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Like Mother, Like Daughter?How Career Women Influence Their Daughters' Ambition$

Jill Armstrong

Print publication date: 2017

Print ISBN-13: 9781447334088

Published to Policy Press Scholarship Online: May 2018

DOI: 10.1332/policypress/9781447334088.001.0001

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Career choice: like mother, like daughter

Career choice: like mother, like daughter

(p.73) Four Career choice: like mother, like daughter
Like Mother, Like Daughter?

Jill Armstrong

Policy Press

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter demonstrates that mothers in high-status career roles are, in most cases, the primary influence over their daughters' career expectations. The mothers with careers in the study often acted in ways that fitted the description of mentoring and many were said by their daughters to be role models. Ways in which the daughters' attitudes to work were guided and shaped by their mothers with successful careers included a substantial number of this sample following their mothers into the same or similar careers, having the same work values, and having doors opened to their careers by their mothers. This suggests that the daughters have absorbed from their mothers that work can be interesting, enjoyable and satisfying, and that they should aim for a career that delivers them these qualities.

Keywords:   working mothers, career roles, daughters, career expectation, mentoring, role models, work attitude, work values

Chapter themes

This chapter focuses on the start of the daughters’ working lives and considers the nature of the influence of the generation of mothers over their daughters’ choice of career. This chapter also asks whether we should expect daughters to emulate their mothers in choosing to pursue a career.

Jessica is in her final year at university. Her mother, Jan, is at the top of her career. Jessica tells me that both her parents encouraged her academic achievement. She has many discussions about her possible future career with her mother in particular. She describes her mother as “strongly encouraging” her to think about what work she wants to do, to be proactive in getting experience and getting involved with extracurricular activities that could help her develop a competitive CV. Jan’s level of involvement has been “a slight bone of contention” between them. Jessica does not feel that she is being directed towards any particular career, but her mother is very involved in helping Jessica make up her mind, by facilitating conversations about careers with her friends and contacts and organising internships. Jessica says: “She wants me to have an idea about what would be good and set out to do it.” Jessica had talked to her mother about her work and concludes that: “My mum probably is the biggest influence in terms of talking about my career, I think because … we are quite similar … and what she’s done I would also find interesting. I think we would go in similar directions.” Jessica is one of the few in this study who volunteers that her mother is her role model.

Jan tells me that she loves working and that it gives her a sense of self-worth, fun and intellectual stimulation. She comments that she has often made good friends of her work colleagues and clients. Jan has clearly communicated this to Jessica, who uses very similar words to describe what she wants from work.

This theme of a strong maternal influence over a daughter’s career values, and helping her daughter to find her path, is typical of many (p.74) of those interviewed. Other mothers had been an even more direct influence over their daughters’ career choices, as illustrated by the stories told by mother–daughter pair, Tanya and Tara. Tanya is following almost exactly in the footsteps of her mother.

Tara (mother):

  • “She ended up doing the same course at university that I did … and going into the same [career]. It’s really interesting.”
  • Tanya (daughter):

  • “We’ve talked about my career loads … I feel like she has been a guide telling me you’ll have loads of fun doing this … she’s travelled loads and got these amazing stories … it seems quite normal that I want to do something similar.”
  • Tanya says that her mother had made many friends at work and had brought many of these friends home. Talking to her mother and these friends has influenced Tanya’s view that the media sector is for her. Tara arranged work experience placements for her daughter, which Tanya reports were an important factor in her getting accepted on the master’s course that led to the job she is just about to start. Despite the direct role her mother has had in influencing her choice of career, Tanya says she feels neither pressurised nor that she is acting to please her mother by following in her footsteps. In my conversation with her mother, Tara tells me that she has been at pains not to be directive. This point is emphasised by many of the mothers I interview. They consider it their role to help their daughters think through their options and to act as supporters, door openers or even protectors when their daughters struggle.

    What I observe is that the majority of the mothers have not pushed a particular career. However, almost all have been active in encouraging, advising and shaping their daughters’ expectations. Most of these mothers want and expect their daughters to do well, and to find a career they find worthwhile. Significantly, mothers and daughters often express a common belief in the value of hard work and fear of being bored. There is, of course, a fine line between feeling supported and feeling under pressure. This is illustrated by undergraduate Yasmin’s comment about her mother: “She’s never been academically pushy, but she did just assume that I’d go to university.” The pressure on women to ‘be perfect’, with its cost in terms of self-confidence and anxiety, is a well-worn discussion and one that will be visited later here (see, for example, Gilligan, 1982). Nevertheless, the verdict of most of these daughters is that their mothers have not always got it right, but that (p.75) they are mainly helpful and encouraging. These daughters are for the most part clear about what they are striving for. Largely, they want an interesting, absorbing career and/or want to do something of social worth.

