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UBC Vancouver study shows mother’s educational status plays higher role in children’s education

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A new study 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, while the importance of the father’s educational status has declined.

The study by sociologists at UBC and Lancaster University (U.K.) found that in Africa, Asia, the Pacific, and Europe, the strength of connection between mothers’ educational status and their children’s educational status has caught up with or overtaken 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.

In North America there was little change over a 35-year period, although the education of North American girls and women is tied as closely to their mothers’ education as it is to their fathers’.

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.

Dr. Yue Qian

“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,” said Dr. Yue Qian, an associate professor in UBC’s department of sociology. “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 the loosening of fathers’ influence on children’s education has been creating the illusion of more intergenerational educational mobility, the influence of mothers has been increasing. By considering them together, this gender-sensitive analysis reveals that increased access to education hasn’t necessarily made educational opportunities more equal for children with different backgrounds of parental education.

“Our findings call for a gender-sensitive approach to investigating educational mobility,” said Dr. Yang Hu, professor of global sociology at Lancaster University who collaborated on the study with Dr. 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.”

With the rise of gender equality and an increase in the proportion of mothers paired with a less-educated father, mother-child associations in educational status become stronger but father-child associations become weaker, the research reveals. Conversely, 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.

As the number of single-parent families, and particularly single-mother families, increases globally, it is possible that this change in family structure would further bolster the importance of the mother in children’s social mobility, the researchers say.

“Given the persistent gendered division of labour in the family, mothers still bear the brunt of childrearing responsibilities across many parts of the world,” said Dr. Qian. “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.

“We hope our findings help catalyze new, gender-sensitive approaches to data collection and measurement development, to inform educational and social policy.”