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Preference or endowment? Intergenerational transmission of women’s work behavior and the underlying mechanisms


Existing studies have established a positive correlation between a married woman’s work behavior and her mother-in-law’s. Such linkage is attributable to the profound influence of maternal employment on son’s gender role preferences or household productivity. This paper systematically investigates the relative importance of the two potential mechanisms using the Chinese survey data. We show that a substantive part of the intergenerational correlation is left unexplained even if we control for the husband’s gender role attitudes. Instead, we find that the husband’s household productivity is more crucial in the wife’s work decision, suggesting the dominance of the endowment channel over the preference channel.

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  1. Whether the wife’s mother worked has no significant effect on the wife’s work behavior conditional on the couple’s background characteristics.

  2. The two provinces, Hainan and Tibet, are excluded in the sample.

  3. We exclude those where the wife is at school, retired, or disabled.

  4. To ensure survey quality, the CGSS has a team of professional researchers who are responsible for the random sampling design and supervision over the data collection process. The interviewers are also rigorously trained to implement the relevant procedures that determine the eligible respondents in the sample.

  5. In China, agricultural work is usually not separated from home production. More often than not, a Chinese female farmer turns out to be a full-time housewife who bears the responsibility of taking care of the whole family as well. Therefore, including agricultural employment may confound our results.

  6. The hukou status is related to the segmentation of urban and rural labor market in China. This urban-rural dual structure has its root in China’s household registration (also known as hukou) system, which aims at controlling the migration between urban and rural sectors. Under this system, workers are segregated into two categories—one with rural hukou status and the other with non-rural hukou status. This classification not only identifies workers by their place of birth but also determines their basic welfare, such as education, employment, and social insurance.

  7. Full results are available upon request.

  8. The corresponding figures of the distributions of the attitude indices are not presented to save space and are available upon request.

  9. One might worry that the effect of having a working mother-in-law cannot be separated from the effect of husband’s preferences by simply adding the attitude index in the regression because the husband’s gender role preferences are also affected by his mother’s labor supply choice. However, we find that the difference in gender role attitudes among men with working mothers versus those with non-working mothers is very small and statistically insignificant after controlling for geographical factors. In addition, even if the husband’s gender role attitudes and maternal work experience are correlated to a certain extent, excluding one of them from our regression does not significantly change the estimated effect of the other. As argued in Farré and Vella (2013), this suggests that mother-in-law’s work behavior may not only reflect the role of intergenerational cultural transmission but also involve other components that influence the wife’s work decision.

  10. Regression analysis based on more detailed birth order information gives us similar results.

  11. The data are drawn from the Chinese statistical yearbooks. We also construct alternative instruments based on two types of changes. First, we measure prevalence of rice or wheat farming as ratios of the food cultivated land area rather than the total cultivated land area, where the latter includes regions for food crops, cash crops, and other crops. Second, we change the age period 5–15 to 3–13 and 7–17, respectively. Using these alternative instruments yields similar results.

  12. This approach is essentially moment-based estimation, see Lewbel (2012) for more technical details.


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The authors would like to thank Leah Boustan, Kathleen McGarry, Till Von Wachter, the editor Alessandro Cigno, two anonymous referees, and seminar participants at the University of California, Los Angeles for their valuable comments and constructive suggestions.


The authors thank the financial support from the National Natural Science Foundation of China (Grant No. 71703057).

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Correspondence to Lu Liu.

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The authors declare that they have no conflict of interest.

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Responsible editor: Alessandro Cigno

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Li, Z., Liu, L. Preference or endowment? Intergenerational transmission of women’s work behavior and the underlying mechanisms. J Popul Econ 32, 1401–1435 (2019).

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  • Intergenerational transmission
  • Preference channel
  • Endowment channel
  • Heterogeneous effects

JEL Classification

  • J21
  • J22
  • D13