A boy for you and a girl for me: do men want sons and women want daughters?

Author:Gray, Edith

Survey data show that more than 60 per cent of Australian couples yet to have a first child say that the child's sex does not matter. Of the minority who do express a preference most would prefer a son, though men more so than women. Where couples have one child and want another, most still say that the sex of the next child does not matter, though parents who already have a daughter are more likely to want a son than are those who already have a son to want a daughter. Where couples have two children and want a third, parents who have two children of the same sex are more likely to want a child of the opposite sex than are those who already have one son and one daughter.


Since the late twentieth century, there has been a plethora of research showing that parents in Western industrialised countries want at least one child of each sex. This preference is expressed in the increased propensity of parents to have another child if their existing children are all boys or all girls, rather than a mix. For example, Australian mothers with two sons or two daughters are around 25 per cent more likely to have a third child than are mothers with a son and a daughter. (1)

One problem with this research is the weak theoretical basis for the preference for 'one of each' in developed countries. (2) Explanations of parental gender preference in developing countries focus on economic utility to explain son preference, and women's dominance in care duties to explain the importance of having at least one daughter. However, these are not convincing arguments in developed countries where children are an undoubted net financial impost on parents, and where it is less likely that parents now expect daughters to take on primary caring duties.

Explanations for the parental preference for 'one of each' have changed little since the 1950s, despite the extraordinary shifts in gender roles and social institutions from that time. In terms of understanding the value that sons and daughters provide, some research suggests that sons may provide particular benefits to fathers, and daughters to mothers. In aggregate this could explain the manifest preference for one child of each sex, since in heterosexual couples, men would prefer sons and women would want daughters. (3) However, in assessing research on sex-specific parental preferences for sons and daughters, Hank notes that: 'although it is frequently proposed that fathers have a pronounced desire for sons, the empirical evidence of sex-specific parental preferences is not always clear'. (4)

The current paper adds to this research by investigating whether Australian mothers and fathers, and prospective mothers and fathers, express preferences for sons or daughters. Using a nationally representative survey, we compare responses of men and women to determine whether they differ in their stated desire for boys or girls. We also compare mothers' and fathers' stated preference for the sex of their next child by the sex of their existing children. This is a better method than examining behavioural data for determining whether men and women want children of a particular sex. This is because in observing whether parents progress to another birth based on the sex of their existing children, it is difficult to disentangle men's and women's preferences since children are generally born to a couple rather than to individuals.

The remainder of the paper is structured as follows. The next section discusses previous literature on the desire for sons and daughters and outlines four questions to be addressed in this research. The data and method are then described and the three questions posed are then addressed.


Most research investigating gender preference has been conducted using parity progression analysis, that is, the propensity of parents to have another child given the sex composition of their existing children. Arnold and others (5) assert that parents 'revise up' their family size in order to achieve families with a particular sex composition. Countries in which parents are more likely to have another child if all their existing children are female--rather than male or of both sexes--are said to exhibit a son preference. This is true of many traditional societies. In many developed countries, a preference for a mixed-sex composition is inferred because parents are equally likely to progress to a third birth if their first two children are both boys or both girls, but have a greater propensity to stop at two if they have a son and a daughter. For example, in the 1970s Young (6) found that Australian parents with same-sex children had a greater probability of having an additional child and also expected to have a larger family as compared to parents who had a mixed-sex composition. Hank and Kohler (7) compared seventeen European countries and found that preference...

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