gender preference.

Winter of 2013, I am living in a small mountain town in California.  It’s a progressive kind of place, a place full of artists and misfits and lovers of nature.  I was standing in line at my local post office, the type where everyone who is waiting knows something about who everyone else is, and the clerk knows your first name and grabs your 2 year old over the counter to give her a squeeze.  I’ll never forget the day that an acquaintance stopped me in that line and asked about my wife’s pregnancy.  The usual stuff.  Are you excited?  Are you ready?  Have you chosen a name?  And then, do you know the gender?  Yes, I said, and then volunteered, “it’s a girl.”

“Oh, I’m sorry”

The words were heavy.  Not like a slap; more like a sinking ship, because suddenly something came into focus that I had not previously considered.  My children were all girls and would all be bound by certain restrictions.  They would face a world of thinly veiled discrimination, the kind that led to the unreported disappearance of something on the order of 60 million young girls in China during the height of the One Child Policy.  This discrimination is not just a problem on the other side of the planet as I might have naively thought.  This was a weight to be borne by my very own kids.

There was something deep here that I couldn’t get over.  The person who did the asking was a professional woman herself, not someone I could easily apply the misogynist label to.  I don’t think she had any ill or discriminatory intentions, but still she was representing a pervasive ideology that I had lived my life never having to acknowledge directly.

Over the next few months, I would get the same reaction again and again.  People were sorry for me.  They felt pity.  They wondered what the prospects were for ‘trying again,’ as though in some way I had clearly failed three times now.  It was beginning to look like a fourth time might be a failure as well.  Could I bear the disappointment?

In a sense, I expected this reaction from men with their sometimes-callous way of addressing gender.  I was warned of a future of household hysteria and a life of worry as my daughters discovered boys.  But the women who brought this perspective were the ones that impacted me the most.  It seemed incredible that these perceptions were so pervasive that even seemingly empowered professional women would give air time to them.

As it turns out, gender preference is not only a thing in far off places like China where it was an unfortunate outcome of an attempt to curb population growth.  In the United States there is also a clear preference for male children.  Recent numbers show that 40% of American’s would prefer a son to a daughter.  Only 28 percent held the opposite partiality.  There were a bunch more who either had no preference or wouldn’t admit to it.  This, shockingly, has been tracked by Gallup polls since 1941, and though the numbers have fluctuated a bit over time, the results for the most recent survey are nearly identical to what they were in the middle of the last century (it was 38-24 in 1941 – the main difference being that a lot more people had ‘no opinion’ back then).

A lot has happened in the ensuing decades.  But apparently it has not changed much in terms of our prejudices.  While women tend to prefer girls more and men lean heavily toward boys, at least we can say that education is (still) linked to unbiased thinking.  Poorly educated males have a stronger predilection for male sons.

Gender alignment doesn’t end there.  This plays out over the long term as well.  In family settings, it seems that there is greater marital satisfaction happiness amongst women who have only boys than those who have children of both genders (read more here).  Similarly, in multi-child families, more boys make for greater happiness than more girls.

There are other implications for our convoluted disposition toward gender.  Data suggest that girls can be toxic to marriage.  Divorce rates are amplified with female children.  It seems the reduced likelihood for divorce when there are male children is due to fathers being more active parents to their sons, whereas they are less engaged with their daughters.  Essentially, having a boy means greater buy in from dad and more resilience for the family unit.

Adding insult to injury, and who knows what kind of damage to self-esteem, divorced women with daughters are less likely to remarry than those who have sons.  For unmarried couples who are expecting a child, knowing that that child is male is more likely to draw the couple into matrimony than knowing the child is a girl.

Perhaps this amounts to something close to understanding why gender bias is so deeply rooted in even those who should know better, why it runs deep and is so pervasive.  It affects our family structure and our overall happiness.  Maybe people have not read the data report, but they have no doubt interacted with families with different mixes of children.  Perhaps it is from there that they have taken their cues.  From the information we have, though, it looks like the implication is not that happiness or stability is derived from gender, but rather from our perception of gender.  We don’t perceive boys and girls on equal grounds from the moment we know their gender, from the day they are born.   This is going to have huge implications for the influence women will have in the determination of our environmental future.

In the following series of articles, I will explore the impact of gender bias on environmental issues.