    Standing on their mothers’ shoulders

    The question I posed at the start of this chapter is should we expect daughters to emulate their mothers in pursuit of a career? Strong academic evidence exists to support the notion of the transmission of work roles and values between generations of mothers and daughters. Work values and occupation choices are linked to one’s sense of identity – that is, ‘the kind of person I am’. This link between self-concept and work role identity has its foundations in the work of Super, who claimed that, ‘in choosing an occupation one is, in effect, choosing a means of implementing a self-concept’ (1957, p 196). Gottfredson’s (1981) work on occupational choice places individual choice in the context of the social and psychological influences that accrue up to the point of making that choice. She emphasised that the impressionistic nature of knowledge of occupations means that choices are often a process by which a person matches their sense of self with a vague impression of a work role. As Gottfredson stated, ‘occupational images deal almost exclusively with the lifestyle that occupation affords an incumbent and the type of person that he or she is’ (1981, p 551). Turning to the potential influence of mothers on occupational choice, Gottfredson asserted that a person’s impressionist knowledge partly derives from talking about their father’s jobs. She was writing in 1981 and therefore it is feasible that, by now, successful working mothers as well as fathers will have given their daughters an insight into their working lives, albeit a vague impression, that will influence their choice of career.

    Educational attainment

    Eichenbaum and Orbach (1983) and Lawler (2000) argued that a mother identifies with her daughter due to their shared gender and behaves towards her daughter unconsciously as she internally acts towards the daughter part of herself. A mother is also a daughter. Walkerdine et al (2001) linked this idea to work, arguing that the middle-class mother feels the need to push her daughters to defer gratification and reach their potential. Walkerdine et al described this potential as ‘their destiny to go to university and become professionals’ (p.76) (2001, p 161). Lawler asserted that this shaping of their daughters’ behaviour by mothers is a particular issue for middle-class children because ‘middle class-ness has become synonymous with normality’ (2000, p 43). Middle-class mothers are argued to equate a ‘good self’ with educational attainment that facilitates the daughter’s ability to reach her potential (Lawler, 2000, p 4.) Lawler goes on to argue that middle-class mothers are more emotionally and materially equipped than those of other social classes to advise and assist their daughters, both in terms of obtaining the qualifications to give them access to good jobs and in practical help to find them (p 4). The same findings come from the perspective of the daughters studied by Walkerdine et al (2001, p 68). They argued that middle-class girls were more likely than working-class girls to envision themselves as being economically successful in good jobs and to have the internal and external resources to help them achieve a rewarding working life. Evidence of this transmission of attitudes on work aspirations is provided by a longitudinal study using the 90,000-strong National Longitudinal Survey of Adolescent Health in the United States. Using econometric analysis, Olivetti et al (2013) compared the working hours of women born in 1978–84, when they were aged between 22 and 34, with the working hours of their mothers and mothers’ friends with whom they were in regular contact, controlled for education, family wealth and location. Their key findings were that the influence of the mothers’ experience on the daughters’ working hours was strongest when the mothers were college-educated. This body of research underscores the importance attached to encouraging educational attainment, which brings with it an expectation of making the most of these qualifications by embarking on a high-skill career path.

    Role modelling the expectation of a career

    Further evidence that supports the hypothesis that middle-class mothers do influence their daughters’ work orientation is drawn from research that includes both working and non-working mothers in its sample. US researchers Moen et al (1997) sampled a panel of 256 mother–daughter dyads and found that middle-class women create the expectation in their daughters of long-term employment. This is shown to be the case regardless of the mothers’ workforce participation, which tends to suggest that attitude is more important than behaviour. Moen et al reinforced their findings by carrying out comparisons of gender and work role attitudes on the same sample in 1956 and 1986. These comparisons showed that a daughter’s attitudes are more likely to (p.77) correlate with the mother’s attitudes than her position in the labour force. Moen et al therefore concluded that socialisation processes ‘operate through verbal persuasion rather than role modeling’ (1997, p 291). These findings are confirmed by the recent research of McGinn et al (2015) who studied national archive data from 2002–12 across 24 countries to compare outcomes among nationally representative samples for the adult children of mothers who work versus those who stay at home. They found that the children of working mothers are more likely to be employed, to work more hours, in more supervisory positions, and to earn more if employed. This suggests (but does not directly address) that the children are not reacting against the example set by their mothers. They argue that these outcomes are partially mediated by the more egalitarian attitudes they identify among the children of mothers who work. The authors also speculate that mothers pass on information and skills to their daughters to help them navigate a career. However, a limitation of the research of both Moen et al (1997) and McGinn et al (2015) is that they compare working mothers with non-working mothers, which does not match the situation of the majority of women in the UK who mainly work, but work a variable number of hours.

    On the other hand, evidence that moderates the extent to which maternal influence is significant in daughters’ work aspirations comes from Woodfield’s (2007) research, which focused on the perspective of girls and young women aged 16–22 and also compared women working as teachers with women working as firefighters (aged 24–62). Woodfield found that girls think their mothers ‘have significant, although by no means overwhelming, influence on what careers individuals felt they could expect support for’ (2007, p 217, emphasis in original).

