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Like Mother, Like Daughter

CAS prof: daughters often mirror their mother’s work practices


Mothers may think their teenage daughters barely acknowledge their existence, much less pay attention to their daily lives. But it turns out that teens absorb much more of their parent’s actions than they let on.

Claudia Olivetti, a College of Arts & Sciences associate professor of economics, and coauthors Eleonora Patacchini of Syracuse University and Yves Zenou of Stockholm University, had a paper published in November by the National Bureau of Economic Research exploring how the work practices of a teenager’s mother and that of her friends’ mothers affects her work decisions in adulthood. Once these teens enter the workforce, they often mirror what they witnessed growing up.

To conduct their research, Olivetti and her collaborators plumbed data from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health (Add Health), which assessed 90,000 students in grades 7 through 12 during the 1994–95 school year. These Generation Xers and Millennials were surveyed several times since then—most recently in 2008, when they were 24 to 32 years old—as they moved through college, entered the workforce, married, and started having children.

BU Today spoke with Olivetti about her research findings and how this generation’s women are trying to find work-life balance.

BU Today: What triggered your interest and that of your collaborators in this topic?

Olivetti: We thought it would be interesting to see whether we could say something empirically about the way in which gender identity is formed. Borrowing from the literature in social psychology, we know that the factor that shapes adolescent beliefs or cultural attitudes toward certain choices tends to be parents’ behaviors, beliefs, and cultural norms, as well as what they observe around them when they are growing up.

What matters in determining role models is also the frequency and quality of the contact with these potential gender roles. For a girl, her own mother is very important, especially when it comes to this career and family trade-off. But it’s not just her own mother; it’s also what the mothers of her own friends do.

You found that teenage girls mirrored their mother and their friends’ mothers in the number of hours they logged when they entered the workforce.

Correct. We found that the more your own mother worked, the more you’re likely to work. The more your friends’ mothers worked, the more hours you tend to work when you’re an adult. However, there is a negative interaction between these two. There is what we call cultural substitutability between the behavior of your own mother and the behavior of your friends’ mothers. Suppose your mom is a lawyer. She works many hours a week, and the mothers of your friends also work, but they have more regular 9-to-5 jobs. The more your mother’s long hours are common relative to your friends’ mothers, the more a girl will be influenced by her mother and the more she would work when she’s an adult. This is particularly true for women with college degrees. Interestingly, this effect of your own mother’s work behavior actually becomes stronger once you are yourself a mother.

How did this play out for teenagers whose mothers stayed at home?

We find that, for these girls, the dominating effect becomes that of the friends’ mothers. If their own mother didn’t work or worked very few hours, but their friends’ mothers worked many hours, then the dominating cultural effect is more that of their friends’ mothers.

You mention the “backlash” effect—women opting out of the workforce to care for their children, even women who grew up with working mothers. Your research group didn’t display that tendency. Why?

I don’t think there is clear evidence that there was indeed an opt-out revolution in previous generations. Yes, maybe women opt out of the labor force when they have their second child, but then they go back. You have to look at them when they are 45 and their children are going to school. They might be back to work.

What is this generation’s inclination regarding work-life balance?

For young graduate students I am in touch with, their attitude is to have both—family and a career. They’re really aware of the trade-off, but they do want to have both.

When I was a PhD student, there was only one woman among my professors. In my class, there were 4 women and 27 men. But things are changing. I waited until I had tenure to have a child. Now I see my students having children in graduate school and as they’re on the tenure track. They’re very aware of the complications, and they feel like it is accepted for them to have a child before getting tenure.

What could companies and the government do to further support working mothers?

There are two things that are really important. One is the way jobs are organized. Company policies that are aimed at allowing more flexibility would help tremendously. We see in some occupations, like medicine, these policies are working. You have more women staying in the workforce when they have children.

More public policy could help in the provision of programs for early child care. It’s very expensive to find good quality child care when your kid is two to five years old.

If you think about our school system and the way it’s structured, it’s designed for one of the two parents being home.

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Leslie Friday, BU Today, Boston University
Leslie Friday

Follow Leslie Friday on Twitter at @lesliefriday.

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