Gender imbalance may arise as a consequence of various factors ranging from natural factors and war casualties to intentional gender control and deliberate gendercide.
More data are available for humans than for any other species, and the human sex ratio is more studied than that of any other species, but interpreting these statistics can be difficult.
Human sex ratios, either at birth or in the population as a whole, might be quoted in any of four ways: the ratio of males to females, the ratio of females to males, the proportion of males, or the proportion of females. If there are 108,000 males and 100,000 females, the ratio would, respectively, be quoted as 1.080, 0.926, 0.519 or 0.481. Sex ratio in scientific literature is often expressed as the proportion of males. In contrast, sex ratio quoted in this article is the ratio of males to females, unless specified otherwise.
In a study around 2002, the natural sex ratio at birth was estimated to be close to 1.06 males/female. In most populations, adult males tend to have higher death rates than adult females of the same age (even after allowing for causes specific to females such as breast cancer and death in childbirth), both due to natural causes such as heart attacks and strokes, which account for by far the majority of deaths and also to violent causes, such as homicide and warfare (for example, in the USA as of 2006, an adult non-elderly male is 3 to 6 times more likely to become a victim of a homicide and 2.5 to 3.5 times more likely to die in an accident than a female of the same age), resulting in higher life expectancy of females. Consequently, the sex ratio tends to reduce as age increases, and among the elderly there is usually an excess of females. For example, the male to female ratio falls from 1.05 for the group aged 15 to 65 to 0.70 for the group over 65 in Germany, from 1.00 to 0.72 in the USA, from 1.06 to 0.91 in mainland China and from 1.07 to 1.02 in India, which has a smaller proportion of very old people.
In the United States, the sex ratios at birth over the period 1970–2002 were 105 for the white non-Hispanic population, 104 for Mexican Americans, 103 for African Americans and Indians, and 107 for mothers of Chinese or Filipino ethnicity. Among Western European countries ca. 2001, the ratios ranged from 104 in Belgium to 107 in Switzerland, Italy, Ireland and Portugal. In the aggregated results of 56 Demographic and Health Surveys in African countries, the ratio is 103, though there is also considerable country-to-country variation.
Even in the absence of sex selection practices, a range of "normal" sex ratios at birth of between 103 to 108 boys per 100 girls has been observed in different economically developed countries, and among different ethnic and racial groups within a given country.
In an extensive study, carried out around 2005, of sex ratio at birth in the United States from 1940 over 62 years, statistical evidence suggested the following: For mothers having their first baby, the total sex ratio at birth was 1.06 overall, with some years at 1.07. For mothers having babies after the first, this ratio consistently decreased with each additional baby from 1.06 towards 1.03. The age of the mother affected the ratio: the overall ratio was 1.05 for mothers aged 25 to 35 at the time of birth; while mothers who were below the age of 15 or above 40 had babies with a sex ratio ranging between 0.94 to 1.11, and a total sex ratio of 1.04. This United States study also noted that American mothers of Hawaiian, Filipino, Chinese, Cuban and Japanese ethnicity had the highest sex ratio, with years as high as 1.14 and average sex ratio of 1.07 over the 62 year study period.
The sex ratio difference could be accounted for by the mass difference in sperm carrying Y chromosomes compared to those carrying X chromosomes. Sperm with Y (male) are 3% lighter (about 0.1 picograms out of the total 3.2 or 3.3pg mass of the entire 23 chromosomes). The 3-10% more males born could be a result of lighter sperm being more likely to reach the egg first (or at all) as they may achieve more velocity through the thick fluid.
Factors affecting sex ratio in humans
Fisher's principle is an explanation of why the sex ratio of most species is approximately 1:1. Outlined by Ronald Fisher in his 1930 book, it is an argument in terms of parental expenditure. Essentially he argues that the 1:1 ratio is the evolutionarily stable strategy.
The natural factors that affect the human sex ratio are an active area of scientific research. Over 1000 articles have been published in various journals. Two of the often cited reviews of scientific studies on human sex ratio are by James., The scientific studies are based on extensive birth and death records in Europe, the Americas, Asia, Australia and Africa. A few of these studies extend to over 100 years of yearly human sex ratio data for some countries. These studies suggest that the human sex ratio, both at birth and as a population matures, can vary significantly according to a large number of factors, such as paternal age, maternal age, plural birth, birth order, gestation weeks, race, parent's health history, parent's psychological stress. Remarkably, the trends in human sex ratio are not consistent across countries at a given time, or over time for a given country. In economically developed countries, as well as developing countries, these scientific studies have found that the human sex ratio at birth has historically varied between 0.94 to 1.15 for natural reasons.
