There is a vast literature on sex preferences for children around the world. A preference for sons over daughters is mainly observed in East Asia (e.g., China, South Korea), South Asia (e.g., India), the countries of the former Soviet Union, and—more recently—in Albania and the Balkans (Arnold 1997; Bongaarts 2013; Fuse 2010; Guilmoto 2009; UNFPA 2012a, b). In these countries, son preference has largely been driven by the perceived greater economic utility for parents—over the course of the life cycle—of having sons versus daughters (e.g., Das Gupta et al. 2003). However, the preference for sons can also be influenced by social and cultural factors (Arnold and Kuo 1984). In many East Asian societies where the concept of patrilineality is treasured and Confucianism has been historically an important ideology, a woman’s traditional primary duty was to bear sons to perpetuate her husband’s lineage (Arnold and Kuo 1984; Tang 2013). The number of sons she had borne greatly impacted her value in her family and community (Mitra 1979; Das Gupta et al. 2003; Murphy et al. 2011). Furthermore in old ages, parents would depend on their sons and daughters-in-law for care. Under such a system, the desire for a son would drive couples to continue childbearing if their previous children were all girls (Ma 2016; Poston 2002).
In most developed countries, however, children are not seen predominantly as a source of economic security. They are valued largely for social and psychological reasons. Socially, children increase the attractiveness of families (Durkheim 1984) and decrease the likelihood of separation or divorce (Andersson 1997; Morgan et al. 1988). Psychologically, children provide parents with opportunities for self-realization such as expansion of the self- affiliation, stimulation, accomplishment or social comparison (Hoffman and Hoffman 1973). Furthermore, parents might prefer a child of the same sex (Marleau and Saucier 2002; Dahl and Moretti 2004; Hank 2007) even if different benefits may come by the sex of the children for each of the partners. In some contexts (e.g., the US and China), couples with a boy in the household have lower divorce risks than those with only girls (Morgan et al. 1988; Ma et al. 2018). On the other hand, girls might be considered as more rewarding companions (Marleau and Saucier 2002).
Existing research has provided evidence of parents’ preference for having at least one child of each sex, mainly in developed societies. Studies for North America and Europe have shown that parents with only daughters or only sons are more likely than other parents to have another child (Andersson et al. 2006; Andersson et al. 2007; Jacobsen et al. 1999, Hank and Kohler 2003; Pollard and Morgan 2002). Moreover, in some of the Nordic countries (Denmark, Norway and Sweden), parents who only have sons are more likely to have another child compared with parents who only have daughters (Andersson et al. 2006, 2007). Such findings reflect parental preferences for daughters on childbearing behavior in that region (Andersson et al. 2006, 2007).
Lately, increased attention has been paid in the literature to the preferences for the sex of children among immigrant parents and their childbearing behaviors in different destination countries. Relevant studies are often conducted from two angles based on the research methods. Some studies exploring the sex ratio at birth (SRBFootnote 1) have found elevated ratios in third or higher-order births among immigrant women of an Asian background, indicating sex selection of children among this immigrant group (Almond and Edlund 2008; Almond et al. 2013; Dubuc and Coleman 2007; Hwang and Saenz 1997; Mussino et al. 2018; Singh et al. 2010). A few other studies have looked at parity progression based on the sex composition of previous children (Almond et al. 2013; Adsera and Ferrer 2016; Lillehagen and Lyngstad 2018; Okun 1996; Ost and Dziadula 2016; Tang 2013). A common finding of these studies is the extensive sex preference in favor of boys at higher parities among women of East and Southeast Asian origin.
Overall, parental preference for sex of children, among all other things, is an important indicator of a society’s cultural norms (Adsera and Ferrer 2016) and contributes to study immigrant’s cultural integration (Lillehagen and Lyngstad 2018). Exploring whether preferences for the sex of children among migrants are similar to those of their counterparts in the home country and whether those preferences change over time in the destination country allow us to test cultural persistence versus cultural adaptation hypothesis.
