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Momma’s Boys or Momma’s Girls?

Understanding the Relationship
Between Maternal Role Modeling and Degree Attainment by Gender

This paper seeks to examine the relationship between parental role models on educational
achievement. The aim is to understand how a mother’s educational attainment (in terms of
highest degree attained) affects the child’s own educational achievement when taking into
account sex. More simply, does a mother’s education more closely relate to that of their
daughter or of their son? The findings of this paper suggest a slightly stronger positive
relationship between mother’s degree attainment and respondent’s degree attainment for
females than for males. Despite this finding, degree attainment is only one measure of
maternal role modeling and to complete a full analysis of this phenomenon, more
indicators would need to be taken into account (such as maternal income, self-esteem,
political attitudes and views, etc). In addition, it may be valuable in the future to contrast
the association of maternal role modeling with the phenomena of paternal role modeling.
More than anything else, this paper serves as a blue print for future studies in this vein of
research and as a preliminary exploration.


In his book, The Pecking Order: Which Siblings Succeed and Why, Dalton Conley

conjectures that the following:

“ families where the mother worked while her children were growing up, her

adult daughters and sons attain jobs that are more equitable in terms of prestige.

But in cases where the mother did not work - and therefore daughters lacked a

direct, same-sex parental role model in the world of careers - sisters fare

considerably worse than their brothers: my data show that women whose mothers

did not work outside the home when they were growing up are 15 percent less

likely to have graduated from college than their brothers were; this statistic stands

in contrast to a statistically insignificant 5 percent difference between sisters and
brothers in families where the mother did work outside the home for at least a year

during their childhood.”1

Taking Conley’s insight a step further, in this paper I seek to examine whether or not

daughters or sons are more influenced by maternal role modeling in education. More

clearly, I want to understand whether: 1) there is a relationship between maternal degree

attainment and respondent degree attainment, and 2) the association is stronger for males

or females. Following along Conley’s line of thought, I hypothesize that daughters will be

more influenced by their mothers in terms of educational attainment than sons will be. The

reasoning behind this is because so many of the roles that make up contemporary American

society are associated with gender, and gender role modeling by parents is an extremely

large part of familial life. Thus, we can expect a female’s depth of education to be more

closely related to their mother’s than a male’s would be.

One issue that may be raised is as to whether or not the respondent lived with their

mother during their youth. Clearly, if a respondent that is male did not live with his mother

as a child, then he would seem to be less likely to follow her role model. However,

because this variable is being measured in very broad terms (by general degree level

attained) and not specifically (such as number of years of education), and because all

respondents whose data is used in this survey knew the education level of their mother, it

can be assumed that parent of residence is not an issue. More plainly, because this project

deals with large categories (such as College, Graduate School, High school, etc.), these

categories allow for relatively broad responses. Thus, even if a son did not live with his

Conley, Dalton. The Pecking Order: Which Siblings Succeed and Why. Pantheon Publishing: New York,
mother and thus did not complete exactly the same number of years of school as she did

(i.e. 14 versus 15), they both would still likely fit in the same category of Jr. College. The

goal of this specific point of discussion is simply to show how the use of degree categories

as opposed to a more finely tuned measure, such as years of education, helps to mitigate

some issues that may arise had a more precise measurement been applied. For the case of

this study the broad categories of degree attained are seen as desirable characteristics of the


Data Source

The 2002 survey is one in a series of the larger General Social Survey (GSS)

project, which began in 1972 and was conducted 1973-1978, 1980, and 1982, 1983-1993,

1994, 1996, 1998, 2000, 2002, and 2004 by the National Opinion Research Center

(NORC) at the University of Chicago. In addition to the standard demographic questions,

such as race, gender, income, etc., which are asked of respondents, each year, the survey

also has a unique, rotating set of questions known as topical modules. These inquiries

range from feelings on classical music and attendance at cultural events, to political

attitudes and viewpoints. Questions that were asked on the 1973 and 1975 surveys are

replicated precisely in order to allow longitudinal studies. In 1994, the study became

biennial, and the number of respondents increased from 1500 to 3000. Also, every year

the GSS utilizes experimental questions to examine wording effects, contextual

differences, and differentiated response scales. The overall goal of the GSS is to gather

data on social trends, attitudes, and behavior in American society. It primarily is used to

assess ongoing processes, and thus the findings are usually longitudinal in nature. The
study surveys all non-institutionalized household adults; this excludes those in college

dorms and nursing/assisted living communities. The only other data source used more by

sociologists is the U.S. Census.2

The response rate for the 2002 GSS was 70%, and 2765 English-speaking

Americans over the age of 18 participated. All respondents were interviewed in person

during 90-minute sessions in February, March, and April of 2002. The 2002 survey is

subject to the post-1994 changes, which included a significant reduction in the number of

core demographic questions asked, as well as the aforementioned biennial format that also

included a split sample design. This split sample design involves two parallel samples of

approximately 1500 respondents each; all respondents are asked the same core

demographic questions however, each sub-sample differs on which topical module it is

subjected to. The 2002 survey was the first year in which the interviewer was aided by a

computer; in prior years, a pencil and paper were used to gather responses.3

Variable Measurement

As previously mentioned, three variables – respondent’s highest degree, mother’s

highest degree, and respondent’s sex – are utilized in examining the research question of

this paper. Both of the degree oriented questions were asked in a similar manner, however,

each will be examined separately.

