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How Daughters Change Fathers

Men's gender ideology and support of women's rights may depend on child gender.

Research suggests that the birth of a daughter causes men to adopt more progressive gender ideology and to increase support of women's rights. This post summarizes the evidence that fathering a daughter changes men's attitudes and considers the causes of this effect. 

In the modern United States, parents—especially fathers—demonstrate a strong preference for sons (Dahl and Moretti 2008). Couples with sons are more likely to marry and are less likely to divorce if married; fathers spend more time with sons than with daughters (Dahl and Moretti 2008; Raley and Bianchi 2006). In addition, couples are more likely to have an additional child if their first-born child is female (Dahl and Moretti 2008). However, despite a clear preference for sons, few American parents control the gender of their child(ren) (e.g., through sex-selective abortion or assisted reproductive technologies). Therefore, the gender of any given child can be seen as exogenous to the couple and approximately half of children born in the United States are girls.

What effect do these daughters have on their parents’ attitudes and behaviors? Given that men display a stronger preference for sons and also tend to hold more traditional gender attitudes, are the effects of daughters larger for men?

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Indeed, research suggests that fathering daughters changes men’s gender attitudes but there is little evidence of change in mothers’ attitudes. Among previously-childless men, the birth of a daughter causes a larger shift toward more progressive gender ideology than does the birth of a son (Shafer and Malhotra 2011). The effect of daughters on increasing liberal social-political attitudes has been observed not only in the United States (Shafer and Malhotra 2011) but also in Great Britain and Germany (Oswald and Powdthavee 2010). Similarly, being a father to daughters influences male legislators to vote in support of women’s issues, particularly in the domain of reproductive rights (Washington 2008). These changes in fathers’ attitudes and behavior suggest that fathering a daughter causes men to become more aware of—or more sympathetic to—the inequities of traditional gender ideology. 

Interestingly, mothers’ attitudes are generally uninfluenced by the birth of a daughter, perhaps because women’s issues were already salient to them. Women to do require the birth of a daughter to benefit from gender-egalitarianism; they benefit directly. In contrast, men collectively benefit from gender inequality—for example, men do less housework, are favored in employment decisions, and predominately-male occupations are generally more rewarding. But if fathers are altruistic toward their children, daughters provide men with an incentive to support women’s equality. A gender egalitarian world may not benefit men directly (they might even pay some costs for increased gender equality), but it indirectly benefits fathers of daughters.

These findings suggest that fathering a daughter may undermine the traditional attitudes about gender that motivate parents to prefer sons.

  

Works Cited:

Dahl, Gordon B. and Enrico Moretti. 2008. "The Demand for Sons." Review of Economic Studies 75:1085-1120.

Oswald, Andrew J. and Nattavudh Powdthavee. 2010. "Daughters and Left-Wing Voting." The Review of Economics and Statistics 92:213-227.

Raley, Sara and Suzanne B. Bianchi. 2006. "Sons, Daughters, and Family Processes: Does Gender of Children Matter?" Annual Review of Sociology 32:401-421.

Shafer, Emily Fitzgibbons and Neil Malhotra. 2011. "The Effect of a Child's Sex on Support for Traditional Gender Roles." Social Forces 90:209-222.

Washington, Ebonya L. 2008. "Female Socialization: How Daughters Affect Their Legistlator Fathers' Voting on Women's Issues." American Economic Review 98:311-332.

Elizabeth Aura McClintock, Ph.D., is a professor at the University of Notre Dame.

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