    In summary, academic opinion is divided about the primary way in which mothers transmit their work values to their daughters (either verbally or through role modelling). Most argue that mothers support and shape their daughters’ career choices rather than overtly directing them down a particular career path. Most also agree that encouraging educational achievement often translates into an expectation of achievement and commitment to work.

    “My mother was my main influence”: how daughters characterise their mothers’ influence

    This section considers how the daughters in my research characterised their mothers’ influence. Before I met the mothers and daughters, they (p.78) all filled in an online questionnaire so I could elicit a spontaneous, unmediated response to some of my questions. I asked the daughters to rate out of 10 how much influence different people had on their choice of career. Figure 4.1 shows how they answered.

    Career choice: like mother, like daughter

    Figure 4.1: Daughters’ career influencers (n=30)

    As is clear from this table, most daughters’ view is that their mothers are the main influence over their choice of career. The importance of the mothers’ influence was directly confirmed in many of the interviews, as illustrated by ‘daughter mother’ Hannah who had started off in the arts, but later moved into teaching, like her mother:

    “I heard a lot about Mum’s job and when I was young I saw a lot of my mum in her workplace when she taught me in after-school classes or when I went to see Christmas plays at her school. Interesting that I became a teacher, and I’m probably a very similar teacher to her. I saw her style.”

    As I have suggested in the introduction to this chapter, in most cases, the daughters report that their mother did not expect or push a specific career. Instead, many of the mothers were active in guiding their daughter towards or away from choices and in setting expectations of a long-term, satisfying career. The way in which the mothers exerted influence can be described as ‘direct’ or ‘indirect’. By ‘direct’, I mean (p.79) actions bearing unambiguously on the outcome, and by ‘indirect’, I mean ‘shaping the context for their daughters’ decisions’.

    Indirect influence

    Starting with examples of indirect influence described by the daughters, these are concerned with educational achievement, communication of a strong work ethic and, reflecting more middle-class assumptions about work, facilitating with money the ability to follow an attractive (and therefore competitive) career direction. Their mothers also modelled the value of enjoyable and satisfying careers.

    The first theme concerns the mothers’ encouragement of educational achievement, which is linked to aspirations for their daughters to find interesting and rewarding work. Isabelle made this point well: “I knew as a student I should be a really good student and so I was … I always knew my roles.” In some cases this influence is characterised by the daughters as pressure, as exemplified by Zara, who reports that, “My mum is all about ‘tough love’, especially academically … We have a joke in our family where we say, ‘Mum I got an A,’ to which we joke she would reply, ‘Why didn’t you get an A star?’”

    The link between academic achievement and progressing into higher status jobs is well known. It is featured on the websites and in the brochures of most universities. Almost all of the daughters went to Oxford or Cambridge, or to Russell Group universities. Recent figures show that 67% of Russell Group graduates are working in high-skilled roles versus 53% from other universities (ONS, 2013a).

    Many daughters talked about their mothers’ communication of a strong work ethic that started in relation to schoolwork and extended to a ‘mantra’ for life. This maternal communication of the necessity to work hard, to ‘keep going’, to ‘have stamina’, is also often reported by the mothers’ generation about their own upbringing, and amounts to family lore being passed down through the generations – through working class as well as middle class generations. The encouragement of hard work is frequently mentioned by mothers and echoed by their daughters. This was exemplified by mother and daughter pair Alison and Ashley. Alison, a marketing director, talked about passing on to her daughter, Ashley, her parents’ focus on hard work: “Ashley has a strong sense of determination. She’s not a quitter and I think I instilled that in her … Both my parents are role models in terms of determination, work ethic and sense of drive. As long as you have tried your hardest, that’s all that matters.”

    (p.80) Daughter Ashley, a recent graduate, showed in her interview that she has absorbed this message:

    “Well, [Mum’s] very hard working … I guess she’s always been quite like driven and she’s always wanted me to do really well so she’s pushed me quite hard. She’s always made me work really hard and stuff so I’m kind of grateful for that as well … I’ve got quite a strong work ethic now … I just think that a lot of people are capable of achieving a lot more so you should try and do what you are capable of because otherwise it’s just lazy isn’t it?”

    This message about work ethic was often accompanied by the communication of the idea that the daughters’ could do whatever they strived for as a career, as described by Elly, who has her own business: “[Mum] always said that if you work hard there is no reason why we shouldn’t achieve whatever we set our minds to.” This confirms the findings of Walkerdine et al (2001) on middle-class mothers advising, equipping and assisting the progress of their children, although far from all of the mothers in this sample were from a middle-class background. Even though it was not articulated, it is possible that this emphasis on educational achievement is intended to preserve for their daughters the middle-class lifestyles that the socially upwardly mobile mothers had achieved through their career success. Ashley speculated that because her mother had not gone to university, perhaps her mother, “wants me to do well and have a nice life like she has”.

