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updated 3/16/2009 3:21:49 PM ET 2009-03-16T19:21:49

Women nowadays are three times more likely than those born a century ago to do what men have done for millennia — follow their father's footsteps into his line of work, a newly announced study finds.

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One way or another, fathers and daughters have been paying more attention to each other, and daughters picked up job cues or assistance from dads, as more and more women entered the labor force, the research suggests.

Just under 6 percent of women born from 1909 to 1915 worked in their father's occupation, while around 20 percent of women born in the mid-1970s do so (they are in their early 30s now), the researchers found.

Some of this increase is just a result of women's increased participation in the work force — women's labor force participation has tripled in the past century.

However, economists Melinda Morrill of North Carolina State University and Judith Hellerstein of the University of Maryland, College Park, also were able to statistically pull out the impact of dad's work on a daughter's career choice.

They found that a significant amount of the probability that a woman will follow in her father's occupational footsteps can be attributed just to the increased transmission of "occupation-specific human capital" between fathers and daughters. (They didn't focus on mothers' impact on daughters' career choice because for many of the older women in their sample, their mothers were not in the labor force, though that could be a factor in the future.)

More time spent together
Human capital just refers to skills and experiences that help someone career-wise. Here are some of the possible ways a dad could pass this to his daughter, Hellerstein and Morrill say: teaching a daughter his trade; paying for his daughter to be trained in his trade; spending more time with his daughter and thereby showing the value of working in his field; making referrals to help his daughter get a job or training for a job; giving a daughter a job at his office or company to see if she likes it.

No similar increase over time was found in the percentage of sons pursuing careers in the same field as their fathers. That's because men's tendency to work has been steady over time and, presumably, the typical father-son relationship hasn't changed much in this respect.

"I think it's a good thing that women have an opportunity to work in the same jobs as men, and intergenerational transfers that happen from parents to children seem like they are becoming more equitable," Morrill told LiveScience.

The research is under review at an economics journal. It has been presented a number of times at seminars and conferences, including at the Population Association of America in March 2006.

Fathers possibly have invested more in their daughters' careers over the years in part because they can — previously, it made less sense as so few women worked outside the home.

It's unclear if daughters or fathers are doing more of the work in this process of career influence, said Morrill, who developed this research as part of her dissertation at the University of Maryland last year.

"We don't know if fathers are more likely to talk to their daughters about work because the daughters are now more likely to enter the workforce," she said. "It could be that daughters are simply paying more attention to what their fathers have to say about work because the daughters can now consider pursuing this type of career. Or both."

Columbia University economist Janet Currie said the argument made by Morrill and Hellerstein seems reasonable.

"If you consider that most women did not work, and that there were a lot of restrictions on where women could work, it is not unreasonable to assume that the correspondence between women and their father's occupations would have gone up over time," Currie added.

The idea for the study came to Hellerstein while she was in college. She and her three room-mates all pursued careers strongly in line with their father's (Hellerstein's father is a math professor).

"I always wondered if that was some weird coincidence or if that was something systematic," she said. "It nagged at me for 20 years."

Other anecdotes piled up, until Hellerstein realized how to test it. The "counterfactual" case would be to see if women were more likely to go into their father's line of work or that of their father-in-law.

The father-in-law is a good comparison because he's usually of the same generation and often the same social background (people tend to "mate assertively," as social scientists call it) as one's father, and yet there is usually no contact with this man in the growing-up years.

"For instance, my father-in-law had no impact on me, per se, but he is somewhat like my father because I chose to marry his son," Hellerstein explained.

It is unclear if this sort of career inheritance will continue, Morrill said, because U.S. women's labor force participation rates reached an all-time high in 2002 and have flattened or dropped slightly since then.

One theory is that an equilibrium has been achieved — all those women who would've worked outside the home in earlier decades, but didn't for social reasons, are now in the labor market or are at the point where they are taking a break to have children.

Some writers think there is a backlash against women working outside the home that is influencing more women to stay at home, but overall, Morrill said there is no consensus among researchers on why the rate of women working has flattened.

© 2012 LiveScience.com. All rights reserved.

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