genderpreferenceThe New York Times Magazine ran an article on a sad and chronic problem in the developing world: the preference people have for sons over daughters, and the lengths they will go to in order to ensure that they have sons. The scary part is that the situation is made worse, not better, by improved living standards. Newly affluent and educated Indians can pay for ultrasounds to determine a fetus’s gender, and then have a safe abortion if it is a girl – much less messy than drowning a newborn! These emerging middle-class families feel pressure to ensure that their sons have good educations and medical care, and they figure that a suitable marriage for a daughter will involve a high dowry. Even though the family’s resources may be growing, the boy will need to take a larger share of them. There simply won’t be enough for some pathetic creature cursed with two X chromosomes.

The ridiculousness of parents who would love a child less – to the point of murder – because of secondary sex characteristics is bad enough. But there’s an additional reason to fear gender selection: what to do with the excess men. This is a new phenomenon in human history. For most of our eons of existence, humans have suffered from a shortage of men. Male babies tend to be weaker, and then men would die while hunting or during wars. That’s why human beings took up polygamy. It was purely practical: a man would take in the nice widow lady a few caves down as a way of supporting the community as a whole. Naturally, the rich men would end up with more, younger, and prettier wives than the average fellow, but the surplus of women meant that there were wives for every man who wanted one, or two, or three.

Nowadays, mortality rates are lower than at any time in the history of the world, so polygamy is not needed to keep societies functioning. It happens, of course. Some religions condone polygamy, and it’s always a popular way for a man to show off his wealth and status. (In non-polygamous societies, rich and powerful men have mistresses.) For the most part, I don’t really care what consenting adults do, as long as I don’t have to be part of it. However, if the ratio of men to women is unbalanced, polygamy creates a societal problem.

The Cato Institute, a libertarian think-tank, published an article saying just that in 2008. If men take more than one wife, and the number of men is equal to the number of women, then there is quickly a surplus of men who will not ever be able to marry. These men have to be expelled from the community or otherwise controlled; not to be sexist or anything, but young unmarried men can get up to a lot of trouble. (Fifteen of the nineteen hijackers on September 11, 2001 were unmarried Saudi men; polygamy is legal in Saudi Arabia, but there are virgins in heaven for martyrs.) Hence, many political theorists believe that a polygamous society is a repressive society.

The only evidence research we have into the effects of a society with more men than women come from research into polygamous communities or such predominantly male organizations as the military; neither set is known for being open and flexible. If the preference for boys over girls continues, the consequences of surplus men will be felt by more societies, especially those that are struggling with the basics of democracy and economic growth. India may be the world’s largest democracy, but it is also a relatively young government with much internal ethnic strife. China is officially Communist; it has much economic but little political freedom. Both nations have come very far in a very short time, but what will happen when there are 107 men for every 100 women? If a million more boy babies are born each a year than girl babies, what do those million men do when it is time to marry?

By the way, don’t be a smug American and assume that such gender bias would never happen here. It does, but in a subtle fashion. Families are more likely to try for a second child if their first child is a girl than if it is a boy; they are more likely to try for a third child if they have two girls than if they have two boys. Fathering a son remains a symbol of masculinity in our culture, and the highest accolade for an investment banker is to be dubbed a Big Swinging Dick. Our gender bias doesn’t stoop to infanticide, but that doesn’t make our bias acceptable.

About the Author

Ann Logue

Ann Logue is a freelance writer and consulting analyst who is fascinated by business and technology. She has a particular interest in regulatory issues and corporate governance. She is the author of "Emerging Markets for Dummies" (Wiley 2011), “Socially Responsible Investing for Dummies” (Wiley 2009), “Day Trading for Dummies” (Wiley 2007), and “Hedge Funds for Dummies” (Wiley 2006), and has written for Barron’s, Institutional Investor, and Newsweek Japan, among other publications. As an editor and ghostwriter, she worked on a book published by the International Monetary Fund and another by a Wall Street currency strategiest. She is a lecturer in finance at the University of Illinois at Chicago. Her current career follows 12 years of experience as an investment analyst. She holds a B.A. from Northwestern University, an M.B.A. from the University of Chicago, and the Chartered Financial Analyst designation. How's that for deathly dull?

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