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The Leadership Legacy Moms Leave Their Children

Originally published by for Georgia State University News

Mothers have been celebrated for their nurturing spirit and unwavering dedication to their children’s well-being for generations. However, a recent study led by a team of researchers at Georgia State University sheds light on a previously unexplored facet of this influence — the impact of mothers in leadership roles on their children’s leadership development.

Derek J. Stotler, a Ph.D. student in the Department of Management at Georgia State University during the inception of the project and currently assistant professor in the Department of Management and Leadership Programs at the University of Wisconsin, Eau Claire, and Songqi Liu, a professor in Robinson’s Department of Management who specializes in how working parents cope with their work and family demands, spearheaded a research team to uncover the relationship between mothers in leadership roles and how they’ve shaped their children’s career trajectories. The co-authors of the unpublished working paper, titled, “A Mother’s Leadership Legacy: Examining the Mother-To-Child Crossover of Leadership,” include Chad Hartnell, an associate professor in the Management Department at Georgia State University’s Robinson College of Business; Zhiqing Zhou of the Department of Mental Health at Johns Hopkins University; and Chenwei Liao of the School of Human Resources and Labor Relations at Michigan State University.

Liu said the team “observed a gap in research that often portrayed working mothers solely as caregivers, neglecting their potential influence as role models. The increasing number of women in leadership positions sparked our curiosity about the impact on their families. Our research shows mothers can hold positions of significant influence at work while simultaneously contribute to their children’s leadership development.”

In their research, Stotler, Liu, Hartnell, and their team leveraged data from the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth (NLSY), focusing on a specific cohort of Generation X and older Millennials born between 1980 and 1984. Researchers reviewed data for these individuals from adolescence (12-16 years old) through to their thirties allowed for an insightful look at how maternal leadership during those formative teen years might shape one’s ability to take charge later in life. The final sample size included roughly 1,500 mother-child pairings, with a higher representation of African Americans and Latinos than the general population.

Two key mechanisms emerged as pivotal in transmitting leadership traits: self-esteem and egalitarian gender ideals. Children who witnessed their mothers assuming leadership roles were likelier to develop a sense of self-worth and confidence, crucial for leadership success. Additionally, growing up with a mother in charge normalizes women in leadership positions, fostering a belief that leadership roles in the workplace are not just for men.

“We found that all children (both sons and daughters) were more likely to become leaders 18 years after we captured their mother’s leadership role occupancy because they had positive beliefs about themselves, or self-esteem. … Egalitarian gender ideals played a more nuanced role than self-esteem. Egalitarian gender ideals only explained leadership role occupancy for daughters, not sons. This result suggests that daughters who observe their mother in a leadership role in their teenage years are more likely to believe they could and should seek a leadership role at work in their adult years,” Hartnell said.

Hartnell added that the benefits of mothers’ leadership role occupancy as a predictor of their children’s leadership role occupancy as adults suggests that workplaces should offer more accommodations to mothers, such as flexible work arrangements, sponsored opportunities to volunteer at their children’s school, and subsidies to pay for after-school and/or summer enrichment programs to minimize conflicts between work and family demands.

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