In the present paper, we extend this line of research by focusing on Sweden, a universal welfare state where the value of gender equality is highly valued (Esping-Andersen 1990; Thévenon 2011). According to Pollard and Morgan (2002), in modern and industrialized societies with greater gender equality, parents would weaken their preferences for the sex of children. However, empirical studies in the Nordic countries show that modernization and increasing gender equality are not necessarily related to parental gender indifference (Andersson et al. 2006). Studying the third birth risks based on the sex composition of previous children, Andersson et al. (2006) find that when a new type of parental sex preference (in favor of girls) has evolved in Sweden, Denmark and Norway, the culturally rooted son preference has strongly persisted in Finland despite the notable improvement of women’s empowerment in this country (Andersson et al. 2006). More interestingly, the Finnish-born immigrants in Sweden have adhered to the son-preference culture of their home country despite their exposure to a society where a preference for girls has developed (Andersson et al. 2007).
These studies evoke our curiosity about the childbearing behaviors and parental sex preferences of other immigrant groups in Sweden. In the 2000 s, Asia became the largest source of immigrants (Allwood et al. 2006). A recent study of Mussino et al. (2018) showed a substantially elevated SRB only at third birth among immigrant mothers from China, Korea and India if both of their previous children are girls. The SRBs of mothers who migrated to Sweden from other regions were closer to the natural range. Nonetheless, we do not have much knowledge as to whether those with two girls transit to the third birth at a faster speed than those with at least a son. Nor do we know much about whether there is any third-birth transition differences between adult migrants and those who migrated at younger ages, and whether duration of stay in Sweden or having a Swedish partner plays a role.
By applying event-history models to Swedish register data, we investigate the transition to third birth by the sex composition of children born among immigrants in Sweden. Specifically, we study whether immigrants coming from countries with strong son-preference cultures have a higher likelihood of third births if their previously born children are both girls; and more importantly, we explore whether they tend to accelerate their process of childbearing if the previous children are both girls. Furthermore, we look into whether the sex-preference-driven childbearing behavior of certain immigrant groups changes over time following migration, and whether immigrants who came to Sweden at younger ages or who has a Swedish partner tend to exhibit the same childbearing behavior as native Swedes. We will pay particular attention to immigrants from East and Southeast Asian countries, as well as Southeast European countries, because of the son-preference culture in their home country (Arnold 1997; Bongaarts 2013; Fuse 2010; Guilmoto 2009; UNFPA 2012a, b).
This study contributes to the literature on sex preferences for children in a few ways. First, existing research on immigrants’ childbearing behavior based on parity progression has largely focused on the likelihood of having another birth rather than the duration of the interval to the next birth. In addition, this study enriches our knowledge by addressing how quickly immigrants have a third birth based on time since the second birth and the sex composition of first two children. If mothers with two girls transit to a third birth sooner than those with at least a son, we argue that this acceleration indicates that those mothers place a stronger value in having sons over daughters. Second, our findings regarding how duration of residence, age at migration and having a Swedish partner shape childbearing behavior of immigrants improve our understanding of how sub-groups of immigrants adapt to the local conditions of the host country: those who came during childhood or adulthood, those who stay in Sweden for a short or a long period of time. Third, findings of this study provide evidence, from the Swedish context, for the theoretical argument on whether the childbearing behavior of immigrants and their parental sex preferences in the host country are mainly due to the persistence of cultural norms of the home country, and whether the behaviors and preferences that resemble that of the host country are mainly due to the cultural adaptation to the new country (Lillehagen and Lyngstad 2018).
This study also contributes to the on-going social debate regarding the integration of immigrants in the host society and the importance of migration. With the proportion of population with foreign background rapidly increasing and the composition of immigrants dynamically changing in Sweden, a better knowledge of childbearing behaviors of immigrants and their sex preferences of children can provide some implications and help forecast the patterns and trends of childbearing and family building of the total population. Further, family behavior is a reflection of social behavior. How immigrants adjust their childbearing behaviors to the local cultural conditions and norms of the host country across time might provide some implications on how they adjust their social behaviors to that of the host society. A better knowledge of this adjustment process improves our understanding of the immigrants’ integration process. Additionally, the findings of this study not only enrich our understanding of how different groups of immigrants balance the social norms of their home country and those of the destination country, but also improve our understanding of the gendered nature of their family behavior and their integration into the Swedish society.