In a scientific paper published in 2008, James states that conventional assumptions have been:
- there are equal numbers of X and Y chromosomes in mammalian sperms
- X and Y stand equal chance of achieving conception
- therefore equal number of male and female zygotes are formed, and that
- therefore any variation of sex ratio at birth is due to sex selection between conception and birth.
James cautions that available scientific evidence stands against the above assumptions and conclusions. He reports that there is an excess of males at birth in almost all human populations, and the natural sex ratio at birth is usually between 1.02 to 1.08. However the ratio may deviate significantly from this range for natural reasons.
A 1999 scientific paper published by Jacobsen reported the sex ratio for 815,891 children born in Denmark between 1980–1993. They studied the birth records to identify the effects of multiple birth, birth order, age of parents and the sexes of preceding siblings on the proportion of males using contingency tables, χ2 tests and regression analysis. The secondary sex ratio decreased with increased number of children per plural birth and with paternal age, whereas no significant independent effect was observed for maternal age, birth order, or other natural factors.
A 2009 research paper published by Branum et al. reports the sex ratio derived from data in United States birth records over a 25 year period (1981–2006). This paper reports that the sex ratio at birth for the white ethnic group in the United States was 1.04 when the gestational age was 33–36 weeks, but 1.15 for gestational ages of less than 28 weeks, 28–32 weeks, and 37 or more weeks. This study also found that the sex ratios at birth in the United States, between 1981–2006, were lower in both black and hispanic ethnic groups when compared with white ethnic group.
The relationship between natural factors and human sex ratio at birth, and with aging, remains an active area of scientific research.
Causes of stress during gestation, such as environmental temperature and maternal malnutrition generally appear to increase fetal deaths particularly among males, resulting in a lower boy to girl ratio at birth. Also, higher incidence of Hepatitis B virus in populations is believed to decrease the male to female sex ratio, while some unexplained environmental health hazards are thought to have the opposite effect. A 2007 survey by the Arctic Monitoring and Assessment Program noted abnormally low sex ratios in Russian Arctic villages and Inuit villages in Greenland and Canada, and attributed this imbalance to high levels of endocrine disruptors in the blood of inhabitants, including PCBs and DDT. These chemicals are believed to have accumulated in the tissues of fish and animals that make up the bulk of these populations' diets. However, as noted in the Social factors section below, it is important to exclude alternative explanations, including social ones, when examining large human populations whose composition by ethnicity and race may be changing.
A 2008 report demonstrates further evidence of effects of feminizing chemicals on male development in each class of vertebrate species as a worldwide phenomenon, possibly leading to a decline in the sex ratio in humans and a possible decline in sperm counts. Out of over 100,000 recently introduced chemicals, 99% are poorly regulated.
Other factors that could possibly affect the sex ratio include:
- Social status of the mother, known to be a factor in influencing the sex ratio of certain animals such as swine, but apparently not in humans
- Whether the mother smokes
- Whether the mother has a partner or other support network, although this correlation is widely considered to be the result of an unknown third factor
- Latitude, with countries near the equator producing more females than near the poles.
Other scientific studies suggest that environmental effects on human sex ratio at birth are either limited or not properly understood. For example, a research paper published in 1999, by scientists from Finland’s National Public Health Institute, reports the effect of environmental chemicals and changes in sex ratio over 250 years in Finland. This scientific team evaluated whether Finnish long-term data are compatible with the hypothesis that the decrease in the ratio of male to female births in industrial countries is caused by environmental factors. They analyzed the sex ratio of births from the files of Statistics Finland and all live births in Finland from 1751 to 1997. They found an increase in the proportion of males from 1751 to 1920; this was followed by a decrease and interrupted by peaks in births of males during and after World War I and World War II. None of the natural factors such as paternal age, maternal age, age difference of parents, birth order could explain the time trends. The scientists found that the peak ratio of male proportion precedes the period of industrialization or the introduction of pesticides or hormonal drugs, rendering a causal association between environmental chemicals and human sex ratio at birth unlikely. Moreover, these scientists claim that the trends they found in Finland are similar to those observed in other countries with worse pollution and much greater pesticide use.