    As other research has suggested, growing up with mothers who went out to work and liked their jobs has led this generation of daughters to expect, almost unthinkingly, that they will do the same. This point is illustrated by ‘daughter mother’ Sophie, who is a senior manager in education. She said: “As a result of growing up seeing my mum working from as early as I can remember, I simply thought that everyone went to university and all women worked; I still cannot comprehend the idea of not working.”

    Others, for example, Una, a mother and her daughter, Ursula, who both work in the public sector, described work itself as having social value:

    Una (mother):

  • “You should work to be socially valuable, to contribute to society. We are both amazed by people who don’t work.”
  • (p.81) Ursula (daughter):

  • “You should make a contribution to society. Everybody should.”
  • Indeed, many daughters expressed the idea that for them not to have an interesting career would be reprehensible, either because they felt that their self-respect or respect from others would be compromised, or because of fear that they would be bored or boring to others. As Tanya put it: “It can be the most interesting thing about a person, what their job is … so I would probably be a bit disappointed with myself or think my life was a bit boring if I didn’t go into something interesting.”

    Tanya also highlighted the balance that many of the mothers tried to maintain between encouragement and pushing their daughters or risking undermining their confidence when they don’t succeed at something. Tanya said: “My mum instilled hard work in me somehow without making me feel under pressure. She’s always said do what makes you happy and don’t put too much pressure on yourself.”

    A key finding is that almost all of the daughters had been encouraged in their desire to have a career by the fact that their mothers had conveyed their enjoyment of work. Time and time again the daughters stressed how much their mothers “loved their jobs”. This had been communicated directly in words, through the stories their mothers told about things that happened at work, and also by bringing home the friends they made at work, as described by Tanya at the start of this chapter. Many daughters also reported that their mothers had cemented this impression by encouraging them to choose a job they would enjoy because it was interesting to them. Xenia, an undergraduate who was aspiring to be a representative of a third generation of successful career women in her family, said: “I always felt this strong sense from both my parents that I had to do something that was interesting to me, not just something that … made loads of money.”

    The importance mothers attached to enjoying work is reflected by their daughters’ prioritising enjoyment and satisfaction when asked what they wanted from work. This was explained as finding enjoyment in the variety of content within their role and the social side of work, and not wanting to feel bored. Not being bored came up often from both generations. Enjoyment and satisfaction also meant feeling intellectually challenged and that they would be making a contribution to a bigger outcome. This corroborates other academic and business-sponsored studies where enjoyment, intellectual fulfilment and the idea of making a difference are given primary importance across age groups of women working in professional or managerial roles ( (p.82) Bostock, 2014; Opportunity Now, 2014; James, 2015; McKinsey & Company and Lean In, 2016).

    The role of money was also significant. All the mothers in the sample had attained a level of security because of their salaries and all but four of the mothers had partners who were also contributing financially to the household. However one feels about the advantage given to the children of relatively affluent parents, there’s no doubt that the mothers’ incomes acted as a facilitator for the daughters in this study. Financial support from their parents had allowed some of the daughters to take time to travel and decide what they wanted to do. Money also paid for support when doing unpaid internships that were thought to be necessary to get a job in competitive fields, such as advertising; and paid for further education leading to professional qualifications. Indeed, some of the daughters acknowledged that they were lucky to have ‘a financial safety net’ to enable them to make their career choices without needing to consider money at all. For recent graduate Isabelle, the combined wealth of her parents prompted her observation that to them, coming from working-class backgrounds, making money was “super-important” but “very self-interested” and that this lay behind her desire to “work with the underprivileged” and “do something nice”. Another example came from Beth, who had spent several years doing unpaid internships before securing her first rung on the career ladder in the media. She commented that, “[Money] never really crossed my mind … it was much more important to me that I be happy doing something I want to do.”

    Direct influence

    I turn now to daughters’ reports of mothers exerting ‘direct’ influence over their choices. As a reminder, ‘direct’ influence is defined here as actions bearing unambiguously on the outcome. Themes that come from the research include daughters entering the same or similar careers to their mothers, direct conversations about career choices and receiving practical help in opening the door to specific careers. Views expressed by the daughters are contrasted with those of their mothers in order to show the maternal influence.

    First, a direct measure of the daughters’ emulation of the career paths of their mothers is the decision taken by many to go into the same type of career, or a career with similar values. This research finding builds upon Gottfredson’s (1981, p 570) observation that information about occupation is strongly influenced by an individual’s immediate social setting and that ideas are more easily accepted when no effort (p.83) is required to access them. Of the 28 daughters who were already in work or knew what careers they wanted, nine were planning to work or actually working in the same field as their mothers or a field with very similar values (such as the daughter of a teacher becoming an educational psychologist). In addition, three were in the same or similar occupations to their father, as shown in Figure 4.2.

