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The role of parents in career development and thoughts on my father

here is a link to my column in the Sydney Morning Herald and Age newspapers on parents and careers. The role of parents in career development is critical. Here I share some thoughts on the role of parents in career development and thought on my father.

Vale John Robert Bright 1925 – 2011


Parenthood and Productivity

Along time ago in the distant past, readers with long memories may recall we had a lawyer turned treasurer called Peter Costello, who urged us to have two children and then a third one for the nation. Perhaps our erstwhile treasurer had read an early draft on the research paper by Jean Wallace and Marisa Young from the University of Calgary that appears in the February 2008 edition of the Journal of Vocational Psychology.

The researchers looked at the relationship between parenthood and productivity amongst 670 lawyers from Alberta. They argue that there is a common perception that women in the legal workforce and particularly mothers expend less effort at work and are “generally less productive than men”. This is because, they argue, mothers have no energy left for work after meeting domestic duties. The opposite apparently holds for men. Fathers are summised to be more productive than their non-father male counterparts, as they feel a stronger urge to be a breadwinner.

In order to test these hypotheses, the authors compared the billable hours that male and female lawyers reported over a year. The lawyers were also asked to indicate the presence of children in their household and the approximate age of the children; the time spent on household responsibilities which they defined as cooking, cleaning, repairs, shopping, gardening, and banking. The lawyers also rated the degree of family support they received and time spent with the children on parenting duties.

In terms of billable hours, non-mothers billed 210 additional hours a year (13% more hours) than mothers. However the pattern was exactly the opposite for non-fathers – they billed 50 fewer hours (3.3% fewer hours) than their father counter-parts. In other words as the researchers expected, parenthood was an impairment to women’s productivity, but slightly enhanced men’s productivity. The most productive workers of all, were the non-mothers.

Mothers spent considerably more time in household tasks on workdays compared to non-mothers, but there was no difference between fathers and non-fathers in terms of household tasks. However, fathers supported their wife’s more on household tasks, than husbands of non-mothers.

The age of children at home also determined productivity of the mothers. Mothers with children under six billed some US$88,650 a year less than non mothers. This figure falls to US$63,900 less for mothers of children aged 6 – 12. Children over 12 in the family have no negative impact on their mother’s billable hours. Indeed mothers with teenage children worked considerably longer hours than women without children.

Interestingly the researchers also looked at family friendly policies in various firms and found that the main beneficiaries of such policies were fathers and not mothers. They concluded that there was “very little support for the benefits of family resources or the costs of working in a family-friendly firm for women’s productivity”. Indeed the main effect of family-friendly workplaces was to provide the fathers with more leisure time.

The findings appear to confirm some prejudices that the authors (at least) see in relation to women in the workforce – young children are an impediment to their productivity, but only in comparison to their exceptionally productive non-mother counterparts. This may suggest that the impact of motherhood on productivity could be exaggerated because the non-mothers may be working so hard to over-come the stereotype about female productivity, that in excelling, they make their colleagues who are mothers look less productive. It could be that women working in law firms are under greater pressure to perform, than women working in other workplaces. Perhaps if this study were repeated in less male-dominated workplaces, the productivity “cost” of motherhood may be far less, or perhaps even a productivity plus.

Finally, perhaps we need to give closer attention to the impact of family-friendly policies. Workplace policies that benefit one group over another need careful consideration. Is it really the aim of family friendly policies to provide most benefit to male employees?

do parents influence career paths?

“ I’m Mr. Springsteen’s son,” he said. “I got this problem. My father thinks I should be a lawyer, and my mother, she wants me to be an author. But I got this guitar.” Luckily for Bruce Springsteen, he ignored his parents’ advice and so should the rest of us. Now before you think I am writing this only for teenagers consider the story of Big Joe Duskin.

Big Joe is the son of a Preacher. In his teens, Big Joe was heavily influenced by Blues music. However when he was 17 and his father was 79, he promised never to play the “Devil’s music” until his father was dead and buried.  This became an increasing problem as Big Joe’s dad lived another 26 years!  In the meantime Joe stuck to his promise and worked in the Post Office.  Even after his father had died, it took him over half a decade to rediscover his nascent blues talent. He is now a celebrated professional musician.

Parents have a disproportionate influence on our careers either through well-meaning but partial careers advice or as role models.  There is plenty of research around the place showing just how influential parents can be in influencing career thinking.  In studies of choices of tertiary training courses, about 70% of students indicate that their parents have influenced their choice of course.  Furthermore the parents’ current occupations were reliably associated with the courses their offspring had enrolled in so that students with parents working in commerce were far more likely to be enrolled in Commerce-related degrees, and children with scientist parents were more likely to be enrolled in Science.

It is questionable whether all parents are sufficiently well-informed about current work trends to offer sound advice and then there is the emotion in the relationship.  Some parents are overly protective and see their role as getting their offspring “launched on a stable career path”, while others want their kids to have what they didn’t, or sometimes what they did have. Others want their children “to do what they like”, but “it would be a waste not to use that high UAI to get into Law or Medicine”.

Parental influence is not limited to higher socio-economic groups.  For instance Ashton Trice in the USA interviewed 949 children ranging from Kindergarten to Year 6 and found that children raised in foster families were about 7 times less likely to nominate a career ambition compared to children from families where one or two parents were present.   Closer to home was a case of a student who had grown up with drug addicted parents.  This person saw his vocational ambition solely in terms of becoming a good parent and provider.  There are other well-publicised cases of success stories where people from poor families determine to get the material success denied their parents or the social justice allegedly denied their parents (think Kevin Rudd).  I have come across other cases where a client recalls as a child seeing the baillifs arriving and taking away their parents cars and furniture. You can understand why they become resolutely risk-averse adults who would never consider any form of self-employment or entrepreneurship.

At the other end of the spectrum are the children of the wealthy. More than once I have seen clients who are totally devoid of drive or ambition due to a feeling that eventually they will inherit and not have to work. Indeed in some cases, such a strategy has disastrously backfired when the promised millions vanish in tax bills, business reversals or even young gold-digging step-parents.

Then there is the on-going and ever changing parent-child relationship. This can manifest itself in many different ways. For instance the Grandparents who strive to influence their grandchildren’s vocational aspirations, or the child who becomes relied upon increasingly to care for elderly parents while also trying to maintain or build their own career.

Of course sometimes parents can provide great advice and support. For instance Friends star Matthew Perry pursued an acting career when he was a nationally ranked junior tennis player in Canada after he went to his first tournament in the United States and didn’t score a single point.   “That was when dad sat me down,” Perry recalled, “and said, ‘You’ve made a serious vocational error.'” Generally, however, you would never dream of relying solely on your parents for tax, legal or medical advice, you would seek an informed and independent opinion.