Sex-selective abortion and infanticide are thought to significantly skew the naturally occurring ratio in some populations, such as China, where the introduction of ultrasound scans in the late 1980s has led to a birth sex ratio (males to females) of 1.133 (2011 CIA estimate data). The 2011 India census reports India's sex ratio in 0-6 age bracket at 1.094. The 2011 birth sex ratios for China and India are significantly above the mean ratio recorded in the United States from 1940 through 2002 (1.051); however, their birth sex ratios are within the 0.98-1.14 range observed in the United States for significant ethnic groups over the same time period.:10 Along with Asian countries, a number of European, Middle East and Latin American countries have recently reported high birth sex ratios in the 1.06 to 1.14 range. High birth sex ratios, some claim may be caused in part by social factors.
These practices are based on a cultural preference for one sex, typically males, over the other. A son is often preferred as an 'asset', since he can earn and support the family; a daughter is a 'liability' since she will be married off to another family, and so will not contribute financially to her parents. The patriarchal structure of a society is the single most important factor skewing the sex ratio in favor of males, accentuated in some cultures by the burden of raising a dowry for a daughter's marriage. Reported sex ratios at birth, outside the typical range of 103:100 to 107:100, thus call for an explanation of some kind.
In all such research, it is important to consider plausible alternative explanations. For example in some populations that have experienced declining sex ratios, researchers have suggested that ecological factors may be at work.
As an example of how the social composition of a human population may produce unusual changes in sex ratios, we can consider a study in several counties of California where declining sex ratios had been observed. Smith and Von Behren observe that: "In the raw data, the male birth proportion is indeed declining. However, during this period, there were also shifts in demographics that influence the sex ratio. Controlling for birth order, parents' age, and race/ethnicity, different trends emerged. White births (which account for over 80%) continued to show a statistically significant decline, while other racial groups showed non-statistically significant declines (Japanese, Native American, other), little or no change (black), or an increase (Chinese). Finally, when the white births were divided into Hispanic and non-Hispanic (possible since 1982), it was found that both white subgroups suggest an increase in male births." They concluded "that the decline in male births in California is largely attributable to changes in demographics."
Data sources and data quality issues
Reported sex ratios at birth for some human populations may be influenced not only by cultural preferences and social practices that favor the birth or survival of one sex over the other (more often favoring males than favoring females) but also by incomplete or inaccurate reporting or recording of the births or the survival of infants. Even what constitutes a live birth or infant death may vary from one population to another. For example, for most of the 20th century in Russia (and the Soviet Union), extremely premature newborns (less than 28 weeks gestational age, or less than 1000 grams in weight, or less than 35 centimeters in length) were not counted as a live birth until they had survived 7 days; and if that infant died in those first 168 hours it would not be counted as an infant death. This led to serious underreporting of the Infant mortality rate (by 22% to 25%) relative to standards recommended by the World Health Organization.
When unusual sex ratios at birth (or any other age) are observed, it is important to consider misreporting, misrecording, or underregistration of births or deaths as possible reasons. Some researchers have in part attributed the high male to female sex ratios reported in mainland China in the last 25 years to the underreporting of the births of female children after the implementation of the one-child policy, though alternative explanations are now generally more widely accepted, including above all the use of ultrasound technology and sex-selective abortion of female fetuses and, probably to a more limited degree, neglect or in some cases infanticide of females. In the case of China, because of deficiencies in the vital statistics registration system, studies of sex ratios at birth have relied either on special fertility surveys, whose accuracy depends on full reporting of births and survival of both male and female infants, or on the national population census from which both birth rates and death rates are calculated from the household's reporting of births and deaths in the 18 months preceding the census. To the extent that this underreporting of births or deaths is sex-selective, both fertility surveys and censuses may inaccurately reflect the actual sex ratios at birth.
Other gestational factors
A research group led by Ein-Mor reported that sex ratio does not seem to change significantly with either maternal or paternal age. Neither gravidity nor parity seem to affect the male-to-female ratio. However, there is a significant association of sex ratio with the length of gestation. These Ein-mor conclusions have been disputed. For example, James suggested that Ein-Mor results are based on some demographic variables and a small data set, a broader study of variables and larger population set suggests human sex ratio shows substantial variation for various reasons and different trend effects of length of gestation than those reported by Ein-Mor. In another study, James has offered the hypothesis that human sex ratios, and mammalian sex ratios in general, are causally related to the hormone levels of both parents at the time of conception. This hypothesis is yet to be tested and proven true or false over large population sets.
