It's a Girl! Do Daughters Cause Divorce? Landsburg argues that boys hold shaky marriages together not because the parents deem the effects of a divorce to be worse for sons than for daughters, but because boys actually make marriages better. Better than daughters, that is. Why? Landsburg seems to think that it might have something to do with playing catch, among other things. He concludes by noting that :

Years ago on the schoolyard, we used to chant that girls are good but boys are better. It looks like our parents agreed with us.

Who are the 'we' in this statement? None of the several women I checked with had chanted this particular song in the schoolyard. And how can Mr. Landsburg speak on behalf of both mothers and fathers? As far as I know, these studies allow us to draw no conclusions about how much parents agree in their preferences.

I think that those mothers and/or fathers who prefer sons over daughters do so because the society on the whole exhibits the same preference. The advantages to having sons in India are obvious, but the reasons underlying these advantages are much less so. Why did most countries adopt a patrilinear system of inheritance? Why did most societies decide to marry their daughters away from the homes of their birth and not their sons? Why has it been until recently that only sons can carry on the family name? Why are dowries (payments from the bride's family) more common than bride prices (payments to the bride's family)? These are the essential mysteries.

And what about the current consequences of the strong preference for sons in countries such as India and China? Sex selective abortions and infanticide of girls have distorted the sex ratios to such an extent that the outcome might be a society with a large segment of eternal bachelors. China already may have around thirty million men who will never have a chance to marry, and many regions of India are facing a similar dilemma, with only 800-900 girls being born for every 1,000 boys.

To be honest, I could care less about this consequence. If the best argument against the preference for sons is to point out that someone must produce future wives for these sons, we haven't advanced very far. Besides, this problem can be easily solved through the use of polyandry, serial or not. Polyandry works, I should know.

Sons will be preferred over daughters in societies where men are privileged over women. It's as simple as that. The more equal the social valuation of women and men, the smaller the observed preference for sons.

Postscript: 1. I ran this text through the Gender Genie. The results:
Words: 830

(NOTE: The genie works best on texts of more than 500 words.)

Female Score: 986
Male Score: 2121

The Gender Genie thinks the author of this passage is: male!

I guess they don't have a category for goddesses.

2. If you are interested in learning more about this topic, a poster named Le Chat Noir on the ms. boards has searched the web for you.