Sweden as a destination country
Sweden is an interesting case to study for different reasons. First, despite being a country of relative short migration history, Sweden has attracted immigrants from different fertility settings and preferences since the middle of the twentieth century. Around the 1950 s, the Nordic and Baltic regions were the major sources of immigrants, followed by other European countries. Since the 1960s, with the increase in immigrants from different parts of the world, the composition of immigrants has been dynamically changing. In 2005, Asia became the largest source of immigrants, accounting for 28% of all immigrants residing in Sweden (Allwood et al. 2006). Today, Sweden is a multicultural country; immigrants arrive from various regions of the world, bringing with them different fertility behaviors and cultural preferences.
Additionally, high-quality administrative data is available on the entire population of Sweden, including demographic characteristics such as information on fertility and immigration. This allows us to disentangle—in detail—variations in sex preferences for children by country of origin by studying immigrant groups’ transition to third birth by the sex composition of the children already born without running into problems such as selection attrition and small numbers of observation.
Furthermore, Sweden is a universalistic welfare state that has taken positive action to promote gender equality (Esping-Andersen 1990; Thévenon 2011). Correspondingly, Swedish women do not show any sign of sex-selective abortion (Mussino et al. 2018). Instead, Swedish parents often openly express some degree of preference for having daughters over sons. Earlier empirical research (e.g., Andersson et al. 2006, 2007) manifested Swedish parents’ preference for having daughters. A recent study by Miranda et al. (2018) on parity progressions provides evidence that the preference for daughters has increased over the last decade. This tendency is shown not only among two-child parents but also among one-child parents.
Andersson et al. (2007: 137) propose three basic mechanisms through which childbearing behaviors and parental sex preferences of immigrants may either persist to that of home country or change in accordance with the local conditions: social interaction, culture and national institutions. The authors argue that social interaction via “innovative interpersonal communication” facilitates information flow whereas social interaction via “conservative cultural forces” encourages adherence to behavioral norms. Additionally, individuals’ cultural normative attitudes and values may change at various stages during life course and in different contexts. They found that the traditional son-preference value among immigrants who came from countries with strong son-preference culture (i.e., the Finnish-born immigrants in Sweden) retain a foothold (Andersson et al. 2007). A recent study for Norway by Lillehagen and Lyngstad (2018) demonstrates similar results. Namely, immigrants from son-preference cultures tend to adhere to the culture of son-preference in the host country, despite that the host country is a welfare society where gender equality is highly valued and where girl preference has started to prevail. So far, however, we have little knowledge about whether this gender-equality oriented environment may shape immigrants’ sex preferences for children, whether immigrants share the gender-neutral childbearing norm to the same extent as the native mothers do, and whether parental sex preference affects timing between pregnancy. With the availability of high-quality register data and the universal welfare state context where gender equality is valued, Sweden offers us a compelling context to fulfil the aforementioned goals.
Preferences for sex of children among immigrants
Immigrants’ fertility behavior often indicates the cultural norms of their home country (Algan et al. 2012). Meanwhile, the general climate of childbearing in the destination country may influence immigrants’ reproductive behavior (Andersson 2004; Andersson and Scott 2005). During the past decades, the fertility behavior of immigrants has attracted interest among family demographers, leading to different and sometimes conflicting theories on the fertility patterns of immigrants (see Andersson 2004; Kulu and González-Ferrer 2014; Mussino and Strozza 2012a).
