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«Department of Quantitative Social Science Nurse or Mechanic? The Role of Parental Socialization and Children’s Personality in the Formation of ...»

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Department of Quantitative Social Science

Nurse or Mechanic? The Role of Parental Socialization

and Children’s Personality in the Formation of SexTyped Occupational Aspirations

Javier Polavieja

Lucinda Platt

DoQSS Working Paper No. 12-10

December 2012


Any opinions expressed here are those of the author(s) and not those of the Institute of Education.

Research published in this series may include views on policy, but the institute itself takes no

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DoQSS Workings Papers often represent preliminary work and are circulated to encourage discussion. Citation of such a paper should account for its provisional character. A revised version may be available directly from the author.

Department of Quantitative Social Science, Institute of Education, University of London 20 Bedford Way, London WC1H 0AL, UK Nurse or Mechanic? The Role of Parental Socialization and Children’s Personality in the Formation of Sex-Typed Occupational Aspirations Javier Polavieja1 and Lucinda Platt2 Abstract This study investigates the role of parental socialization and children’s agency in the formation of sex-typed occupational preferences using data for British children aged between 11 and 15. We anchor agency in observable psychological attributes associated with children’s capacity to act in the face of constraints. We focus on two such attributes, motivation and self-esteem. Our findings identify two main sources of parental influence: 1) parental socio-economic resources, which affect children’s occupational ambition, and 2) parental sex-typical behaviors, from which children learn which occupations are appropriate for each sex. We find, additionally, that girls with high motivation and both girls and boys with high self-esteem are less likely to aspire to sex-typical occupations, net of inherited traits and parental characteristics. Motivation and self-esteem help girls to aim higher in the occupational ladder, which automatically reduces their levels of sex-typicality. In the case of boys, however, self-esteem reduces sex-typicality at all levels of the aspired occupational distribution. This suggests that boys with high self-esteem are better equipped to contradict the existing social norms regarding sex-typical behavior. The implications of our findings are discussed.

JEL classification: J13, J16, J24, Z13 Keywords: Gender Segregation, Occupational Aspirations, Children, Socialization, Personality Traits IMDEA-Social Sciences Institute (Javier.polavieja@imdea.org) Department of Quantitative Social Science, Institute of Education, University of London (L.Platt@ioe.ac.uk) “..We are struck by how modest our collective social science accomplishments are after several decades of research directed at explaining occupational sex segregation. Novel approaches to documented supply —and demand side—mechanisms by which segregation is created and maintained are still sorely needed” (Okamoto and England 1999:577).


Even today, most people work in jobs occupied largely by persons of their own sex (see e.g.

Chang 2004; Tomaskovic-Devey et al. 2006). Although this is true for both men and women, segregation is more acute for the latter as they tend to concentrate in fewer occupations.

Predominantly female occupations offer lower wages and fewer opportunities for career advancement, and hence segregation is often regarded as the main source of women’s labormarket disadvantage (see e.g. Maume 1999; Tomaskovic-Devey 1993). It is therefore not surprising that the study of gender segregation has for long been placed at the center of gender stratification research.

Gender segregation in occupations is the result of the actions and interactions of both firms and workers. Discrimination and social closure explanations focus on the role that employers, managers and male co-workers play in hindering women’s access to particular jobs (Roscigno, Garcia and Bobbitt-Zeher 2007). However insightful, demand-side approaches cannot explain the existence of significant sex-differences in career preferences and occupational aspirations, not only amongst adults, but also amongst young children who lack labor-market experience (Harper and Haq 2001; Okamoto and England 1999).

Sociologists have long stressed the crucial role that socialization processes play in the transmission of sex-specific norms, values and aspirations leading to segregated occupational outcomes (England et al. 1994; Hitlin 2006; Okamoto and England 1999). Gender socialization approaches provide a supply-side alternative to human capital and sphere specialization models in economics (*Blinded ref.*) as well as to socio-biological and evolutionary explanations of gender-role differentiation (Kanazawa 2001; Penner 2008;

Udry 2000).

The existing empirical literature on gender socialization suffers, however, from two important limitations. First, research has been much more concerned with establishing empirical associations, typically associations between parents’ and children’s characteristics, than with explaining the mechanisms whereby socialization influences operate (Reskin 2003). Consequently, we still know little about the actual channels and processes involved in the intergenerational transmission of sex-typed preferences. Secondly, empirical studies often draw on adult samples to address socialization processes that are thought to take place during childhood, which further complicates the identification of transmission mechanisms. As a result of these caveats, socialization is still largely a black-box in gender stratification research.

Gender socialization models have also been criticized on theoretical grounds for leaving very little room for individual agency in the formation of preferences (Hakim 1991; 1995; Hays 1994). It has been argued that socialization models portray actors as passive receptors of gender values and norms, and assume that all individuals are equally malleable by social influences. This leads to an over-socialized conception of human behavior. Understanding what the role of individual agency is and how it interacts with the social environment in the formation of sex-typical preferences is crucial for the development of gender socialization theory. Yet such a task poses one fundamental methodological challenge: how to measure human agency.

In much of the existing empirical literature agency has been equated with preference heterogeneity (see e.g. Hakim 1991; 2000). Since individual preferences are seldom observed, it is often assumed that agency is to some extent represented by the amount of unexplained variance in empirical models (Hitlin and Elder 2007). In other words, individual agency is typically not measured but only inferred.1 This indirect approach carries with it the serious risk of over-individualization —i.e. magnifying individuals’ real capacity to make independent choices. In order to shed empirical light on the socialization vs. agency debate, it is therefore essential to find more direct ways of measuring the role of individual agency in preference formation.

