Gender plays a big role in how much parents are willing to spend on their children, according to Chicago Booth’s Rebecca Dizon-Ross and Princeton’s Seema Jayachandran. Daughters tend to lose out when their fathers are in charge of spending decisions, they find, and the researchers speculate that it’s mostly because the dads just like boys better.

The results, based on a series of 2013 surveys in Uganda, demonstrate that mothers there tend to be more evenhanded. This could have important implications for policy making, suggesting that advances in gender equality will be self-reinforcing, the researchers argue. “As women gain more say in household decision-making, household spending on daughters may increase, producing more gender equality in the next generation,” they write. “This virtuous cycle could help to close the gender gaps in schooling and health care that are pervasive in developing countries.”

The researchers recruited more than 700 two-parent households, each with a mother and father, in rural Uganda to participate in surveys measuring the parents’ inclination to spend on both crucial (education- and health-related) and “fun” items for their children who were enrolled in grades four through six. Some households also had younger children.

In the first round of data collection, one parent from each family was asked a series of questions about household composition, family background, and each parent’s financial situation. Respondents also gave their thoughts on education in relation to gender, such as whether they believe that it’s useless to send girls to secondary school because they will eventually marry, or that boys will become better farmers if they attend school.

They were asked directly which parent was more caring toward their children and were then given a “willingness to spend” survey covering a variety of items, of about a dozen different prices, for their daughters and sons. A second survey round asked similar questions—with some variation—of the other parent in each household.

The first survey assessed the parents’ willingness to spend on three “human capital” items—a practice exam administered by the child’s school, a deworming medication, and rubber-soled shoes. The second survey added a school workbook in the human-capital category, along with two fun items: candy and a ball.

Analyzing responses from both surveys, the researchers find that mothers would generally spend close to the same amount on sons and daughters, with a willingness to spend marginally more on health and education for their daughters. Fathers overall had a 6 percent lower willingness to spend on daughters than on sons.

The dad factor

In a study in rural Uganda, fathers were inclined to spend less on their daughters than on their sons, while mothers were more evenhanded.

The researchers probed for the reasons behind this, exploring whether the parents’ willingness to spend reflected a return-on-investment approach (which child, son or daughter, would provide old-age care) or simple gender preference. They find that the preference-based explanation is likely—that fathers care more about sons than daughters, and mothers don’t display that tendency.

The researchers argue that if the disparities appeared only in human-capital spending, they might reflect differing perceptions about return on investment in a child. But fathers were not only less willing to spend on daughters in the human-capital category but also for items that might bring them joy. Mothers were willing to spend slightly more on human-capital items for their daughters but would spend equally on them for the candy and the ball.

Moreover, in about half of households, both parents said that the mother was the more loving parent. And in those households, the pattern of fathers spending less on daughters was particularly strong. Dizon-Ross says this provides more evidence that gender preference is at work by making the argument “that our mother-father differences in girl-boy spending are driven by the households where both parents think the mothers love more, which might proxy for loving girls more.”

Even if mothers are willing to spend more on health and education for their daughters out of gender preference, the researchers observe, men in poorer countries such as Uganda generally control more financial resources than women do, so daughters are more likely to lose out.

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