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Transition of Son Preference: Evidence From South Korea

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Sex ratio at birth remains highly skewed in many Asian countries because of son preference. The ratio in South Korea, however, declined beginning in 1990 and reached the natural range in 2007. We study changes in child gender effects on fertility and parental investment during this period of decreasing sex ratio at birth. We find that gender discrimination on the extensive margin (fertility), such as sex-selective abortions and son-biased stopping rules, have nearly disappeared among recent cohorts. On the intensive margin (parental inputs), boys receive higher expenditures on private academic education, have mothers with fewer hours of labor supply, and spend less time on household chores relative to girls. These gender gaps have also narrowed substantially, however, over the past two decades. We consider alternative explanations, but altogether, evidence suggests the weakening of son preference in South Korea.

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  1. Although the SRB has dropped to 107 in Taiwan and Hong Kong during the past several years, it is too early to determine whether sex imbalance is resolved in these areas. For instance, the ratio jumped back to 113 in 2014 in Hong Kong, possibly due to migration from mainland China (Basten and Verropoulou 2013). The Caucasus region’s SRB has also begun to dip in recent years, but it is still above natural levels (Das Gupta 2015). Japan, on the other hand, has had normal SRB throughout; Kureishi and Wakabayashi (2011) and Fuse (2013) documented possibilities of a mixed or daughter preference in fertility.

  2. The infant mortality rate in 2017 was 3.1 for males and 2.5 for females (Statistics Korea 2019b).

  3. See Lundberg (2005) and Bharadwaj et al. (2015) for an overview of the literature on child gender and family behaviors. For the existence of child gender effects and son preference in South Korea, see Lee and Paik (2006), Kang (2011), Edlund and Lee (2013), and Choi and Hwang (2015).

  4. Authors’ calculation using the PEES data shows that about 86% of K–12 students received some type of private out-of-school education in 2007–2016. The demand for private out-of-school education is mainly due to the highly competitive college entrance exam. South Korean households spent more than 18 trillion KRW (approximately 18 billion USD), or more than 7% of total household spending, on private out-of-school education in 2016 (Statistics Korea 2017a, 2017b). On the contrary, expenditures on any education services constitute only about 2% of total expenditures among American households in the same year (U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics 2018).

  5. According to Statistics Korea (2015), 20.7% of married women aged 15–54 quit work because of childbirth and childcare (one-half of those who are currently not working). An article in The Economist (“South Korea’s economy” 2011) mentions “the job of supervising a child’s education falls to women, which is one of the reasons why relatively few women have jobs” in South Korea.

  6. More than 70% of expenditures on private out-of-school education is on Korean, math, and English (Statistics Korea 2017b), which account for 60% to 70% of the total maximum score in the national college entrance exam, known as the College Scholastic Ability Test (CSAT). The CSAT score determines college admissions decisions and potentially affects future labor market outcomes, which is encapsulated by “the one-shot society” (“Exams in South Korea” 2011).

  7. Missing values in covariates are imputed with mean values, and dummy variables for missing observations are also controlled.

  8. The argument that the estimate of β would be biased downward because of sex-selective abortions implicitly assumes that discriminatory parental behaviors on the extensive and intensive margins are positively correlated. Recent studies provide empirical evidence that this is indeed the case. The increase in the practice of sex-selective abortions has led to enhanced well-being of girls who were not aborted, in terms of after-birth mortality rates and nutrition status. See Lin et al. (2014) for the case of Taiwan, Hu and Schlosser (2015) for India, and Lee and Lee (2015) for South Korea.

  9. The law was amended in 1973 to permit abortion under special circumstances, including pregnancy from rape or incest, to preserve a woman’s health, and fetal impairment. According to a national survey of women of childbearing age conducted by the Ministry of Health and Welfare, there were about 16 abortions per 1,000 people in South Korea in 2010—the tenth highest rate among 35 OECD countries (Rich 2018).