The theory of socialization and the theory of adaptation are frequently used to explain how immigrants juggle their childbearing behavior in destination countries. The former theory (also referred to in this paper as cultural persistence) looks at how the culture of origin, often taken as the country of birth, persists in the destination country and affects reproductive behaviors (Kahn 1994; Schoenmaeckers et al. 1999; Alders 2000). The latter theory (also referred as cultural adaptation) assumes that as more time is spent in the destination country, immigrants tend to adapt their reproductive behavior to the material and cultural circumstances of their new institutional context (Andersson 2004; Schoorl 1995). Because they represents society’s cultural norms, parental preference for sex of children might serve as an important indicator of cultural persistence of norm from the country of origin or cultural adaptation to the social norms of the country of destination (Adsera and Ferrer 2016).
Using the Canadian Census, Adsera and Ferrer (2016) show that if the first child is a girl, the sex ratio at second birth for South Asian immigrants is higher when compared to that of the native population and other immigrants. Normally, an elevated sex ratio at birth indicates a voluntary use of prenatal sex testing and sex-selective abortion (Goodkind 1996). For the Swedish context, where the preference for a mixed sex composition of children or even girl preference prevails among the native born population, Mussino et al. (2018) found that a longer duration of residence in the country may decrease the differences in sex ratio at birth between immigrants and natives. Looking into parity progressions, both Andersson et al. (2007), for Finnish-born immigrants in Sweden, and Lillehagen and Lyngstad (2018), for immigrants to Norway coming from son-preference culture such as China and India, found that parental sex preference is a longstanding cultural phenomenon that is related to childhood socialization in the home country. Immigrants’ sex preference of children is culturally persistent with that of their home country, rather than modified by exposure in the host country.
Age at migration also matters. Asian immigrant mothers in the US who arrived at younger ages showed behavior similar to that of the natives, suggesting assimilative behavior with regard to sex preferences for children among immigrants who arrived as children (Ost and Dziadula 2016). In Norway, child immigrants from India are more likely to demonstrate a girl-preference childbearing behavior than those adult immigrants from India. This finding is consistent with the adaptation theory (Lillehagen and Lyngstad 2018). In Sweden, the difference in sex ratio at birth between immigrants who arrived at young ages and native-born Swedes is small (Mussino et al. 2018). A similar adaptive behavior in childbearing and sex preference has also been found in Israel among immigrants from Asia and Africa (Okun 1996).
In some contexts, such adaptive behavior is remarkably pronounced among the second generation of immigrants. For example, Chinese-born immigrants in the US show a preference for sons over daughters, whereas American-born Chinese women prefer one son and one daughter, similarly to native-born Whites (Tang 2013). However, findings for some other contexts challenge the adaption theory. An indication of cultural persistence is observed among the second generation of some immigrant groups in Canada. Studying the parity progression in Canada, Almond et al. (2013) found that among two-girl mothers the likelihood of having a third birth was significantly higher among first- and second-generation immigrants from South or East Asian immigrants compared to other immigrant groups.
Having a native-born partner has also been found to increase one’s opportunity of having innovative social interactions in the host country and to accelerate immigrants’ adaptation process. In Italy, it increases the risk of having a second child for immigrants coming from lower fertility countries and decreases the second-birth risk for immigrants coming from countries with higher fertility level (Mussino and Strozza 2012b). We might expect a similar effect when looking at sex preferences. However, Lillehagen and Lyngstad (2018) found that, in Norway, having a native-born partner is not generally associated with preference for the sex of children among immigrant women.
Sex preferences for children is closely associated with the number of children as well as the timing of the next birth, especially when the sex composition of the children already born is taken into account. Couples may continue childbearing until they have a child of the desired sex, and couples who have obtained their desired number of sons or daughters may stop having more children (Bongaarts 2013; Clark 2000).
Regarding birth intervals, a study by Teachman and Schollaert (1989) shows that in the United States, women tend to have a third birth sooner after the second one if they have two sons or two daughters than if they have a boy and a girl. The authors argue that this pattern is largely driven by parents’ desire to balance the genders of their children rather than their preference for boys or girls. A different scenario unfolds in contexts with strong son-preference cultures. In India, for example, the interval between the second and third birth for couples with two sons is longer than that of those with two girls (Nath, Leonetti and Steele 2000).
