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Leadership

The Case For Girls

Most would-be parents prefer boys, not girls.
Is part of the trouble, dare we say, a branding problem—one that advertising could solve?

 Illustration by Carin Goldberg
Illustration by Carin Goldberg

On December 11, according to my doctors' best guesstimate, I am due to give birth to a baby girl. My husband and I couldn't be happier. Most parents, however? They'd rather have a boy.

It may not be surprising that there's a lingering preference for baby boys over baby girls worldwide. What's alarming, however, is that this global inclination is manifesting more strongly than ever. Historically, when nature is allowed to determine sex all on its own, about 105 boys are born for every 100 girls (and because women live longer, the ratio of people on the planet evens out over time, even tilting slightly toward females). But the balance of nature has shifted in Asia, thanks to wider availability of affordable ultrasound equipment, which detects gender as early as 15 weeks, and widespread abortion. In China, after 30-plus years of the country's One Child Policy, the ratio of boys to girls is a highly unnatural 120:100 (it's even reached 150:100 in one province). In India, 109 boys are born for every 100 girls. Demographers calculate that roughly 160 million Asian females have gone what they euphemistically categorize as "missing." There's growing evidence that this pattern of sex selection is being followed in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union, and similar trends seem likely in Africa and the Middle East.

A 2011 Gallup poll revealed that 54% of American men between the ages of 18 and 49 would prefer a boy.

Lest we think this is some sort of second- and third-world predicament, it turns out boys are still No. 1 in the United States too. A 2011 Gallup poll revealed that if American men between the ages of 18 and 49 could have only one child, 54% would want a boy; "no preference," at 26%, beat out girls, who rated a measly 19%. According to the same poll, women don't have a preference; but since it takes two to tango, as the song goes, that makes for heavy pressure in favor of "a masculine child," as Luca Brasi so eloquently put it in The Godfather. These figures have remained essentially unchanged for 70 years—the stats were the same in 1941. While it may be culturally taboo here to openly reject or abort a child based on gender, fears of second-class status and doubts of a daughter's potential value are remarkably persistent.

In India and China, the preference for sons is seen as pragmatic and economically sound, a choice often exercised by educated, upwardly mobile parents, making this a form of "consumer eugenics" (a term coined by Mara Hvistendahl, the author of the 2011 book Unnatural Selection). Cultures with such a pronounced boy bias tend to also have a tradition of "patrilocality," where daughters go to live with their husbands' families, while sons stay at home and inherit property. In China, where one-child families have been official policy since 1979, the aging population has resulted in the so-called 4-2-1 problem: four grandparents, two parents, and just one child. According to the old customs, that one child, the economic mainstay, had better be a boy. The situation in India is similar. As one newspaper ad for sonograms put it: "Spend 500 rupees now or 500,000 rupees later"—on a dowry.

That consumer preference turns into disaster when repeated across a society. Unnatural Selection does a frightening, thorough job of documenting the consequences for countries full of men: sex trafficking in Albania, mail-order brides in Vietnam, crime in "bachelor towns" in rural China. The future portends aging populations short of nurses and teachers.

The preference for boys over girls turns into a disaster when repeated across a society.

Fact is, the desire and the data don't match up. In the 21st century, there's a compelling case for girls as the equal—and in some cases, optimal—gender for roles in leadership, innovation, and economic growth. Women excel in education, the most crucial factor in tomorrow's workforce; we are 56% of undergraduates in the U.S. and approaching parity in China and India. Our socialization is geared toward the right stuff for the changing requirements of success in the 21st century: Women are likely to have a more balanced, empathetic leadership style, better communication skills, a knack for fostering innovation through collaboration. Consider the results of a recent study by psychologists at MIT and Carnegie Mellon, who divided people into teams and asked them to complete intelligence tasks together. The IQ scores of the groups' members barely affected collective performance. The number of women on a team, however, affected it a lot—the more women, the better.

The evidence is mounting that baby girls are a strong investment. "An important future indicator for a developing economy is its treatment of women," says Sheryl WuDunn, coauthor with husband Nicholas Kristof of Half the Sky, a best seller turned PBS series turned online game that dubs girl power "the best way to fight poverty and extremism." A country that gives girls equal opportunity has twice as much talent and brainpower to draw on and is likely to be more open and flexible in ways that promote international trade. World Bank numbers also show that development dollars invested in projects that target girls and women show a 90% return; the figure for projects focused on men and boys hovers between 30% and 40%. The Grameen Bank, the best-known microfinancier, makes 97% of its loans to women, whose repayment rates are much higher.

"A future indicator for a developing economy is its treatment of women," says WuDunn.

Thankfully this kind of reasoning is gaining influence, resulting in many creative efforts to brighten the image of daughters. China has attacked the 4-2-1 problem head-on. The government has started a pension program benefitting rural people over age 60 with daughters, and not sons. The amounts match or beat what the typical son would send home to his folks from the city. In the Chinese version of Medicare, insurance premiums are now discounted or in some cases eliminated for the lucky parents of girls. India offers the "Indira Gandhi Scholarship Scheme for Single Girl Child"—only only daughters may apply. So far these well-meaning efforts have enjoyed limited success. After five years, China's national Care for Girls program has barely nudged the sex imbalance.

Government incentives and private-sector funding are important parts of an effort to rectify this problem. But there's also a place for branding; in countries like China, India, and South Korea, pro-girl advertising has been added to the mix—mostly simplistic propaganda. If better executed, these ads could shape social attitudes in ways subtle and overt. "If handled correctly, the most sensitive issue can be dealt with," says Priscilla Natkins of the Ad Council, which brought the world Rosie the Riveter and Smokey the Bear. She points to recent successful U.S. campaigns about drunk driving ("Friends Don't Let Friends . . ."), autism, and seat-belt use. "When we took on our seat-belt campaign, usage was in the low-20 percents—now it's way up in the mid-80s. Advertising didn't do that alone, but we planted the seed with consumers that led to legislation."

China's Care for Girls program has barely nudged the country's sex imbalance.

That's why, as a thought experiment, Fast Company asked some top advertising, marketing, branding, and digital agencies to make the case for baby girls in the language of the global consumer—a challenge they took very seriously.

"As we tried to understand the issue better," says Rei Inamoto from AKQA, "we realized that this is not an issue of daughters versus sons. It's an issue of the self-perpetuating and devastating belief that women have little value."

My daughter will be brought up to understand her true value. That's a promise. As for all the little girls to be born around the world, the creation of these ads is an effort to show how imagination can change the conversation around their lives.

Slideshow: The Birth Of An Idea

Fast Company asked six of the most creative ad agencies in the world to rebrand baby girls. Their mock campaigns recast girls as the No. 1 choice for consumers from China to the U.S.

Related:
Louis C.K.: The Next Steve Jobs Will Be a Chick

A version of this article appeared in the December 2011/January 2012 issue of Fast Company magazine.

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