following in daddy’s footsteps

A health blog (why a health blog?) at the NYT covered research showing that as the 20th century progressed, more and more women followed in their father’s footsteps, career-speaking. Men have for a long time followed in their fathers’ footsteps at a rate of about 30%; women born in the 1910s followed in their father’s footsteps at a 6% rate, while women born in the 1970s followed in their father’s footsteps at an 18% rate.

What I thought was interesting was that they posited a couple of possible explanations but left out what, to me, is the most obvious explanation — that girls are tending towards parity with boys in this area because the obstacles against them following these careers have diminished. In other words, probably 30% of all kids would like to follow their career-parent into their career. But women were prevented from doing so, and as those barriers fell, women began doing what men have done — take as a default the career that they have already seen, become familiar with and perhaps interested in, have a professional networking leg-up in, and so forth.

And one of the important obstacles was certainly the father’s discouragement of their daughters. “No, no daughter of mine is going to practice in my firm.” “Honey, help out your husband instead.” And so forth.

In other words, it’s not some nice neutral thing that has simply led to daughters suddenly taking notice of their fathers: dads spending more time with their kids, including their daughters, or “daughters … paying more attention to … fathers”. It’s that over the course of the 20th century fathers less and less often outright discouraged their daughters from joining the family law firm or plumbing business.

So that’s what seemed like the obvious reason to me as I started reading the article. How many biographical accounts has one read where women were discouraged from dad’s career?

The kicker quote was this:

Dr. [Judith] 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.”

Yeah. So instead of making it clear that women couldn’t or shouldn’t do math, he made it clear that they could.

The research — or, at least, the blog account of the research — attributed 80% of the influence to society, and 20% of the influence to fathers. Regarding the 20% paternal influence, the researchers had a couple of thoughts about why:

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.

Sure, and another factor may simply be that daughters are being freed from the artificial constraints of social (and parental and paternal) pressure against taking a family member’s career.

Parental pressure to do or not do something, accompanied by social pressure to do or not do something, is a big deal, and that has changed over time.

Well, maybe this is just an example of bad science writing. Surely the actual researchers wouldn’t miss such an obvious point? < goes off to check > argghh — < frustrated because the blog doesn’t include a friggin’ link to the study or any information about the study. god that’s annoying. > sigh. okay, the blog post says, “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.” So that’s something to follow up on and it looks like it hasn’t been published yet so I forgive Tara Parker-Pope for not including a citation — she did the best she could, I guess.

hat tip to “Father knows best?” by Judy Berman, Broadsheet, Salon.com 2009/2/25.
2/27 eta: I am still puzzling over this. It just doesn’t make sense to me, but I feel I can’t quite pin down the problem. What am I missing? oh, that’s right — the actual paper. Yes, that would probably make things a lot clearer.