    Career choice: like mother, like daughter

    Figure 4.2: Following in the footsteps of their parents’ careers

    Following in their mother’s career footsteps resulted from the daughters talking to their mothers about their jobs and/or experiencing them first hand through work-experience as illustrated by Gina and Gayle:

    Gina (daughter):

  • “I think I genuinely went into advertising because my mum worked in advertising.”
  • Gayle (mother):

  • “If I didn’t suggest for you to do that first work experience you never would have imagined that it was fun.”
  • Kelly laughingly told me that her mum had frequently described the job she wanted her to do and that was exactly what she had done: “My mum sold me the idea. She used to say to me, ‘We’ve got this lovely educational therapist and it’s such a lovely job!’ She made it sound so romantic. She totally influenced me and then supported my decision.” Kelly was also an exceptional example in reporting that her mother had directly encouraged her to pick a career that would fit around having (p.84) children, in anticipation that Kelly would have children one day. I also met one other mother who, when her daughter was thinking about changing her career in her late twenties, gave her daughter the same advice to consider how her career could fit around children. In both cases, this seemed driven by the guilt these two mothers felt about working full-time from when their daughters were very young.

    Many other daughters felt that they knew something about their mother’s job and had decided that it would not suit them. Interestingly, only three of the daughters were following in the career footsteps of their fathers. These daughters tended to have excelled at school in STEM subjects.

    Not all of the daughters were interested in talking to their mothers about their work, but many were. This confirms the findings of Lawler (2000) and Moen et al (1997) that work values are transmitted by verbal persuasion. Clear evidence of direct transmission of work values also came from analysing the language used in the transcripts of the individual interviews. Daughters frequently mirrored the language of their mothers when describing what they want from work. Examples given below are taken from the separate interviews with mother and daughter. Both generations emphasised the importance of enjoying work, as discussed above. Another key theme was mothers and daughters talking about careers that give them status. Status is linked by the interviewees to job satisfaction. The example here came from Willow, a doctor, and her mother Wendy, who is the MD of her own company:

    Willow (daughter):

  • “I want a career … I don’t want my work to totally define my life but equally I want to be in a job I have satisfaction from. It’s nice to do something that is recognised … I think most doctors do want the status, but they won’t readily admit it.”
  • Wendy (mother):

  • “I do have a reputation within the field, which I suppose is a measure of success … there aren’t many [in my field] who become managing directors and run their own profit-making business … [Success] is external recognition and being able to do what I want, enjoying my work.”
  • Many mothers and daughters also valued specific careers that were perceived to have social value. Both Amy, a ‘daughter mother’, and her mother, Anita, expressed the same desire to help people that had propelled one into teaching and the other into the health service.

    (p.85) A more practical example of the direct influence of mothers is the help many of the daughters said they received from their mothers at the start of their careers. Examples included arranging internships or helping by finding job advertisements and drafting job applications. Two of the daughters who had mothers who ran businesses had been given projects to work on by their mothers. They reported that this had taught them valuable skills, such as how to manage accounts and how to talk to people. Both daughters said that this experience had increased their confidence in their own abilities.

    The depth of their mothers’ influence is also evident in comments from several daughters that their mothers did not know or acknowledge just how much influence they have. Recent graduate Ashley showed the contradictory thoughts she has about the way her relationship with her mother plays out when big decisions need to be made:

    “I don’t think she realises that she does it but she does tend to try to influence me quite a lot when I’ve had to make big decisions about my life. I don’t know. Yeah. She has quite strong opinions about these things. It makes me always turn to her when I’ve got a big decision to make, which I think is kind of bad. Sometimes we argue. Like, I wish I could make more decisions for myself rather than always asking mummy [laughs] But a lot of the time she’s right so I should listen to her anyway.”

    This dance of closeness and separation, rebellion and connection, is typical of mother–daughter relationships, as described by many (Chodorow, 1978; Apter, 1990; Bjerrum Nielsen and Rudberg, 1994; Lawler, 2000).

    The balance of the evidence above suggests that mothers with successful careers exercise more influence over their daughters’ career aspirations, in both direct and indirect ways, than has been argued by those who privilege individual self-efficacy in motivating career aspiration (O’Brien and Fassinger, 1993). The comments of the daughters illuminate the specific ways in which their self-efficacy is guided and shaped by their successful working mothers – including a substantial number of this sample following their mothers into the same or similar careers, having the same work values and having doors opened to their careers by their mothers.

    I turn now to consider views directly expressed by the mothers about how they perceived their influence over their daughters’ careers (p.86) and how those with sons thought their approach to their daughters had differed.

    How mothers characterised their influence

    Mothers’ aspirations were nuanced, complex and differed by child. However, it is clear that most were ambitious for their daughters. Many of the mothers acknowledged that it was important to their parenting strategy that their daughters should achieve their potential and that they should, from a secure and safe base, be encouraged to be independent, as illustrated by Christina, a lawyer:

    “My role is to support her in the world and give her a strong sense of self. But to sort of protect and comfort her as well. There’s an absolute assumption that she would always come to me if she needs help or is distressed in any way and yet I feel pleased that she can look after herself.”

