Men influenced by their mothers' labour force participation

By Bendik Wilhelm Nagel Støren

21 February 2016 10:26

(updated: 21 February 2016 10:29)

Men influenced by their mothers' labour force participation

Men's attitudes are shaped by their mothers' employment status. If they have had active, full-time working mothers, they have a much more positive attitude to gender equality. But men still dislike women earning more than they do.

In a new study, Aline Bütikofer shows that there is a connection between men's attitudes to gender roles and the extent to which women participate in the labour market. The results indicate that men's attitudes are shaped by their mothers' employment status, which in turn influences labour force participation in the next generation of women.

Mother in employment

Bütikofer's research indicates that the last government's big focus on kindergarten provision could well have been a sensible policy.

The red-green government's focus on increasing kindergarten provision was good a policy if you believe that in future men should take a positive attitude to women working.

Aline Bütikofer

In the research article 'Revisiting mothers and sons' preference formations and the female labour market in Switzerland', Bütikofer, an economist, has looked at the mechanisms surrounding women's entry into the labour market and how attitudes to gender roles are shaped and what role they play.

'The study shows that men's attitudes to gender roles large covary with the role their own mothers had when they were growing up. Men whose mothers were in employment when they were growing up will not dislike their wives working. This, in turn, will make it more attractive for women to work, so that they can attract such men,' Bütikofer says.

Her study is based on a study by Fernández, Fogli and Olivetti from 2004, which says that changed attitudes among men may have been an important factor in relation to women's entry into the labour market in the USA.

Bütikofer has carried out a similar study using data from her home country, Switzerland.

A war effect

'In the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s the number of women in employment increased enormously, both in the USA and in the rest of the world. There are probably several different effects at work here, but changes in preferences could be part of the explanation,' she says.

Other researchers have pointed out that new household appliances played a major role, because they made women's traditional chores in the home easier. The growth of the service sector is also seen as very important because it is in this sector that most women have been employed.

'World War II acted more or less as the starting gun for this trend. There had been little acceptance of women working, but because of the war, a great need for labour arose since the men were away fighting at the front. A whole generation of young boys thereby suddenly experienced that their mothers were working outside the home,' says Bütikofer.

Shaping attitudes

A study conducted by Jens Bonke and Martin Browning on the basis of Danish data (from 2009) shows that men are less satisfied, both with their financial situation and with life in general, if their wives contribute to providing for the family.

'Bonke and Browning wanted to shed light on this difference in satisfaction. The study shows that men react negatively if women earn more money than they do, while women do not react negatively if men do so,' Bütikofer says.

On this basis, we can conclude that men should work more, but Bütikofer believes that this conclusion needs to be nuanced.

'If Fernández, Fogli and Olivetti's theory is correct, my study indicates that these attitudes are changing, and that, a few decades from now, there will hardly be any men who react in this way,' she says.

These two studies can be seen as a justification for two opposing family policies. Has that played a role for you in your work?

'No, I haven't thought about it, and this is not an article that is intended as advice to politicians, either. My study is like a snapshot of the connection between men's preferences, their mothers' previous employment status and the number of women in employment,' Bütikofer says.


Aline Bütikofer's study is based on a comprehensive survey in Switzerland, Swiss Household Panel 2005. She does not believe, however, that its relevance is limited to her home country.

'I do not have figures for Norway, but I think it could be relevant to quite a lot of countries.' she says.

It is worth noting, however, that Switzerland has a more conservative family policy than Norway does.

'Switzerland in 2005 can be compared with Norway 20 years ago in this area. The percentage of women in employment is very high in Switzerland, but few of them work full-time. There are several reasons for this. Tax, for example, is calculated jointly for the family, so that the marginal tax rate on income number two is very high. In addition, there is little kindergarten provision and it is expensive,' she tells us.

What lessons can we learn from this study?

'We should be cautious about drawing too clear-cut conclusions, because i have only looked at correlations, not at causal relationships. But the study strengthens me in my belief that the theory about preference formation is valid. Moreover, it is not unreasonable to draw the conclusion that the red-green government's focus on increasing kindergarten provision was a good policy if in future we want men to take a positive attitude to women working,' she says