Gender imbalance is a disparity between male and females in a population. As stated above, males usually exceed females at birth but subsequently experience different mortality rates due to many possible causes such as differential natural death rates, war casualties, and deliberate gender control.
According to Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn, two Pulitzer Prize-winning reporters for the New York Times, violence against women is causing gender imbalances in many developing countries. These authors report that more girls have been killed in the last 50 years, just because they were girls, than the number of males who were killed in all the wars of the 20th century. They detail rampant gendercide in the developing world, particularly in China, India and Pakistan.
As a contributing measure to gender imbalance in developing countries, Kristof and WuDunn's best estimate is that a girl in India, from 1 to 5 years of age, dies from discrimination every four minutes (132,000 deaths per year); that 39,000 girls in China die annually, within the first year of life, because parents didn’t give girls the same medical care and attention that boys received. The authors describe similar gender discrimination and gendercide in Congo, Kenya, Pakistan, Iraq, Bahrain, Thailand and many other developing countries.
Some of the factors suggested as causes of the gender imbalance are warfare (excess of females, notably in the wake of WWI in western Europe, and WWII, particularly in the Soviet Union); sex-selective abortion and infanticide (excess of males, notably in People's Republic of China as a result of the one-child policy, or in India); and large-scale migration, such as that by male labourers unable to bring their families with them (as in Qatar and other Gulf countries). Gender imbalance may result in the threat of social unrest, especially in the case of an excess of low-status young males unable to find spouses, and being recruited into the service of militaristic political factions. Economic factors such as male-majority industries and activities like the petrochemical, agriculture, engineering, military, and technology also have created a male gender imbalance in some areas dependent on one of these industries. Conversely, the entertainment, banking, tourism, fashion, and service industries may have resulted in a female-majority gender imbalance in some areas dependent on them.
One study found that the male-to-female sex ratio in the German state of Bavaria fell as low as 0.60 after the end of World War II for the most severely affected age cohort (those between 21 and 23 years old in 1946). This same study found that out-of-wedlock births spiked from approximately 10–15% during the inter-war years up to 22% at the end of the war. This increase in out-of-wedlock births was attributed to a change in the marriage market caused by the decline in the sex ratio.
The Northern Mariana Islands have the highest female ratio with 0.77 males per female. Qatar has the highest male ratio, with 2.87 males/female. For the group aged below 15, Sierra Leone has the highest female ratio with 0.96 males/female, and the Republic of Georgia and the People's Republic of China are tied for the highest male ratio with 1.13 males/female (according to the 2006 CIA World Factbook).
The value for the entire world population is 1.01 males/female, with 1.07 at birth, 1.06 for those under 15, 1.02 for those between 15 and 64, and 0.78 for those over 65.
The "First World" G7 members all have a gender ratio in the range of 0.95–0.98 for the total population, of 1.05–1.07 at birth, of 1.05–1.06 for the group below 15, of 1.00–1.04 for the group aged 15–64, and of 0.70–0.75 for those over 65.
Countries on the Arabian peninsula tend to have a 'natural' ratio of about 1.05 at birth but a very high ratio of males for those over 65 (Saudi Arabia 1.13, Arab Emirates 2.73, Qatar 2.84), indicating either an above-average mortality rate for females or a below-average mortality for males, or, more likely in this case, a large population of aging male guest workers. Conversely, countries of Eastern Europe (the Baltic states, Belarus, Ukraine, Russia) tend to have a 'normal' ratio at birth but a very low ratio of males among those over 65 (Russia 0.46, Latvia 0.48, Ukraine 0.52); similarly, Armenia has a far above average male ratio at birth (1.17), and a below-average male ratio above 65 (0.67). This effect may be caused by emigration and higher male mortality as result of higher Soviet era deaths; it may also be related to the enormous (by western standards) rate of alcoholism in the former Soviet states. Another possible contributory factor is an aging population, with a higher than normal proportion of relatively elderly people: we recall that due to higher differential mortality rates the ratio of males to females reduces for each year of age.