    The notion of working hard came up in this context too, as expressed by teacher and grandmother Patricia: “We just expected them to work hard and achieve … so they did.” Xanthe, working in the arts, also articulated this: “Work hard, do things for yourself, achieve.”

    Many mothers described themselves as encouraging and supporting what they saw as their daughter’s own ambition to have a career. The mothers reported that they conveyed these values indirectly, through their actions and by discussing and ‘negotiating’ around specific situations such as schoolwork and their daughters’ ideas about careers. Many, such as CEO Rose, stated they were conscious of not “putting too much pressure about what you have to live up to or do”, and also reported intervening when they thought their daughter was putting undue pressure on herself. For example, Bridget, a doctor, told me that she saw her daughter struggling to get a career in the field she wanted and applied “not so subtle pressure to choose an easier career path”. Her daughter persisted on her chosen career path and was eventually successful in getting the job she wanted.

    Passing on the feminist torch

    This mixture of ambition for their daughters to achieve their potential, with encouragement to be independent, applied equally to the mothers’ sons. However, many of the mothers also described two views that were of particular relevance to their aspirations for their daughters. (p.87) First, even though they acknowledged that the situation of women in the workplace has improved over time, most believed that the odds are still stacked against full gender equality. Second, they thought that their daughters had confidence issues that could get in the way of achieving their potential or cause them to lose out to men in some way.

    Seeing their daughters’ careers through the lens of gender inequality chimes with Mannheim’s (1952) theory about members of active generations who consciously represent themselves by referring to the collective experience of their generation rather than just their individual experience. Many of the mothers felt, in relation to work, that they had been and continued to be in competition with men. Several had achieved career ‘firsts’ for women or had been among the first to hold the positions they’d reached. Almost all also volunteered examples of personal experience of gender discrimination or sexist attitudes at work, including sexual harassment, sexist assumptions, not having equal access to opportunities and being one of a small minority represented at senior levels. I heard several stories from those working in the private sector about trying to negotiate fewer hours, usually asking to work a four-day week, after the birth of their first child, only to be told that this would mean surrendering their position in the hierarchy of the organisation. Moreover, many mothers spontaneously said that their own decisions about going back to work after the birth of their children were made in conscious reference to feeling the need to represent the progress of women. Doctor Eve was an example of one interviewee who felt this way. She said: “I do feel we had a duty to demonstrate that, yes, we are going to be worth your training.” Lawyer Imogen said: “I think it was fear of letting the side down that tipped the balance. I was one of the first female partners to have children as a partner in an environment that was still fairly sexist.”

    Imogen, like others, went on say that the example of her home-based mother influenced her sense of wanting to change outcomes for women: “I grew up feeling my mother was very frustrated being the person at home all the time, so I think I swung to the other extreme of I’m not going to be bored at home.”

    Many of the mothers with these views had communicated their desire that their daughter should not limit her horizons because of her gender. Tara, an MD in the media, said: “I think I did say this. That you can do anything you want to do … I don’t think you should let your sex get in the way.” Anita, a teacher and grandmother, reported: “I’ve tried to teach them that being a woman is every bit as valuable as being a man and that anything that men can do, with a few exceptions, women can do.”

    (p.88) These attitudes illustrate discontinuity with the past because in many cases the previous generation did not work out of the home or did not work in such high-skill roles. Many of this generation of mothers expressed pleasure that their daughters have easier access to the professional opportunities that they had struggled for. It was clear from the accounts of their daughters that they had absorbed this message about not being subservient to men and their careers, as illustrated by academic Lily: “My mum taught me to value my own ideas. To think that you’ve got a brain. To use it well. Not to be put down by men.”

    The mothers who had been lone parents for some or all of their daughter’s childhood also emphasised the need to be financially independent, as illustrated by Sophie, a senior manager in marketing:

    “She believed we should never have our backs against the wall in the same way that she did when my dad went. So she believed strongly that we should have a squirrel fund that our husbands can’t access. So that in the crisis situation of, ‘He’s left with the secretary,’ … we’ll always be all right.”

    The mothers’ consciousness of gender inequality was also illustrated by the fact that 64% identified themselves as feminists when asked their views in the online questionnaire, as shown in Figure 4.3.

    Unsurprisingly, therefore, many of the mothers reported conversations that applied this lens to their daughters’ careers. This is consistent with the fact that this generation of mothers grew up with the arguments made by Second Wave feminists about equality of opportunity at work and in the domestic sphere (Greer, 1970; Rowbotham et al, 1979). This correlation suggests that these feminist beliefs underpin the close involvement of many mothers in their daughters’ early career choices discussed above. (p.89)

    Career choice: like mother, like daughter

    Figure 4.3: “I am a feminist” – Mothers (n=30)


    The issue of the daughters’ self-confidence or self-belief also arises strongly from my research. Every mother was asked what metaphoric gift she thought would be of benefit to her daughter. Of the 30 mothers, 24 (80%) answered self-confidence. Moreover, almost all of those mothering daughters in their twenties wanted their daughters to feel more self-confident. What some meant by this is that the daughters should recognise their qualities and achievements. What most meant by self-confidence is having the strength to achieve what they want to achieve rather than going with the flow or buckling to pressure from others, as described by Jessica’s mother, Jan (featured at the start of this chapter): “Jessica is hardly a shrinking violet but I think the forces on you can be quite powerful … I know lots of very clever women who, I think, haven’t fulfilled their potential because they have … um … found it easier to go with the flow.”

