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.

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

Add New Comment


  • Qian_xie

    Some ads words for girls and women like" we create, we consume. We create what we consume. Global economy and balance."

  • Lsrms3977

    The unemployment rate for women will get worse because they have to be caregivers for their children and men are more superior than women on average.

  • David Bueler

    Really this is news to me, atleast here in America. I've read articles that have actually said just the opposite. Hanna Rosin cites an article in her Atlantic article "The End of Men" that said that couples going in for fertility treatments and invitro are overwelmingly asking for girls. 

  • medithi

    My father wanted a girl. He told mom, joking, I hope: if it's a boy, I'll make him go back to where he came. Ja ja ja. All my childhood I listened to his reasons for wanting a girl: they love their daddy more, they obbey more, they are less impulsive, they behave, they talk a lot, they are caring, they are more careful (and I won't have to worry about his safety or him crashing the car into a tree, like I did). 

    I guess dad was right. I am an only child and I did turn out okay with little effort from my parents. Boys and girls are different but in my opinion boys are a lot harder to raise. If I had the choice, I had one girl. 

  • Gary Cims

    This is tough situation for the promotion of womens rights. There are laws being formed in this country to penalize abortions based on sex and race. Statistcally the unborn being aborted most are girls and blacks. The Pro Choice folks are fighting this based on a womens right to control her body. The Pro Life folks are supporting it to protect the unborns right to live. Both under the presumption of helping women. Paradoxical.

  • lindsay manahan

    my classmate's sister-in-law makes $84 hourly on the laptop. She has been fired for 7 months but last month her income was $9078 just working on the laptop for a few hours. Go to this site NuttyRich.cöm

  • Kathy Oneto

    No one has yet brought up where Anya Kamenetz took this, which is how branding can impact the perception of girls in the world. I’d agree. One place to start is to build girls’ own self-perceptions. We know that brands contribute to such cultural development and, therefore, we can infer that brands themselves can influence what girls believe about themselves and how they should behave. What I found in a recent survey I conducted was that about 60% of women today across all ages 18+ believed that the media, entertainment, and marketing advertisements don’t accurately represent women of today. I also found that 86% of women think they should both pursue their own personal motivations and be able to make their own choices and not be judged by them. This means brands today have a great opportunity to influence women to have more positive expectations for themselves--expectations that are actually more consistent with women’s true motivations, which could prove most powerful and effective.

  • himagain

    Well guys, looks like they broke through.   Still, we did a pretty good job of keeping them down for a looong time. 
    I thought it would be better in the long run anyway. We really can't afford any more good ol' fashioned wars.

    My only concern is that the fantastic amounts of synthetic estrogen out there now, has not only created boys with boobs, that cry a lot, but is also creating a new scary breed of square-jawed, flat-chested, wide-shouldered females with male tendencies toward aggression and violence.

    They always were more intelligent, but muscle used to beat them in the good ol' days. They simply didn't/couldn't do the violent, tough guy stuff that us males did, like killin' and driving big rigs and jets.......

    I just hope they don't want to get even..........

  • Gain Energy

    I am very blessed to have one of both! I can't imagine my life without my precious children, son and daughter!  

  • Equal for all

    There is a reason for having only two types of sexes on this planet, and it is because the two are suppose to balance/level out each other, not over power the other.

  • UhNO

    There are more the two 'genders' in the world. People can, and do, identify as being transgender, bigender, pangender, genderqueer, agender, adrogyne/androgenous, two-spirit and cisgender. Gender is a spectrum, much like sexuality, and is not constrained by sex (body) or society.

    Just an FYI!

    P.S If I missed any genders, I apologise sincerely.

  • Chris Babbage

    Mark wrote: "It's always been clear to me that females are superior beings."

    Really?? This is horrifying. I feel terrible for boys growing up now, being told--even by "mock" ads--that they are inferior to girls. Girls have gotten away with the "Girls Rule Boys Drool" type t-shirts for years now. None of this would be allowed or accepted if the tables were turned. Furthermore, how can we possibly, in 2011, allow ourselves to say one group of human beings is superior to another based on their unchosen biology? It is abhorrent to do with race and is no longer tolerated, but gender is still OK. 

    I hope Anya Kamenetz's hoped-for girl ends up actually being a boy, and that he never reads this article to know how his mother really feels about him.

  • Equal for all

    All I have to say to you is GROW UP and BE A REAL MAN. Let me define a real MAN for you...a man who accepts the success of their opposite sex, and stops crying the poor me's. Women have worked hard to get where they are, if you are so worried about it step up your game!

    A baby is a baby, it should not matter what gender they are...but you should not be telling other men that having a girl says something about them... your name should be baggage, because you seem to have a lot of it.

    Get over the Girls rule boys drool t-shirts, women were mocked and suppressed way worst --and still are in parts of the world-- then what that shirt implies to boys.
    People like you are the reason we cannot truly get over society's sexist ways.

  • Alicia B

    1. You stand for equality yet you're willing to put men down? Is that really equality? The correct answer is no. Sexism is not only a feminist issue. Sexism is a people issue.

    2. "Be a real man": Thinking that men need to abide by certain standards apart from women is outright sexism, just as it has recently been recognized to be for women. Thinking that men have to act a certain way in order to live up to their gender is just as oppressive as it is to imply that on women.

    3. "Sexism against women is more important so get over yourself": So just because an issue affects you that makes it more important? That's a really self-centered way to go about life. Putting men down, saying they "drool", is the same kind of bullying that has oppressed women for so long. Just because the tables have turned in your favor, that doesn't make it right. In fact, it is really disgusting that you would support such actions knowing what a short 100 or so years ago your life would have looked like--under the thumbs of men.

    Boys don't suck and neither do women (nor any other gender/expression), and I do not advocate for harmful enforcement of stereotypical gender-based expectations. I am, though, for enforcement of human-based expectations: Equality and Respect.

  • IanB

    So, he should be a "real man" and support young girls wearing anti-boy messages such as :

    1) Girls Rule Boys Drool
    2) Boys are Stupid.  Throw Rocks at them
    3) Grrrl Power

    Whenever I read a post shaming someone into being a "real man", it's always about getting men to do what women want.

  • David Bueler

    That doesn't make any sense. How are we supposed to get over society's sexist ways when it's ok to belittle boys and men with sexist t-shirts and on tv shows etc. I swear I can't stand how tv shows portray men/fathers as bumbling stupid idiots that can't do anything right. Meanwhile feminists and everyone else thinks it's ok.

  • Alex Porter

    I've never felt for a minute that having boys is preferable. I had a Chinese co-worker with twin boys who said he felt sorry for me because I have two girls. I don't understand all the cultural particulars of life in China, but here, girls are flourishing. Girls lead academically in every subject at every level and in every state in the union (while learning disabilities are about five times as high in boys). Socially and emotionally, boys aren't doing so hot, either. In a service, information and creative economy, women are excelling.The world is changing.

    Congrats, Anya. Girls are awesome!