The world over, children’s education becoming more closely tied to their mother’s

Mother still knows best. A recent study published in Human Nature Behavior has found that a mother’s educational status – the highest level of education that she has attained – plays an increasingly important role in shaping her children’s educational status. The importance of the father’s educational status has declined. The study was conducted by sociologists at the University of British Columbia (UBC) and Lancaster University (U.K.).

“Scarce attention has been paid to the role of mothers in their children’s social mobility, a question with implications for socioeconomic inequality on a global scale,” says Yue Qian, an associate professor in UBC’s department of sociology.

The findings come from an analysis of global data covering 1.79 million people from 106 societies around the world, born between 1956 and 1990. The youngest of them would be turning 33 this year.

A gender-sensitive approach

The study observes that in Africa, Asia, the Pacific, and Europe, the strength of connection between mothers’ educational status and their children’s educational level has reached or exceeded that of fathers. Fathers’ education still appears to have more influence over children’s education in some regions, but that gender gap is closing worldwide.

“This research challenges the idea that increased access to education around the world has allowed more children to achieve educational success irrespective of their parents’ education,” says Qian. “For many years research suggested this to be true, but our study points out an important caveat in much of that research: it considered only the father’s education.”

Changes in levels of formal education between generations are what sociologists call “intergenerational educational mobility.”

While fathers’ decreasing influence on their children’s education has been creating the illusion of more intergenerational educational mobility, the influence of mothers has been increasing. But by considering them together, the gender-sensitive analysis unveils increased access to education hasn’t necessarily made educational opportunities more equal for children with different backgrounds of parental education.

Yue Qian, associate professor in UBC’s department of sociology. | Photo courtesy of UBC News

“Our findings call for a gender-sensitive approach to investigating educational mobility,” says Yang Hu, professor of global sociology at Lancaster University, who collaborated on the study with Qian. “Such an approach is crucial for academics, governments, and international organizations to accurately monitor intergenerational mobility and better understand the implications of education expansion.”

The research has demonstrated that with accrued gender equality and an increasing proportion of mothers paired with a less-educated father, mother-child associations in educational status become stronger, while father-child associations have become weaker. On the other hand, in less gender-equal contexts that have a larger proportion of mothers paired with a more-educated father, mother-daughter associations in educational status are weaker.

According to the researchers, as the number of single-parent families, and particularly single-mother families, increases globally, it is possible this change in family structure would further reinforce the importance of the mother in children’s social mobility.

“Given the persistent gendered division of labour in the family, mothers still bear the brunt of childrearing responsibilities across many parts of the world,” says Qian. “We hope our findings help catalyze new, gender-sensitive approaches to data collection and measurement development, to inform educational and social policy.”

Over a 35-year period, little change was noted in North America. The education of North American girls and women is tied as closely to their mothers’ education as it is to their fathers’.