By Mónica L. Caudillo
Although women’s participation in the labor force has increased substantially in the last decades, there is still a large gender gap in political representation in the United States. As of 2017, women occupy only about 20% of the elective offices in the country. Sociologists have found evidence that early involvement in organizations requiring the exercise of political skills is strongly linked to sustained future political participation, higher confidence in leadership skills, and political interest. Thus, increasing young women’s early participation in political organizations could be instrumental to close the gender gap in political representation.
What factors shape young women’s participation in political organizations?
The answer may in part come from one’s childhood environment. Children tend to be strongly influenced by the gender roles they observe within their families. Daughters’ attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors are often deeply influenced by the extent to which their mothers comply with or reject traditional gender scripts. For instance, social scientists have found connections between growing up with an employed mother, and daughters’ positive attitudes towards being employed themselves, holding authority positions, and participating in politics.
In a recent study published in the April 2017 Social Science Research, I show that Millennial women who grew up with a full-time employed mother are indeed more likely to participate in political organizations as young adults, compared to daughters of part-time employed or stay-at-home mothers. This is true for daughters of relatively disadvantaged mothers, with high school or less education. But according to my findings, there is no relationship between maternal employment and the early participation in political organizations among daughters of mothers with at least some college, and sons of mothers with any education level.
My analyses suggest that having a full-time employed mother during childhood increases the chance that a disadvantaged daughter will participate in political organizations by about 7 percentage points. This effect is large enough to be comparable to the gap in participation in political campaigns between the 25% most affluent and the 25% least affluent female college students. Among college students, it is also comparable to men’s advantage in leadership confidence relative to women.
These findings are based on unusually rich data from a national (U.S.-based) survey, which interviewed families every one or two years during the childhoods of their Millennial children, from birth to adolescence, and then interviewed the children directly once they became 18 and until they were 27.
The absence of a relationship between maternal employment and sons’ participation in political organizations is consistent with a gendered process, in which the extent of a mother’s adherence to traditional gender roles influences their daughters’ own alignment to such gendered expectations.
But why does maternal employment impact participation in political organizations only among disadvantaged daughters? It is very likely that growing up with a full-time employed mother means very different things depending on one’s socioeconomic status. In a working class family, a mother’s employment is likely to be crucial for everyone’s economic wellbeing, which is likely to elevate her status within the household. In a context of hardship, a full-time employed mother probably projects a model of self-sufficient womanhood for her daughters.
Per se, this role modeling may not bring about a feminist ideology, but it may certainly represent an example of female empowerment and independence. Consistent with this idea, I find that disadvantaged daughters of full-time employed mothers are also more likely to have a job and more likely to delay motherhood, compared to daughters of part-time employed or stay-at-home mothers.
A mother’s example is more important for the political participation of her daughters among working-class than among middle-class families. Compared to their more affluent counterparts, daughters from disadvantaged families may have limited opportunities to develop their political skills and gain confidence in their political abilities. They probably have fewer opportunities to go to college, or to attend extracurricular activities that could enhance skills such as public speaking and leadership.
Although middle-class, more educated mothers are less likely to hold traditional gender attitudes, their employment may not be as crucial for the household finances, and it may be regarded more as a “choice” than an essential contribution by other family members. In this sense, maternal employment may not represent the same example of female empowerment and self-sufficiency for daughters, at least for the purpose of inspiring them to participate in political organizations.
In addition, daughters from more affluent backgrounds are often exposed to a greater number of politically relevant extracurricular activities, social spaces, and contacts, many of them through college and higher quality schools. For middle-class daughters, having the opportunity of honing their political interests and skills through a variety of means may simply make maternal employment less relevant in encouraging participation in political organizations.
Although Millennial women seem to be closing, and even reversing, some of the gender gaps in several types of political participation in the U.S., there remains a large socioeconomic difference in such participation levels among young women. According to the findings in this study, full-time maternal employment may help alleviate the disadvantage in political participation among those who bear the double weight of gender inequality and socioeconomic hardship.
Mónica L. Caudillo is a Postdoctoral Associate at the Maryland Population Research Center, in the University of Maryland. This article is based on her paper “How does the personal become political? Assessing the impact of mothers’ employment on daughters’ participation in political organizations” in Social Science Research.
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