The role of mothers on female labor force participation

January 31, 2023

Throughout history, women were not always engaged in paid work. In the United States, for example, female labor force participation jumped from 9% in 1890 to 60% in 1999. Nowadays, there are working women everywhere, and no one is surprised to see a policewoman, a female bus driver or airplane pilot.

To explain this unprecedented increase in female labor force participation, economists have stressed the importance of intergeneration transmission mechanisms during the 20th century. Less is known, however, in earlier periods, arguably due to the lack of complete mother-daughter records. This paper combines historical parish registry data from Portugal from 1675 to 1925 with a novel econometric technique that is able to overcome data shortcomings. It uses maximum likelihood to explicitly model the generation of incomplete mother-daughter records and to study whether having a working mother increases the probability of working.

The paper finds a large positive effect of 39.7 percentage points of the mother’s labor market participation on the daughter’s probability of participation. This is a sizable effect given that only a small percentage of women participated in the labor market back then. This estimate comprises several mother-to-daughter transmissions: (a) of skills in certain crafts; (b) of firms; and (c) of preferences and beliefs. The paper explores the extent of (a) and (b) by additionally controling for family characteristics. In this extended specification the estimate is still large, 26.7 percentage points. Finally, applying a naive approach that ignores the incomplete nature of the data reduces the estimates of the mother-daughter link by more than half.

Click here to go to the paper by Jesús M. Carro, Matilde P. Machado, and Ricardo Mora.


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