First, in measuring the highest degreed obtained by the respondent, the researcher

first asked, “Do you have any college degrees?” If the respondent answered yes, then the

“General Social Survey Background.” National Opinion Research Center. University of Chicago.
“General Social Survey 2002 [United States]: Codebook.” Cultural Policy and the Arts National Data
Archive. Princeton University. (
researcher asked “What degree or degrees?” There were effectively five categories for

responses: Less than High School, High School, Junior College, Bachelor, and Graduate.

A sixth category was “Don’t Know”. In most cases, it can be assumed that the “Don’t

Know” category is not generally applicable in the case of the respondent as all but five

respondents knew their own degree attainment; however this is a more important category

when dealing with the parental degree attainment.4

The variable of mother’s degree attainment was obtained by asking, “Does she

have any college degrees?” Again, if the response was yes, then the interviewer asked,

“What degree or degrees?” The response categories were the same as asking about the

respondent’s education: Less than High School, High School, Junior College, Bachelor,

and Graduate. There were a much larger number of omitted or “Don’t Know” responses

(288) on this question than on asking the respondent’s degree. However, in spite of these

non-responses there are still 2477 units of data available for analysis, making the sample

statistically valid.5

The final variable to be measured is the sex of the respondent. This was coded by

the researcher and was present on every data item. There should be no issue in using this

variable as it is clear, precise, and fully accounted for among all respondents.

Data Analysis

Effect of Mother’s Degree Attainment on Respondent’s Degree Attainment

Upon analyzing the data we must first examine the basic relationship between

mother’s highest degree and respondent’s highest degree. The results of a cross tabulation
“GSS 1972-2002 Cumulative Data File.” Survey Documentation and Analysis – General Social Survey.
University of California, Berkeley. (
of these two variables is seen in Table A. In this table we can see that generally speaking,

as the degree attained by the mother increases, so too does the degree earned by the

respondent. Thus, it seems that mother’s degree attainment has a positive relationship with

respondent degree attainment.

In addition, we can see that if you compare the corresponding groups of the rows

and columns for degree (meaning you look at <High School for three mother and <High

School for the respondent, High School for the mother and High School for the respondent,

and so on) then these cells always have the highest percentages by columns. Though not

direct evidence, or even extremely applicable this only further supports the relatively

strong, positive association between respondent’s mother’s degree and respondent’s degree


Table A – Maternal Degree Attainment vs. Respondent Degree Attainment
Mother's Highest Education <High School High School Jr. College Bachelor Graduate Total (N)
<High School 27.25% 54.24% 5.66% 8.35% 4.50% 778
High School 6.83% 58.03% 8.30% 18.62% 8.22% 1289
Jr. College 3.36% 43.70% 16.81% 24.37% 11.76% 119
Bachelor 2.86% 39.05% 4.29% 32.86% 20.95% 210
Graduate 2.50% 36.25% 8.75% 28.75% 23.75% 80
Total (N) 312 1333 187 426 218 2476

Based on calculations ascertained from this table, we can also derive a statistic

that helps to more clearly quantify the association between the variables. For this table,

that statistic is 0.4623 on a scale of -1 to +1. The closer to negative one the statistic is, the

greater the negative association and the closer to +1 the statistic is, the greater the positive

association is; a value near zero indicates no relationship of association. Thus, in this case,

the statistic of 0.4623 indicates a relatively strong positive association between mother’s

degree and respondent’s degree. Furthermore, we can say that the true level of association

between the two variables lies between 0.41526 and 0.50934, 95 percent of the time. This
means that it is very clear, and that we are very confident that there is relatively strong

positive association between the two. Finally, on this point, we can also say that there is

less than a 1/10 of one percent chance that the value of the association is not correct, again

confirming the very strong evidence in favor of a relatively strong positive association.

Interaction Effect of Sex on Mother/Respondent Degree Relationship

Beyond the basic relationship of mother’s degree and respondent’s degree, it is

valuable to understand how the gender of the respondent affects this relationship.

