Trying for a Boy?

When people find out my husband and I have three girls, they offer a variety of responses.  Most of these are not positive and uplifting.

Three girls. I bet you’re still trying for a boy.

Poor Dad. You’re really outnumbered, huh?

They must have their daddy wrapped around their fingers.

Usually these comments are from people I do not know well, making the decisions about how to respond all the more difficult for me. I understand that many times people are joking, but there are disturbing beliefs often behind these sarcastic statements.

Daughters are radically different than boys.

Fathers can’t bond with girls as well as they can with boys.

Life is more complete, for mothers and fathers, when they have a son.  

In the United States, the ideal for families is often to have a daughter and a son, while in other places, we know that having boys is viewed as more preferable to having girls. For example, the film It’s a Girl, released last year, documents the killing of baby girls in South Asia.  The following clip below, the official trailer for the film, touches upon some of the reasons and consequences of this reality.

Some of the same anti-female bias that drives the reality of infanticide and abandonment of female children exists in the United States.  Women and men, boys and girls, are valued in different ways, and we attach different potential to each of them.  And while I  assume that very few of the people encouraging me to have a boy would explicitly agree that females are worth less than males, they often see their potential as more limited than that of boys.  They see boys and girls as more different than they are similar.

However, when people bring girls into their families, we see that attitudes change. My current research project examines women leaders in the evangelical world.  Anecdotally, it’s clear that for many men who encourage women in leadership within the Church, it is the stories of their mothers and their daughters that make them passionate about gender issues. Seeing their potential limited can make men more passionate about issues of gender justice. On a larger scale, past social science evidence affirms that especially for men, having daughters seems to create more feminist views.  (Interestingly enough, some of this effect is found when men only have daughters.)  A 2008 article by Ebonya Washington, “Female Socialization: How Daughters Affect Their Legislator Fathers’ Voting on Women’s Issues,” includes a good review of the literature regarding what we know about dads and daughters. She further finds that having daughters actually causes male legislators (in the United States) to take a more liberal stance when it comes to women’s issues.

In my own life, I can also point to multiple ways that having three daughters has challenged some ways I think about gender.  Even as I study gender and the social construction of gendered roles, my daughters have expanded my own understandings of what it means to be female–and ways we might think differently about that as a society. In the differences that exist among my daughters, they illustrate that there is not one model of dress, behavior, or preferred activities for girls.  They illustrate some of the breadth of what it means to be female.

In socializing my first daughter, I was very intentional to let her know that she could do whatever she wanted, and be whatever she wanted to be.  Yet in making sure she did not feel confined by what others characterized as ‘feminine,’ I believe I sometimes unintentionally devalued some of those stereotypical qualities we think of as feminine. What does it mean to have her celebrate the fact that she was created female?  I want this child who loves soccer to see that using the strength of her body through sport is a feminine act. At the same time, I also want to affirm in another daughter her flair for fashion, and interest in drama.

So no, I’m not still trying for a boy.  Rather, I am thankful that my husband and I have three daughters.  In a world that often does not value girls for who they are and what they can be, I appreciate the chance to tell them a different story. I love watching them be sisters to one another. And my relationship with them has spurred me to continue to research gender related issues, with a hope that all families will celebrate their female children, and encourage them to live out their full potential.



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  • I can’t remember what business book I read it in, but the book cited a stat that said that 90% of men that mentored a woman in the business world had a daughter. Which would seem to fit in with the theme of the post. I really need to find that stat again.

    • areyno

      Very interesting (and quite drastic!)… Please do pass it on if you find it. It sounds very much in line with what other research finds, but I haven’t run into work looking at that specific dynamic. Given the importance of mentoring for leaders, a very important fact. Thanks for posting!

    • Dale

      Adam, this probably isn’t the reference you are thinking of, but I found a 2009 USA Today article which mentions a study by Catalyst (an organization which tries to help women in the workplace.)

      “Daughters make a difference

      But equally telling may be the gender of the children of male executives. Eighty-three percent of the men Catalyst identified as champions had at least one daughter. When USA TODAY asked top corporate women if the key male mentor who helped them most had a daughter, 70% said yes.

      Little research has been done on how fatherhood shapes workplace attitudes, but Yale economics professor Ebonya Washington studied congressional voting records from 1991-2004 and found that congressmen with daughters were more likely to support such issues as pay equity. Of the 40 women who were appointed by U.S. presidents to Cabinet posts, 26 were appointed by the last three presidents — all of whom have daughters and no sons.”

      • I glanced around and I couldn’t find what I had original read. I ran across that article as well. The book I was reading could have been referencing that, but those are based on very small studies.

      • areyno

        Dale, this is great information. You’ll see I mentioned Washington’s article/work in the blog above, which I think is the same one that NYT article cited. (BTW, the NYT had an article last month discussing research that seems to show daughters may some managers more generous when paying employees). INteresting information regarding the women being the ones to identify male mentors as having daughters. I definitely appreciate the info/link you’ve included here, as well as the NYT 2009 article link/reference. Thanks.

  • Lala Suarez

    I thoroughly enjoyed this article. It is beautiful to read about the effect that daughters have on their fathers. Great article. Personally, my girl arrived after having 3 boys, and I must admit that I was thrilled. I enjoyed the effect she had on “me”. She was the only one in the house to notice when I had a new blouse, or a new hairdo. And yes. She also had a very special effect on her Dad. Reading this article makes me appreciate more the effect she had on us. Great article.

    • areyno

      Thanks for these comments; it’s interesting to me the different effects daughters may have when they are among mixed-gender (or single gender) siblings, and you seem to be noting some of those dynamics.

  • karla from CO

    I know the world has a long way to go in stopping this type of stereotyping, but I have to say I’ve heard similar (opposite gender) comments said when a family has all boys, so I’m not sure your experience can speak for the attitude of the whole country. Have you looked for balancing research and experiences from those families? Truly curious, not snarky…

    • areyno

      Karla, I agree with you fully. While in some other countries people may not want girls, in the United States, it does seem that people want a mixed-gendered group of kids, meaning people with all boys get asked if they are trying for a girl. This is in part because we think boys and girls are just so different. However, I think the other comments people receive differ (no one tells mom to carry a baseball bat when she has all boys!). My point is to get us to think about assumptions behind those comments. While I have not looked at all the literature regarding the gender of children and parental views, what I have read suggests that it is only girls (and sometimes, only all girls) that makes parents more feminist or liberal. Having boys sometimes is equated with no effect, or a conservative effect on gender issues. This seems to suggest that having girls challenges the gender roles that parents have more than having boys.

  • This is pretty shocking!