Fathers appear to be playing a bigger role in their daughters’ career choices compared to men of previous generations.
Researchers from the University of Maryland used various data sets to study the career paths of 63,000 women born between 1909 and 1977. Given that more women today are entering predominantly male occupations in higher numbers compared to women of previous generations, the researchers said it has been difficult to distinguish between general societal changes and family factors that may be influencing a woman’s career choices.
The question is whether fathers are passing on what the researchers called “job specific human capital” to their daughters. The notion that fathers pass on job skills and work interests to their sons has been long established, but the trend hasn’t been pronounced in girls, in part because women are relatively recent participants in the workforce.
To distinguish between social trends and the additional influence a father might have, the researchers first compared the percentage of women who worked in the same field as their fathers-in-law. A father-in-law provides a useful comparison because he represents male generational influences of the time, but doesn’t exert any parenting influence over the woman, the researchers said.
Then the researchers evaluated the number of women who went into their fathers’ line of work. In comparing women who worked in the same field as their fathers-in-law with those who followed in their fathers’ footsteps, the researchers found a surprising difference.
About 6 percent of women born in the first decade of the study worked in the same field as their fathers. But about 18 percent of women born in the last decade of the study followed their fathers’ footsteps. Although much of the increase is attributed to social influences, the study showed that about 20 percent of the difference is attributed to a father’s influence.
By comparison, the percentage of men who followed in their fathers’ career paths remained relatively unchanged at about 30 percent during the study period.
The study wasn’t designed to explore the reasons behind the change. However, it may be that today’s fathers are spending more time with their daughters and passing on more skills and values related to their careers, said Judith K. Hellerstein, associate professor of economics at the University of Maryland. Another factor may be that daughters also are paying more attention to the fathers.
Dr. Hellerstein notes that her own father’s job as a math professor influenced her career path.
“I watched my father grade math papers at night,’’ she said. “And my father made it clear to us that women could do math, which was important.’’
The study is under review by an economics journal and is part of a University of Maryland dissertation project by Melinda Sandler Morrill, who is now an assistant economics professor at North Carolina State University. The authors noted that most of the women in the data set were married, since the study compared the effects of fathers-in-law as well as fathers on career choice, but that they don’t believe excluding single women had a major effect on the findings.
By Tara Parker-Pope
February 23, 2009