Husband, sons and the fertility gap: evidence from India


A fertility gap—the difference between a woman’s ideal number of children and her actual number of children—is prevalent in both directions. We investigate the distribution of the fertility gap in India and factors that lead to women exceeding or underachieving their ideal number of children. We find that preference for males has a significant effect, contributing to a negative as well as a positive fertility gap. The probability that a woman exceeds her ideal number of children reduces by 7 percent in 2005–06 and 10 percent in 2015–16 if her first child is male. Further, we find that a husband’s preferences significantly shape the fertility gap. A woman is likely to exceed her ideal number of children by 3–4 percent if her husband prefers a higher number of sons than daughters. A husband’s ideal family size has an effect of similar magnitude as his son preference. Our results point to the important role of gender norms and household perspective in fertility analysis and policy settings and the challenges during fertility transitions.

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  1. 1.

    The 17 major states included in our analysis account for roughly 90 percent of India’s population and make up around 87 percent of India’s GDP. The remaining 11 states, not included in the analysis, were small with missing or unreliable data points. The states not included are Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, Uttrakhand Goa, Mizoram, Sikkim, Arunanchal Pradesh, Meghalaya Jammu, Kashmir and Nagaland.

  2. 2.

    Respondents who gave a numerical response to the question on the ideal number of children were also asked how many of these children they would like to be boys, how many they would like to be girls, and for how many the sex would not matter. The employed variable, son preference, a binary variable is derived from responses to these questions. We define woman (or husband) as expressing son preference when their ideal number of boys exceeds their ideal number of girls.

  3. 3.

    Only 3 percent of women express a preference for daughters, that is, they respond that they would like more daughters than sons in their ideal family.

  4. 4.

    The pattern is similar for NFHS 4; hence, not shown here. Figures for NFHS 4 are available from the authors.

  5. 5.

    The terms “positive” or “negative” are used in a mathematical sense and only to refer to the sign (+ or −) of the calculated fertility gap.

  6. 6.

    In the full sample, this variable is available for 36 percent of women in NFHS 3 and 32 percent of women in NFHS 4.


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Correspondence to Jaai Parasnis.

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See Fig. 4

Fig. 4

The fertility gap and socio−economic variables (NFHS 3). The fertility gap is defined as the difference between the ideal and actual number of children. Using NFHS 3 and NFHS 4 data. Sample restricted to women aged 40 and above

See Tables 6, 7, 8 , 9 and 10.

Table 6 Definition of Variables employed in analysis
Table 7 Full results for the fertility gap: average marginal effects from multinominal estimations
Table 8 Full results for the fertility gap: OLS estimations
Table 9 Full results for the fertility gap: average marginal effects from multinominal estimations. Pooled NFHS 3 and NFHS 4 sample
Table 10 Fertility and son preference by state

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Mishra, A., Parasnis, J. Husband, sons and the fertility gap: evidence from India. J Pop Research (2021).

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  • Fertility
  • India
  • Fertility gap
  • Son preference
  • Household bargaining

JEL Classification

  • D10
  • J13
  • J16