research brief
February 2009 Deon Filmer, Jed Friedman, and Norbert Schady

New evidence suggests development does not reduce parental preference for sons over daughters in countries where such a preference exists. Indeed, modernization may be associated with higher, not lower, son preference in some areas.

Preference for sons over daughters can manifest itself in many ways including higher mortality, worse health status, or lower educational attainment among girls. Female disadvantage in these dimensions has been shown to be especially stark in South Asian, Middle Eastern and North African countries.

A new study assesses changes in son preference—focusing on the likelihood of continued childbearing given the gender composition of existing children in the family. Differential gender-related behavior could be the result of "taste-based" gender discrimination, but could also arise from the comparative economic costs—or benefits—of investing in girls versus boys.[1] The study examines differences in behavior, regardless of the cause of those differences.

Parental preference for gender composition of children varies across the globe

Past studies investigating gender preferences and fertility decisions at different stages of development have found substantial heterogeneity across developed countries, with a tendency toward a mild preference for a mixed-sex composition.[2] In developing countries, most of the literature documenting son preference has focused on individual countries where women experience discrimination in many ways. A pair of multi-country analyses finds regional variation with many countries displaying patterns consistent with a preference for at least one son and one daughter.[3] The strongest results documenting son preference occur in the Asian and North African countries studied.

The new analysis is based on comparable Demographic and Health Survey data ( from 65 countries for around 5 million births to 1.3 million women. The probability differences for whether a woman gives birth again after having either no sons or no daughters is defined as the Differential Stopping Behavior (DSB). The reference group is composed of women with both sons and daughters, and the analysis considers only the birth histories of women 40 or years of age or older.[4]

Families in Eastern Europe, Central Asia, and South Asia are most likely to continue trying for a son

Figure 1 Deon paper

Source: Filmer, Deon, Jed Friedman and Norbert Schady. 2008. “Development, Modernization, and Son Preference in Fertility Decisions.” World Bank Policy Research Working Paper 4716.

In the Eastern Europe and Central Asia region families are 9.4 percentage points more likely to have an additional child if they have had no sons than if they have had no daughters; in South Asia the corresponding difference is 7.8 percentage points. A significant but smaller degree of son preference is apparent in the Middle East and North Africa region (5.8 percentage points) and in South East Asian countries (3.7 percentage points), with no clear evidence of son preference for countries in Sub-Saharan Africa or Latin America and the Caribbean.

Son preference increases at higher birth orders

The mean number of children per family is 4.1 in Eastern Europe and Central Asia (ECA), and 4.9 in South Asia. In such high-fertility settings the gender composition of lower-parity children is less important in determining future fertility.

But once parents are closer to achieving their total desired number of children, the gender composition of children already born becomes an important determinant of whether parents have another child. For example, families with 4 or 5 children in South Asia are approximately 14 percentage points more likely to add another child if all of the children up to this point are girls rather than boys.

Urbanization and female education are often associated with higher, not lower, son preference

In South Asian countries, son preference is significantly greater for women in urban areas or with more education, and this pattern seems to have increased over time. It´s possible that latent son preference manifests itself when fertility levels are low—that is, when families are closer to desired fertility at low parity—and indeed fertility has fallen among women in urban areas or with more education.

Son preferred differential stopping behavior exacerbates other forms of gender discrimination
figure 2 Deon paper

Source: Filmer, Deon, Jed Friedman and Norbert Schady. 2008. Development, Modernization, and Son Preference in Fertility Decisions.” World Bank Policy Research Working Paper 4716.

If families are more likely to have an additional child when they have no sons than when they have no daughters, girls will tend to have more siblings than boys. The DHS data confirm this: the mean number of siblings of girls exceeds boys’ in regions where DSB is high (sons are preferred). Girls in South Asia have about 0.13 more siblings than boys, on average; in the Eastern European and Central Asian countries, the comparable number is 0.10. By contrast, in Sub-Saharan Africa, boys and girls have the same number of siblings, on average.

Studies on the association between family size and child outcomes in developed and developing countries usually demonstrate that more siblings dilute household and parental resources devoted to each child, a “quantity-quality” tradeoff. If this association is causal, son preference, as manifested in gender-specific fertility choices is likely to have adverse consequences for girls since they will grow up in larger families.

Moreover, son preference in fertility behavior is strongest in exactly those places where girls experience discrimination in other ways—suggesting an additional obstacle to girls’ human development in such settings.

DEON FILMER is a Lead Economist in the Development Research. His research focuses primarily on inequalities in education and health outcomes, education and health service delivery, and evaluation of the impact of interventions and programs.

JED FRIEDMAN is a Senior Economist in the Development Research Group. His research focuses on the interactions between poverty and health, the determinants of health behavior change, and on the socio-economic impact of the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami.

NORBERT SCHADY is a Senior Economist in the Development Research Group. His research focuses on early childhood development, education, health, safety nets, and the impact of macroeconomic shocks on human capital outcomes, predominantly in Latin America and East Asia.


1. Filmer, Deon, Jed Friedman, and Norbert Schady. 2008. "Development, Modernization, and Son Preference in Fertility Decisions." World Bank Policy Research Working Paper 4716 (September).

2. Andersson, Gunnar, Hank Karsten, Marit Rønson, and Andres Vikat. 2006. “Gendering Family Composition: Sex Preferences for Children and Childbearing Behavior in the Nordic Countries.” Demography 42(2):255-67.

Angrist, Joshua D., and William N. Evans. 1998. "Children and Their Parents’ Labor Supply: Evidence from Exogenous Variation in Family Size." American Economic Review 88(3): 450-77.

Karsten, Hank and Hans-Peter Kohler. 2000. “Gender Preferences for Children in Europe: Empirical Results from 17 FFS Countries.” Demographic Research 2(1).

3. Arnold, Fred. 1992. "Sex Preference and Its Demographic and Health Implications." International Family Planning Perspectives 18(3): 93-101.

Arnold, Fred. 1997. "Gender Preferences for Children." DHS Comparative Studies no. 23. Macro International, Calverton, MD.

4. Women aged 40 and older in developing countries are likely to have completed their child bearing years.

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