This paper investigates the degree of sex-typicality in the occupational aspirations of British children under 16 and tests for different mechanisms involved in the acquisition of sextypical occupational preferences. We address two main research questions: First, we want to know how parental characteristics and parental behavior influence the degree of sex-typing in children’s occupational aspirations. To this end, we propose a rather eclectic theory of parental socialization that incorporates explicit channels and mechanisms, which are empirically testable.

Secondly, we investigate what is the role of children’s agency in the formation of occupational preferences. Hitlin and Elder (2007) argue that current sociological treatments of agency are too


to offer guidance for empirical research but can be illuminated by social psychology. They call for anchoring the ‘slippery concept’ of agency to measurable psychological attributes in future research. We put their recommendation into practice. We expect that individual heterogeneity in occupational preferences is associated with the distribution of certain psychological characteristics in the population. We are interested, specifically, in those psychological attributes that can exert a significant influence on

individuals’ capacity to act in the face of constraints. We focus on two such attributes:

motivation and self-esteem. We argue that if agency plays a role in the formation of occupational preferences, we should find an association between these personality attributes and the level of sex typicality in children’s occupational aspirations.

We test our model using information on parental, relational, and psychological variables for a representative sample of over 3,000 British children aged between 11 and 15. This sample is drawn from waves 4 to 18 of the British Household Panel Survey (1994-2008). By investigating early gender differences in occupational aspirations, our approach helps to open the black-box of parental gender-role socialization, sheds light on the agency-structure debate and fills an important gap in the sociological literature on gender segregation.


Parental socialization Following Arnett (1995:618) we can define socialization as “the process by which people acquire the behavior and beliefs of the social world —that is, the culture— in which they live”. The most important —but not the only— agent of primary socialization in gender roles is the family (Bandura 1977; Cunningham 2001; Hitlin 2006; Okamoto and England 1999).

But how do families shape children’s occupational aspirations? Drawing on social stratification, social learning and developmental psychology, we identify two main channels of parental influence: 1) parental socio-economic resources and 2) parental behavior in the economic and domestic spheres.

Parental resources and the scope of occupational horizons

The educational and occupational attainment of children is highly dependent on parental resources (Breen and Jonsson 2005; Gamoran 1996). Families with fewer cultural and economic resources tend to have lower attainment aspirations for their offspring and to transmit these aspirations to children themselves. This, we believe, has interesting implications for the degree of sex-typicality in children’s occupational preferences.

Family socio-economic resources, education in particular, are expected to influence the degree of sex-typing in children’s occupational aspirations, especially in the case of girls.

Top-level occupations are traditionally male-dominated. This means that boys have many sex-typical occupations to choose from at both ends of the occupational distribution. Hence, for boys, high occupational ambition is fully compatible with gender typical aspirations. For girls, however, aiming high in the occupational ladder typically means aspiring to occupations that are not female-dominated. Hence greater occupational ambition should reduce girls’ levels of sex-typicality almost automatically by virtue of the vertical dimension of occupational sex-segregation. Parental resources affecting children’s occupational ambition are therefore expected to be particularly relevant for the degree of sex-typing in daughters’ occupational aspirations (H1).

Behavioral role-modeling: occupational imitation and sex-role learning

According to role-model theories, children learn about gender roles by observing and emulating the behaviors of their parents (Bandura 1977; Bem 1981; Cunningham 2001; van Putten, Dykstra and Schippers 2008). Several empirical studies have found a significant statistical association between the present behavior of daughters and the past behavior of their mothers in areas such as family formation, housework distribution and female labor market participation. This evidence has been interpreted as proof of behavioral role modeling. Yet it is still unclear how role-modeling actually operates. This is partly due to the shortage of data which measures parental behavior contemporaneous with the formation of children’s preferences.

We distinguish between two different forms of sex-role modeling: simple imitation and behavioral sex-role learning. Imitation is an essential component in children’s observational learning based on live models (Bandura 1977). Developmental psychologists have shown that a mechanism of pure imitation of same-sex parents plays a crucial role in infants’ sex-role learning (see e.g. Meltzoff and Moore 2002). The essential precondition for same-sex imitation is children’s identification with their same-sex parent. Today there is growing consensus amongst developmental psychologists that same-sex identification is probably innate as it requires some form of preexisting gender identity (Martin, Ruble and Szkrybalo 2002).

We propose to test for direct occupational imitation as one potential mechanism of occupational socialization. Occupational imitation is expected to be homo-lineal, that is, daughters are expected to aspire to their mothers’ occupation, whilst sons are expected to aspire to their fathers’. Direct occupational imitation will lead to sex-typed aspirations amongst daughters/sons insofar as their mothers/fathers work in segregated occupations themselves (H2). Occupational reproduction through imitation could therefore be the simplest form of intergenerational transmission of sex-typed occupational aspirations.

Behavioral sex-role learning is the process by which children discover and absorb what the prescribed behavior for their sex is by observing the actions of their parents (see e.g. Crouter, Manke and McHale 1995). This learning process is indeed more complex and cognitively demanding than simple imitation. Children first identify gender-role norms by examining the behavior of their own parents and then learn to comply with these norms. Compliance is stimulated by parental sanctions and rewards, which can be more or less subtle (Bandura 1977).

In doing what they do both at home and at work, parents are constantly enacting gender roles.

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