Table B – Maternal Degree Attainment vs. Respondent Degree Attainment for Males
Mother's Highest Education <High School High School Jr. College Bachelor Graduate Total (N)
<High School 27.88% 51.60% 4.49% 11.54% 4.49% 312
High School 9.45% 57.04% 8.25% 16.15% 9.11% 582
Jr. College 1.72% 43.10% 18.97% 18.97% 17.24% 58
Bachelor 3.64% 33.64% 3.64% 37.27% 21.82% 110
Graduate 2.50% 40.00% 12.50% 22.50% 22.50% 40
Total (N) 148 571 82 191 110 1102

The first cross tabulation, Table B, illustrates the relationship of mother’s degree

and respondent’s degree for males. From this table, we can see that again there is a

positive relationship between degree attainment by mother and degree attainment for the

respondent, because as mother’s degree increases, there is also a trend for the respondent’s

degree to increase. And again, as in Table A, the corresponding degree cells (meaning Jr.

College for mother and Jr. College for Respondent, etc.) are home to the largest column

percentages of respondents. This indicates that among all of the males who have attended

Jr. College, the greatest number of them had mothers who also attended Jr. College.

Table C – Maternal Degree Attainment vs. Respondent Degree Attainment for Females
Mother's Highest Education <High School High School Jr. College Bachelor Graduate Total (N)
<High School 26.82% 56.01% 6.44% 6.22% 4.51% 466
High School 4.67% 58.84% 8.35% 20.65% 7.50% 707
Jr. College 4.92% 44.26% 14.75% 29.51% 6.56% 61
Bachelor 2.00% 45.00% 5.00% 28.00% 20.00% 100
Graduate 2.50% 32.50% 5.00% 35.00% 25.00% 40
Total (N) 164 762 105 235 108 1374

Table C, which is shown above, is a cross tabulation of the degree attained by the

mother and that of the respondent for females. Again it is clear that there is a positive

relationship between higher degree attainment for mothers and higher degree attainment

for the respondent. However, in this case, unlike the previous two tables, the highest

percentages by column are not always located in the corresponding degree cells (i.e.

Bachelor for mother and Bachelor for respondent). Still, there is again a noticeable

positive relationship between the two variables, where an increase in mother’s degree leads

to an increase in respondent’s degree as well.

Beyond simple table comparison, the aforementioned association statistic for

each of these respective tables provides a valuable tool for further understanding the

association. For Table B (males), the association statistic is 0.4329, again indicating a

relatively strong positive relationship between the two variables, though less so then in the

aggregate data presented in Table A (which had a value of 0.4623). In this case, we can say

with 95 percent confidence that the value of the statistic for Table B lies between 0.3643

and 0.5015. In addition, we can again say that there is less than a 1/10 of one percent

chance that the value of the association is not correct. In analyzing the same thing for

Table C (females), we arrive at an association statistic value of 0.4899. We can say that 95

percent of the time, the true value of the association will lie between 0.42718 and 0.55262.
For this table, we can also say that there is a less than 1/10 in one percent chance that the

association statistic is incorrect.

Overall, in comparing the association statistics of both tables, we can see that

there is a stronger association in mother’s degree and respondent’s degree among females

than there is among males. Also, the association among males is less than the association

for the aggregate table (Table A). Because each of the association values is statistically

significant, we can say with confidence that these associations are in fact true. Thus, it is

clear that there is an interaction effect present here, as mother’s degree attainment has a

stronger relationship with daughter’s degree attainment than it does with son’s degree



Based on the findings after analyzing the data, my hypothesis that maternal degree

attainment is more associated with respondent’s degree attainment for daughters than for

sons appears to be substantiated. There seems to be a clear (though relatively small)

difference in the degree of association between the two degree variables when taking into

account the sex of the respondent, with a higher association level being correlated with

being female than with being male.

Though degree attainment is only one variable measuring parental role modeling, it

can serve as a good beginning point for further research in this area. In the future, and to

more fully develop this vein of research it would be valuable to examine this phenomenon

of maternal role-modeling as it is manifested in other variables, such as income, political

attitudes, type of work, size of family, etc. In other words, do daughters also model their
mothers more closely than sons do in their career path, family size, etc? Through further

examination, we can better understand whether maternal role modeling is present only in

education or elsewhere as well.

In addition to examining maternal role modeling, it would be valuable to

understand how this phenomenon contrasts with that of paternal role modeling for sons.

Do daughters and sons have similar association statistics with their same-sex parents, or do

they differ? Even if one were not to completely examine parental role modeling, a basic

comparison would be valuable. One issue that would need to be dealt with is only

selecting respondents who lived with both parents, as otherwise the data could potentially

be easily thrown out as invalid. In the future, I hope to be able to add a question like this

to my analysis.

Overall, this project has provided a nice stepping stone for further research into

familial relationships and gender role modeling. The affirmation of the hypothesis with

statistically significant findings provides positive evidence that further research in related

areas might lead to similar results, which in turn would allow for greater understanding

into the dynamics within families as well as society as a whole. This has been an

extremely worthwhile and engaging exercise and I have learned a great deal about the topic

as well as statistics as a whole.