  10. Also see Park and Cho (1995) for birth order–specific SRB before 1990; see Jiang et al. (2017) for a decomposition of the changes in SRB by birth order.

  11. The analysis is restricted to households with a first child born in 1991–2009. See Park (1983) and Larsen et al. (1998) for descriptions of son-biased stopping behaviors among earlier cohorts.

  12. Section E of the online appendix shows that the KELS and PEES data yield similar results on private education spending when the estimation samples and the dependent variables are comparable.

  13. The negative Boy effect here does not by itself imply daughter preference in South Korea. We need evidence on various parental behaviors to conclude the existence or change in parents’ gender bias. We do not observe a switch in sign of the child gender effect on other outcome variables.

  14. Thus, t in Eq. (2) corresponds to year of first childbirth here, not survey year. Women who gave birth in 1998 (first wave of the KLIPS) are not included in the analysis because we do not have information on their pre-childbirth labor supply.

  15. In the United States, teenage girls spend on average 38 minutes a day on housework compared with 24 minutes a day for boys, according to an analysis of the 2014–2017 American Time Use Survey by the Pew Research Center (Livingston 2019).

  16. Mean of girls’ housework time decreased from 1.57 to 1.13 hours per week, and participation decreased from 39.34% to 30.04%. Mean of boys’ housework time increased from 0.55 to 0.64 hours per week, and participation increased from 20.76% to 20.80%.

  17. Child gender does seem to affect the stability of parents’ relationship in the United States (Dahl and Moretti 2008). Time allocation results are more ambiguous, however. Using the PSID, Lundberg and Rose (2002) showed that the positive effect of fatherhood on men’s labor supply is higher for those with sons relative to those with daughters, but child gender has no significant effect on mother’s work hours. See Lundberg (2005) for a review of the literature.

  18. Following the Korean War, the government began its national family planning campaign to slow population growth. Slogans such as “Sons or daughters, let’s have two and raise them well” and “A well-raised daughter is worth 10 sons” were widely advertised from the 1970s.

  19. To the question, “Who is responsible for parents’ old-age support?,” those who responded “parents themselves” increased from 13.7% in 2006 to 27.2% in 2016, whereas those who responded “family” declined from 67.3% to 32.6% (Statistics Korea 2016, 2017c).


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We thank Silvia Barcellos, Leandro Carvalho, Tom Chang, Aimee Chin, Dae Il Kim, Jae-Young Kim, Jinyoung Kim, Alan Krueger, Ilyana Kuziemko, Marta Lachowska, Chulhee Lee, Jae Won Lee, Young Lee, Pauline Leung, Doug Miller, Hyungsik Roger Moon, Anant Nyshadham, Cheolsung Park, Zhuan Pei, Ponpoje Porapakkarm, Hyelim Son, Maggie Triyana, Jungmo Yoon, and seminar participants at the 2015 ESWC, the 2015 Hanyang-Kobe-Nanyang Joint Symposium, the 2016 HERI-ISBR Joint Symposium, the 2016 SOLE conference, Chung-Ang University, Cornell PAM, Dongguk University, Korea University, KLEA, GRIPS, SNU, Sogang University, HKU, USC CESR, and Yonsei University for helpful comments and discussions; the Korean Educational Development Institute and the Korea Institute for Health and Social Affairs for providing data; and Jaewoo Choi, Weonhyeok Chung, Seojung Oh, Geumbi Park, and Dongsu You for research assistance. An earlier version of this article was titled “Transition of son preference: Child gender and parental inputs in Korea.” Choi’s research was supported by the research fund of Hanyang University (HY-2017). A portion of this research was conducted while Choi was visiting the Industrial Relations Section and the Department of Economics at Princeton University. Hwang acknowledges financial support from Hankuk University of Foreign Studies. All remaining errors are our own. The STATA codes used for the analyses are available upon request.

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Choi, E.J., Hwang, J. Transition of Son Preference: Evidence From South Korea. Demography 57, 627–652 (2020).

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