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It’s Time for Mobility Research to Focus on Women

by Alessandra Minello, University of Florence
Source: Sasiistock

Intergenerational mobility refers to gain or losses in economic or social status between parents and their children. Traditionally, social mobility researchers have analysed social mobility processes based on father–son and father–son-in-law mobility tables. This is mostly due to the importance given to the role of men as breadwinners of their families. With women’s increasing education and labour force participation, daughters have been slowly included in the picture. The role of mothers, instead, is rarely central in the social mobility studies. This happens despite the importance of mothers in shaping the educational and occupational performances of their children, as it has been increasingly recognised in the study on the intergenerational mobility processes (Beller, 2009).

The relevance of mothers is mainly due to two aspects: the first regards their active role in the socialization of children and, in particular, their influence in the educational process, which will determine the future job career. Studies show that mothers, indeed, tend to spend more time than fathers in helping children with their homework and they usually have a more active role in the family-school interaction. The second aspect, much more “gender specific”, concerns the role of the mother as a determinant for daughters, according to the sex-role model. This approach assumes that same-sex parents have more relevant information for the children (Boyd, 1989) and, as a consequence, mothers tend to act as an example (as a role model) for their daughter(s).  

This second mechanism was intensively studied in the past. Already at the end of the ‘90s, Khazzoom (1997) explored the US case and found that mothers’ occupational level was important in defining daughters’ job status and mother’s background was more relevant than father’s one. More recently, Korupp and colleagues (2002) demonstrated that the intergenerational transfer of occupational status is more intense for same-sex parents. Looking at changes across generations, they highlighted that the influence of the father on daughters have declined across birth cohorts, while the influence of the mother has increased. The rise of mothers’ participation in the labour market gives them more and more space to become role models for the job career of their daughters.


Mothers play an increasingly important role in daughters' education and career, especially if they are highly educated.

In the last years, two additional articles have faced this issue, focusing on intergenerational mobility in Germany among women both from the side of education and work (Minello and Blossfeld 2014, 2017). They reveal that mothers more than fathers play a role in the definition of education and job career of daughters, especially if mothers are highly educated and mainly for the youngest generations. The studies also show that there has been an increased investment in middle and secondary education for daughters across cohorts. This change is evident when the attention goes to daughters whose parents have low or medium education (corresponding to less than primary/primary and lower secondary education and upper secondary education).

When considering highly educated parents (those with tertiary degree), the results demonstrate that when the mother has tertiary education, the daughter has a very high probability of getting a higher education as well, especially when looking at the younger birth cohort (1975–80). Because this is not the case when only fathers with tertiary education are taken into consideration, the conclusion is that mothers with tertiary education tend to invest more in their daughters than fathers do. This has, of course, consequences for the labour market. Moreover, younger and more educated daughters have greater chances than older and low educated ones of experiencing upward maternal-line intergenerational social mobility and avoiding downward mobility in their job career. University degrees are, in fact, more and more important for young women living in Germany, because they are the main way to start a decent job career in a position higher than that of their mothers.


Germany might not be the only country where these dynamics spread.

Nowadays women in the European Union have an employment rate of 64% (OECD data) and their contribution in paid work is increasing everywhere, even though there are important differences between countries. Women’s labour force participation is characterized by horizontal and vertical segregation: they are concentrated in some sectors (mainly the services) and it is hard for them, even in the Nordic countries where the participation is high, to reach top positions. In addition, double earner couples are increasing in every European country, including the Southern countries, where the female labour force participation has always been very low. In this perspective, studying the relationship between mothers and daughter occupation is becoming more and more important. Mothers and daughters share some common dynamics that might reinforce their common paths. They have to face segregation and to combine labour force participation and home duties more than it happened in the past.

All these dynamics deserve the attention from social researchers who are studying labour force participation and intergenerational mobility. Mothers and daughters cannot be neglected from the studies and new research should be oriented in understanding the working trajectories of women over time and how the role of mothers has changed and influenced daughters’ decisions and careers. Social researchers should be open to rethink the categories used to define social mobility taking into account the specificity of the careers of women (e.g. Segregation or career breaks after maternity leave) and studying the labour market career through the lens of gender.



  • Beller, E. (2009). Bringing intergenerational social mobility research into the twenty-first century: Why mothers matter. American Sociological Review, 74, 507–528.
  • Boyd, C. J. (1989). Mothers and daughters: A discussion of theory and research. Journal of Marriage and the Family, 51, 291–301.
  • Khazzoom, A. (1997). The impact of mothers’ occupations on children’s occupational destinations. Research in Social Stratification and Mobility, 15, 57–90.
  • Korupp, S. E., Ganzeboom, H. B. G., & Van Der Lippe, T. (2002). Do mothers matter? A comparison of models of the influence of mothers’ and fathers’ educational and occupational status on children’s educational attainment. Quality and Quantity, 36, 17–42.
  • Minello A. and H-P., Blossfeld (2014). From mother to daughter: changes in intergenerational educational and occupational mobility in Germany. International Studies in Sociology of Education, 24(1), 65–84
  • Minello A. and H.P. Blossfeld (2017). From parents to children: The impact of mothers’ and fathers’ educational attainments on those of their sons and daughters in West Germany. British Journal of Sociology of Education, 38(5), 686-704.