    Sense of purpose was the next most frequently mentioned metaphoric quality the mothers wanted to gift their daughters. This, too, related to the mothers’ aspirations for their daughters, and was explained in the interviews as the daughter’s ability to achieve their potential by realising that no direction is set in stone and that flexibility is important to success.

    (p.90) This chapter has focused so far on the influence of the mothers on the daughters’ career choices because of the finding that most daughters thought their mothers were their primary influence. Individual daughters cited a plethora of different influences, including family friends and teachers, but the next section focuses on the other influences that emerged most strongly, namely fathers, self-efficacy and peers.

    Other influences

    Fathers’ influence over early career choice

    I have argued in this chapter that the mothers’ influence over career choices is stronger than that of the fathers in most cases. This was obviously influenced by the level of close contact daughters felt they had with their fathers. Thirteen of the daughters did not live with their fathers when living at home, but all but four reported that they remained close to their father or were close to their stepfathers and did discuss their career choices with them. Some daughters described their parents as a team. They tended to talk about their parents as a unit (for example, “They pushed us on at school massively”). They had more difficulty separating the role of their father from that of their mother, although their mothers were often described as the “mouthpiece of the team”. There appeared to be no obvious link between the daughters who talked in this way and the type of parenting described by both mothers and daughters (for example, egalitarian parenting where both parents took roughly equal responsibility for child rearing). The one daughter who had been brought up by a stay-at-home father identified more closely with her mother and discussed her career options mainly with her mother. Olivia, an undergraduate, said:

    “I always talk to Mum because Dad always says the same thing and it’s not what I’m interested in or good at. He made me do a Saturday job as a vet, not taking into account that I’m not good at science.”

    Some daughters reported that their fathers have been highly involved in their education. Educational achievement, as discussed in relation to the mothers, sets up a transition into a high-skill role. More actively, many fathers have taken a feminist position and have made it very clear that they do not expect their daughters to become housewives. Instead, the fathers gave their daughters the same advice and encouragement (p.91) to work in jobs they find interesting as they gave to their sons. The daughters also told me that their fathers’ career advice tended towards the practical. For example, encouraging them to try for a field where there is less competition or in which the salary offers security – or helping them do the online maths tests prior to interviews! As I have already mentioned, two of the daughters have followed their fathers into a similar career and a few other fathers had particular passions that have influenced their daughters’ interests. For example, Willow, a doctor, was very interested in her father’s scientific career.

    With very few exceptions, the influence of the fathers is more indirect in shaping the context for their daughters’ decision-making and is mainly offered as part of a mum-led team. The exceptions are daughters who identify more strongly with their fathers than they do with their mothers. Their mothers tend to collude in this. Natalie, who has followed both her mother and her father into the law, explains:

    “My father and I are quite similar … my mum always knows what my brother’s thinking and my dad always knows what I’m thinking, so we are that way aligned. So maybe he knows how to get through to me more. He’s always led those kind of discussions about what to do. And I suppose the fact that I worked at his office had an impact. He would also talk about his work more.”


    The evidence presented here that the mothers’ and (to a lesser extent) fathers’ influence is strong in shaping and facilitating the early career choices made by their daughters, is only part of the story. The daughters ultimately made the choice themselves about the precise job they wanted to do. This choice was based both on their sense of identity and the circumstances that presented themselves. This builds upon the work of Crompton and Harris (1998), who highlighted the complexity of the interplay of individual and social actors and particular circumstances in determining occupational choices. Self-efficacy and self-image came into play at the early stages of career choice in several ways. Two participants illustrated the idea of fit between an occupation and their personal qualities. Olivia, an undergraduate considering nursing, said: “I’ve always been a great helper … at school … I was voted the nicest girl in the year … so I’m thinking, why don’t I just look at nursing?” Academic Chloe said: “I just noticed that I had a different relationship (p.92) to the [academic] work than other friends who also did well, in that it felt more personal, more connected to me, to who I think I am.”

    Several constructed a mental shopping list of the values they wanted a job to have, such as social value and flexibility, and alighted on a job that matched that. Others quite simply chose a career with a clear link to education, such as teaching, or research in a subject that had interested them at university, as in the case of Verity, another academic: “My degree was environmental science and I’m researching management of the environment.” Some characterised this as a drift into a career starting with a contact, or a holiday role. This happened to quite a few.

