SEOUL, South Korea — When Park He-ran was a young mother, other women would approach her to ask what her secret was. She had given birth to three boys in a row at a time when South Korean women considered it their paramount duty to bear a son.
Ms. Park, a 61-year-old newspaper executive, gets a different reaction today. “When I tell people I have three sons and no daughter, they say they are sorry for my misfortune,” she said. “Within a generation, I have turned from the luckiest woman possible to a pitiful mother.”
In South Korea, once one of Asia’s most rigidly patriarchal societies, a centuries-old preference for baby boys is fast receding. And that has led to what seems to be a decrease in the number of abortions performed after ultrasounds that reveal the sex of a fetus.
According to a study released by the World Bank in October, South Korea is the first of several Asian countries with large sex imbalances at birth to reverse the trend, moving toward greater parity between the sexes. Last year, the ratio was 107.4 boys born for every 100 girls, still above what is considered normal, but down from a peak of 116.5 boys born for every 100 girls in 1990.
The most important factor in changing attitudes toward girls was the radical shift in the country’s economy that opened the doors to women in the work force as never before and dismantled long-held traditions, which so devalued daughters that mothers would often apologize for giving birth to a girl.
The government also played a small role starting in the 1970s. After growing alarmed by the rise in sex-preference abortions, leaders mounted campaigns to change people’s attitudes, including one that featured the popular slogan “One daughter raised well is worth 10 sons!”
In 1987, the government banned doctors from revealing the sex of a fetus before birth. But experts say enforcement was lax because officials feared too many doctors would be caught.
Demographers say the rapid change in South Koreans’ feelings about female babies gives them hope that sex imbalances will begin to shrink in other rapidly developing Asian countries — notably China and India — where the same combination of a preference for boys and new technology has led to the widespread practice of aborting female fetuses.
“China and India are closely studying South Korea as a trendsetter in Asia,” said Chung Woo-jin, a professor at Yonsei University in Seoul. “They are curious whether the same social and economic changes can occur in their countries as fast as they did in South Korea’s relatively small and densely populated society.”
In China in 2005, the ratio was 120 boys born for every 100 girls, according to the United Nations Population Fund. Vietnam reported a ratio of 110 boys to 100 girls last year. And although India recorded about 108 boys for every 100 girls in 2001, when the last census was taken, experts say the gap is sure to have widened by now.
The Population Fund warned in an October report that the rampant tinkering with nature’s probabilities in Asia could eventually lead to increased sexual violence and trafficking of women as a generation of boys finds marriage prospects severely limited.
In South Korea, the gap in the ratio of boys to girls born began to widen in the 1970s, but experts say it became especially pronounced in the mid-1980s as ultrasound technology became more widespread and increasing wages allowed more families to pay for the tests. The imbalance was widest from 1990 through 1995, when it remained above 112 to 100.
The imbalance has been closing steadily only since 2002. Last year’s ratio of 107.4 boys for every 100 girls was closer to the ratio of 105 to 100 that demographers consider normal and, according to The World Factbook, published by the Central Intelligence Agency, just above the global average of 107 boys born for every 100 girls.
The preference for boys here is centuries old and was rooted in part in an agrarian society that relied on sons to do the hard work on family farms. But in Asia’s Confucian societies, men were also accorded special status because they were considered the carriers of the family’s all-important bloodline.
That elevated status came with certain perquisites — men received their families’ inheritance — but also responsibilities. Once the eldest son married, he and his wife went to live with his family; he was expected to support his parents financially while his wife was expected to care for them in their old age.
The wife’s lowly role in her new family was constantly reinforced by customs that included requiring a daughter-in-law to serve her father-in-law food while on her knees.
“In the old days, when there was no adequate social safety net, Korean parents regarded having a son as kind of making an investment for old age security,” Professor Chung said. It was common for married Korean men to feel ashamed if they had no sons. Some went so far as to divorce wives who did not bear boys.
Then in the 1970s and ’80s, the country threw itself into an industrial revolution that would remake society in ways few South Koreans could have imagined.
Sons drifted away to higher-paying jobs in the cities, leaving their parents behind. And older Koreans found their own incomes rising, allowing them to save money for retirement rather than relying on their sons for support.
Married daughters, no longer shackled to their husbands’ families, returned to provide emotional or financial support for their own elderly parents.
“Daughters are much better at emotional contact with their parents, visiting them more often, while Korean sons tend to be distant,” said Kim Seung-kwon, a demographer at the government’s Korea Institute for Health and Social Affairs.
Ms. Park, the newspaper executive, said such changes forced people to rethink their old biases. “In restaurants and parks, when you see a large family out for a dinner or picnic, 9 out of 10, it’s the wife who brings the family together with her parents, not the husband with his parents,” she said. “To be practical, for an old Korean parent, having a daughter sometimes is much better than having a son.”
The economic changes also unleashed a revolution of a different sort. With the economy heating up, men could no longer afford to keep women out of the workforce, and women began slowly to gain confidence, and grudging respect.
Although change is coming slowly and deep prejudices remain — in some businesses, women are pressured to leave their jobs when pregnant — women are more accepted now in the workplace and at the best universities that send graduates to the top corporations.
Six of 10 South Korean women entered college last year; fewer than one out of 10 did so in 1981. And in the National Assembly, once one of the nation’s most male-dominated institutions, women now hold about 13 percent of the seats, about double the percentage they held just four years ago.
Shin Hye-sun, 39, says she has witnessed many of the changes in women’s status during her 13 years at the TBC television station in Taegu, in central South Korea. “When I first joined the company in 1995, a woman was expected to quit her job once she got married; we called it a ‘resignation on a company suggestion,’” she said. Now, she said, many women stay after marriage and take a three-month break after giving birth before returning to work.
“If someone suggests that a woman should quit after marriage, female workers in my company will take it as an insult and say so,” Ms. Shin said.
According to the World Bank study, one of the surprises in South Korea was that it took as long as it did for the effects of a booming economy to translate into changes in people’s attitudes toward the birth of daughters.
The study suggests that the country’s former authoritarian rulers helped slow the transition by upholding laws and devising policies that supported a continuation of Confucian hierarchy, which encourages fealty not only to family patriarchs, but also to the nation’s leaders.
With the move toward democracy in the late 1980s, the concept of equal rights for men and women began to creep into Koreans’ thinking. In 1990, the law guaranteeing men their family’s inheritance — a cornerstone of the Confucian system — was the first of the so-called family laws to fall; the rest would be dismantled over the next 15 years.
After 2002, the narrowing of the gender gap signaled that attitudes about the value of women — and ultimately of daughters — had begun to catch up to the seismic changes in the economy and the law.
And last year, a study by the Korea Institute for Health and Social Affairs showed that of 5,400 married South Korean women younger than 45 who were surveyed, only 10 percent said they felt that they must have a son. That was down from 40 percent in 1991.
“When my father took me to our ancestral graves for worshiping, my grandfather used to say, ‘Why did you bring a daughter here?’” said Park Su-mi, 29, a newlywed who calls the idea that only men carry on a family’s bloodline “unscientific and absurd.”
“My husband and I have no preference at all for boys,” she said. “We don’t care whether we have a boy or girl because we don’t see any difference between a boy and a girl in helping make our family happy.”