A Reversal of the "Missing Women" Phenomenon?

In 1990, Amartya Sen, a Nobel-prize winning development economist, called attention to Asia’s “missing women.” In Asia, where families historically preferred sons to daughters, there were significantly fewer women than men – about 100 million fewer women, in fact. The gap has been attributed to everything from sex-selective abortion to infanticide to the withholding of food and medical services. In at least one Asian country, however, there’s reason to believe the missing women phenomenon may someday disappear. South Korean parents, who have historically preferred sons, are now more likely to express a preference for daughters. There were 106.4 boys born for every 100 girls in 2008 in South Korea, compared to 116.5 boys born for every 100 girls in 1980. Lee Jeong Rim, a researcher at the Korea Institute of Child Care and Education, attributes the attitudinal shift to better social safety nets for the elderly: “Much of the responsibility to give economic support to the elderly has shifted to the social safety nets, and so the need to have sons have somewhat weakened.” (HT: Motherlode)[%comments]


Not to mention, the taxes necessary to fund those "safety net" transfers represent taking away net product from working men, artificially reducing their value.

Tito Alvarado

Has not the trend taken already too long to reverse on a wealthy and educated South Korea?


FYI, this whole issue is the cover article in the Economist this week. They go into some interesting detail on what has changed in South Korea and how this might, or might not, play out elsewhere in Asia. Well worth checking out.


Agree with #3. The Economist article is very good. When you stop and thing about the scale of the issue and the number of murders and abortions involved I don't think you can help but be saddened.


Re: the Economist article, apparently all these countries don't realize that their hatred of women is self-hatred. For overpopulated areas like India and China, they may see population depletion to be a boon. But fewer women mean fewer children, and smaller countries will eventually wipe themselves out with this practice.


Has the birth ratio been analyzed per the number of children already in the family? Douglas Almond and Lena Edlund analyzed the 2000 census data for the birth ratio here in the United States. They discovered that, in a group of Asian Americans, the male-biased sex-selection ratio was operating not at the first or second birth, but at the third.

["Son-biased sex ratios in the 2000 United States Census. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the USA. 2008.]

Hopefully, this type of behavior will be appreciated by economists. Otherwise, you totally miss a profound phenomenon.

Almond and Eklund write, "At third parity, boys outnumbered girls by 1.51:1 if the two previous children were girls." If we only look at overall birth ratio, we never realize that under certain, predictable situations, a birth ratio will be 1.5 to 1.0.

This was all they needed to do to find a patriarchically skewed birth ratio that is quite alarming.



this is bad


I used to work in South Korea, and was surprised to learn from Korean, Japanese, and Indian friends that in their respective countries it is illegal for a doctor to disclose the baby's sex. They may hint at "buy pink".

EIleen Wyatt

Those improved social services may be most useful to the excess men who can't find wives and who therefore won't have children to support them in their old age.


This preference for girls has been developed in the last 10~15 years, due to a variety of factors.

First, women's wages and employment % have gone up, so women can technically support parents as much as men can.

Second, economic reliance on children has been reduced, esp. with financial innovations like reverse mortgage being introduced.

Third, the value of a grown child as an elder now comes from companionship as people live longer, fewer children, closer relationships with children, and more options for leisure (like traveling abroad, which was difficult until the late 80s in Korea)

Fourth, as an extension of the "asset/liability" calculation of having a child, boys are more of a "liability" as traditionally the groom's family is expected to pay for a married couple's house, and with real estate prices going up, and most people living in nuclear families, this is a huge burden on parents. Moreover, it is hard for an umemployed male to get married while it is relatively easier for an unemployed female.

Fifth, in relation to the first point, women have become more successful academically and now perform much better in school, esp due to behavior/socialization issues. This is a complex point, but generally parents feel there is less volatility with raising a girl in terms of academic outcome than raising a boy.

Sixth, again in relation to employment, as South Korea has become more developed, more jobs are created in the service sector, which gives more equal opportunity to men and women than traditional manufacturing jobs which characterized the 1970s.