Working Mothers Give Daughters Career Edge

Call it the working mother effect.

When a woman works outside of the home before her children are 14 years old, she improves her daughter’s career prospects, a new report found. Harvard Business School’s recently launched “Gender Initiative” analyzed data of nearly 50,000 adults aged 18 to 60 in 24 nations from 2002 to 2012. The data was from the International Social Survey Program, a multi-country program that looks at social trends across developed nations. The same did not hold true for sons of working mothers, however; they are as likely as sons with stay-at-home mothers to hold supervisory positions and earn comparable salaries.

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In the U.S., adult daughters of working mothers earned 23 percent more than those whose mothers had not worked during their childhoods, earning an annual average income of $35,474 versus $28,894, the study found. More than one-third held supervisory positions, compared with just one-quarter of their counterparts from more traditional households. The study was written by Harvard Business School professor Kathleen McGinn; Harvard Business School researcher Mayra Ruiz Castro; and Elizabeth Long Lingo, a researcher at Mt. Holyoke College in South Hadley, Massachusetts.

“There is no single policy or practice that can eliminate gender gaps at work and at home,” McGinn says. “But being raised by a working mother appears to come very close to that. Women raised by a working mother do better in the workplace, and men raised by a working mother contribute more at home.” Across all the 24 developed countries featured in the survey, women whose mothers had worked earned 6 percent more than women who had stay-at-home moms. Men who had working mothers spent nearly twice as many hours on family and childcare (16 hours versus 8.5 hours for those with stay-at-home moms).

The pattern of results strongly suggests a “role modeling effect,” McGinn says. “Sons don’t need evidence from their moms that it’s okay for boys to go to work. Daughters look around them to look at what’s appropriate behavior. They see that it’s appropriate and reasonable for women to go to work, and for women to be powerful, to hold supervisory responsibility and to make money.” Similarly, sons from homes with working mothers learned to pitch in and didn’t forget that later in life. Across the 24 countries surveyed, 67 percent of women surveyed said they worked versus 82 percent of the men.

Whether to stay at home or work after having children is the No. 1 reason pregnant women and those with kids argue with their husbands, according to a recent survey of more than 600 pregnant women and 600 mothers of teenage children by personal finance site Around 31 percent said it was the main reason they argued, ahead of saving for their children’s education (20 percent), leaving work early to spend more time with family (18 percent), the cost of toys and family entertainment (16 percent), and the cost of childcare (14 percent).

Many women would like to split their time between work and home, with more mothers saying they would like to work part-time (47 percent) rather than full-time (32 percent), according to a 2012 Pew Research Center survey. But childcare costs — which rose 50 percent from 2002 to 2011 and 250 percent over the last three decades, according to the U.S. Census Bureau — may either mean that some women go back to full- or part-time work reluctantly, or stay at home because they can’t afford to work and pay for childcare.

And just because they do the latter doesn’t mean their children will be less happy, says Julie de Azevedo Hanks, the owner and executive director of Wasatch Family Therapy in Salt Lake City, Utah, who recently earned her Ph.D. in marriage and family therapy. “It’s interesting that the Harvard study focuses more on the economic benefits,” she says. “That doesn’t mean their daughters are more successful in their personal lives. If a mother, whatever her work status, is happy and fulfilled, that’s good for daughters, too.”

This article originally appeared on and is reprinted by permission from, ©2015 Dow Jones & Co. Inc. All rights reserved.

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