    Choices made by the ‘daughter mothers’ to change career direction were also often made without apparent reference to others, presumably because by then they had far more first-hand knowledge on which to base decisions, as shown by Paula, a dentist and one of the ‘daughter mothers’ in the sample: “A lot of the skill set from physiotherapy transferred quite well into dentistry.”

    Interestingly, evidence of lack of self-efficacy lay behind the career indecision of three of those who, prior to graduation, had no plan. Belle described being unable to focus either on her degree or on the process of getting a job: “I couldn’t cope with exams and doing interviews.” Undergraduate Diana articulated her lack of confidence to make a decision: “I’m quite scared of everything … it’s like I always wait for the time to be gone and wishing I’d done better rather than pushing myself at the time.” Others who had not taken a gap year simply wanted to take time out and go travelling before having to make a decision.

    Peer influence

    Peers acted mainly to help the daughters develop a clearer sense of who they are and therefore what type of work might best match their sense of self. This was exemplified by Verity, an academic, who reported that: “I’ve got a friend who is training to be a lawyer and another a doctor, so a lot of people I know want to do something useful.” Peers, and sometimes peers who are also partners, were reported to be primary influences by those who were struggling with their sense of self. Meeting like-minded people, at university in particular, helped some to find a direction more comfortable to them. Examples included those whose friends influenced their interest in feminist politics and work in international development. Isabelle said: “I fell into a really good group of friends who helped me learn a lot and are just the coolest group of people … I got very into women’s campaigning.” This aligns with the revival of feminist debate about gender inequalities post Third Wave (p.93) feminism, as evidenced by the Everyday Sexism Project (Bates, 2014) and academics such as Phipps (2014).

    Conversely, peers, especially in discussion about jobs held at university, helped the daughters articulate what they did not want to do, as undergraduate Diana reports: “I don’t want to do, like, banking … any kind of business-related thing is just not me.” Megan, working in marketing, said: “It’s funny actually, they impacted me massively in a negative way making it so clear what I didn’t want to do, the mindset I didn’t want to be in.”

    By contrast, some of the daughters enjoyed the competitive environment they were in at university and felt that their peers spurred them on to try hard to get impressive jobs. Undergraduate Xenia said: “I think Oxford people are quite driven. Everyone wants to do something interesting or impressive in some way.” This desire to impress was particularly evident for those in postgraduate, more vocational education who were actively competing with their peer group for jobs. Tanya candidly said: “I guess I want to do something other people think is cool so I can show off.” Finally, this research coincided with a recession in job opportunities for young people and an exceptional few reacted to this with a sense of ‘why bother?’ They tended to seek reinforcement for this attitude from their peer group


    The vast majority of the daughters interviewed for this study report that their mothers are the most important source of influence over their choice to embark upon a career path. Simply having a mother who goes out to work and who demonstrates that she enjoys her work sets up the expectation in the daughters that they will do the same. In this way, the generation of women with successful careers act as role models for their daughters’ early career choices. In addition, in many indirect and direct ways, the depth of the level of their mothers’ influence is clear. The influence and involvement of the mothers seems more profound than the mothers’ acknowledge. The mothers think that they have been careful to be supportive, but not to direct their daughters. This is an accurate perception in the sense that few encouraged a particular choice of career – although there were a few examples of mothers who did exactly that. However, most of the mothers I spoke too did not hang back in offering their help and support with their daughters’ early career choices. Many mothers actively mentored their daughters in emotional and verbal ways through offering support, discussing their daughters’ options and encouraging their feelings of (p.94) confidence, and in practical ways by facilitating work experience and hunting out job opportunities. This seems to be a way in which the mothers maintain close relationships with their daughters while also going through a period of transition as their daughters leave home. There is clear tension between wanting their daughters to become independent and mothering them in the involved way most, according to their daughters, have done throughout their daughters’ education.

    What most stands out for me is how much emphasis the mothers put on working hard and for this hard work to lead somewhere positive for their daughters. Many are in a position to help their daughters (and sons), so it’s not surprising that they choose to help. The recession of 2008 persisted in affecting the employment of young people at the time of these interviews (Peacock, 2013). It is plausible that this added an anxious imperative to the mothers’ desire to see their daughters settled in good jobs at the end of years of effort, exams and education. This was unspoken but may account for the high level of involvement in their daughters’ early career choices. The mothers in this study commented that they did not have, or expect, help from their mothers when they were looking for jobs. Filling in application forms, looking for advertised vacancies and facilitating work experience are all examples of types of intervention that represent behaviours started by the baby boomer generation.

    Three key points are made in this chapter:

    • Almost all of the daughters in this study think that their mothers have been the primary influence over their early career decisions – indeed, a third of the daughters are following their mothers into the same or similar careers.

    • Mothers are influential career role models – even more than the mothers realise.

    • Mothers with careers mentor their daughters through early career choices. Verbal transmission of attitudes is shown to be a powerful actor in shaping career choices and communicating work values such as hard work and the importance of enjoying your job.

    Chapter Five examines what mothers have communicated about career ambition and explores the drivers and implications of ‘quiet ambition’.