Most women in South Asia may prefer a son, but it is the daughter who can improve their autonomy in households, a new research paper by Rachel Heath and Xu Tan of the University of Washington suggests.

Using data from the National Family Health Survey (NFHS) of 2005-06 for India, and the 2007 and 2011 rounds of the Demographic and Health Survey for Bangladesh, the authors find that women’s participation in household decision-making and mobility tend to be higher in families with daughters.

The authors argue that a mother cares more about her daughter’s consumption than her husband does. And this difference in preferences prompts women to exert greater control over household income and join the workforce so that they can spend on their daughters’ well-being.

To show this, Heath and Xu create an index of autonomy based on survey responses about female decision-making within households. They find that in both India and Bangladesh, this autonomy index is higher for women with daughters compared to those with sons.

The effects are even greater on women’s employment. In both India and Bangladesh, having a daughter generally increases the probability of mothers working outside their homes and, specifically, increases the likelihood of mothers taking up high-paying jobs.

However, the authors argue that increased autonomy does not necessarily improve the overall well-being of women. If women know their husbands are unlikely to spend on their daughters, they may decrease their own consumption to ensure that resources are devoted to daughters. Increased autonomy of women may also come with costs—women may have to deal with conflict at home and fight social norms that stigmatize working women. According to the authors, this may partly explain why some women continue to have a greater preference for a son.

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