The reasons for having a child of desired sex may vary across individuals in different societies. The strategies that couples use to achieve their desired number of sons and daughters might include shortening birth intervals, irrespective of whether they are migrants or non-migrants. Therefore, it is important to investigate both the timing and intensity of the transition to a third birth when investigating sex preferences for children. We study these aspects testing two different competing hypotheses:
Socialization hypothesis When migrants come to a destination country, they hold cultural traditions from their home country, including values and ways of thinking. Their behavior in the destination country, including their reproductive behavior, might be influenced by their pre-migration norms. Hence, we hypothesise that,
immigrants coming from countries with strong son preference cultures are expected to be more likely to have a third child if they have had only daughters than if they have had at least one son;
immigrants coming from countries with strong son preference cultures are expected to be more likely to accelerate their process of having a third child if their first two children are both girls than if there is at least one boy among the first two children.
Adaptation hypothesis Behavior might change over time. Although immigrants might continue to draw on pre-migration norms after they settle in the destination country, they might gradually modify their behavior and preferences because of the influence of the social, economic and cultural factors in the destination country (Foner 1997). Specifically, as the time spent in the destination country increases, the differences in sex preferences for children between the natives and immigrants should shrink. Exposed to the culture of the destination country since childhood, those who migrate at younger ages should exhibit behaviors similar to that of the native. Hence, we hypothesise that,
immigrants who stay in Sweden for a longer period of time should show a lower tendency for son preference than those whose residence time in Sweden is shorter;
exposed to the cultural norm of Sweden since childhood, those who migrated to Sweden before age 16 (1.5 generation immigrants) should demonstrate a gender-neutral or even girl-preference reproductive behavior, as the native-born Swedes do.
immigrants having a native partner should have gender-neutral or even girl-preference reproductive behavior.
In particular, but not exclusively, the study gives more focus on migrants coming from China, South Korea, India and the former Yugoslavia. The first three origin countries represent an important source of East Asian immigrants in Sweden today, while the former Yugoslavia is an important source of immigrants from South-East Europe. These countries share a son-preference culture. In China, son preference has deep cultural roots (Arnold and Liu 1986). Before the introduction of the population control policy, if the existing children were all girls, couples would normally continue with childbearing until they had a son. Once they had a son, they might delay or stop childbearing (Poston 2002). This normative requirement for sons can also be seen in other Asian societies. In South Korea, son preference was rather prevalent and a strong indicator for continued childbearing. In the 1980s, Korean women who bore a girl for the first birth had a substantially higher likelihood of having a second child than those who had had a boy. In the 2000s, however, the gender of the first child ceased to make a difference for second-birth fertility, indicating that son preference has lost its importance in Korean society in the new century (Ma 2016). In India, a preference for sons also prevails. Upon their weddings, Hindu women often receive a blessing that they will become a mother of a hundred sons (Bumiller 1990). In addition, the need to pay dowries for daughters further drives parents to show preferences for sons (Das Gupta et al. 2003).
Apart from South and East Asia, parental preference for having sons seems to be observed in South-East and Eastern Europe. A rise in sex selection at birth has been noted in several Balkan states and, in general, after the wars of Yugoslav succession (Guilimoto 2009). The economic crisis of the 1990s and conditions of conflict, as well as patriarchal norms and the emergence of sex-detection technology, had an effect on sex imbalances at birth, especially in several countries that are part of the former Yugoslavia, such as Montenegro, Kosovo and Macedonia (UNFPA 2012b).
Several of the mechanisms listed above explaining son preferences in these origin countries are associated with norms that should not represent an industrialised and gender egalitarian context such as Sweden (Andersson et al. 2006; Hank 2007; Lillehagen and Lyngstad 2018). Still the question of the persistence of the norms from the country of origin is a complex one because some of those norms might be internalised and, consequently, transferred across countries.