Children’s cognitive abilities relatively unaffected by having working mothers, latest analysis shows

Children’s literacy, maths ability and behaviour are not on average harmed if their mothers go out to work during the first years of their lives, a leading researcher said today.

Data from earlier UK studies had indicated a small disadvantage in literacy among children born before the mid-1990s whose mothers had worked in their early years, Professor Heather Joshi told a meeting of policy-makers and academics.

However, recent analyses by Professor Joshi and colleagues of data on those born since the mid-1990s found that this disadvantage had disappeared for these younger generations. Her work is the first to reach these conclusions about children’s literacy and maths ability.

Professor Joshi was speaking at the launch of a booklet summarising influential longitudinal studies, organised by the Campaign for Social Science. The booklet was formally launched by David Willetts, Minister for Universities and Science, and Polly Toynbee, writer and Guardian columnist, at the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills in London.

Professor Joshi, of the Centre for Longitudinal Studies, Institute of Education, University of London, said researchers working on six sets of longitudinal data had followed the lives of around 40,000 children in total over the last 40 years.

The earlier analyses had associated working mothers with a small disadvantage for children academically, she said. The negative estimates were modest – only a few percentage points lower than when compared with children whose mothers had not worked – but were statistically significant.

However, there had since been a “generational change”, and this pattern was not seen in later data, which she had recently analysed.

Her work on the Millennium Cohort Study of children born in 2000 to 2001 found no significant difference in children’s cognitive ability or behaviour at the age of five if their mothers had gone out to work or not in their first year. Her research on the 1970 cohort members’ children, assessed in 2004, also showed no significant negative effects on children’s literacy, maths or behaviour if their mothers had worked in the year of the child’s birth.

“The research evidence reflects many changes over the last 40 years,” Professor Joshi told the audience. “There has traditionally been a concern that the employment of mothers comes at the expense of child development.

“But as the percentage of mothers in work has gone up, any impact on children has diminished.

“This is likely to be a result of an increasingly friendly environment for families who combine paid work with child-rearing, in the various ways now possible – including more maternity leave and huge changes in the availability of childcare.”

She said that although the evidence found neither bad nor good effects overall on children from mothers’ employment, this was not absolute proof of no harm for all children under any circumstances. “Parents still take care about their responsibilities and should be encouraged to proceed with caution,” she said.

Longitudinal studies were the most effective way of understanding children’s development because they tracked people across different points in their lives and across two generations, she said.

The launch was sponsored by the publishers SAGE, whose Global Publishing Director, Ziyad Marar, addressed the event, which was chaired by Professor Cary Cooper, Chair of the Academy of Social Sciences.

Other important work presented in the booklet includes research which inspired the setting up of a state-funded, part-time, pre-school place for every three and four-year-old, and work which helped to ensure that care leavers now have a much better chance of going to university and getting a degree than they had 10 years ago.

This is the eighth booklet in the Making the Case for the Social Sciences series, published by the Campaign for Social Science, each summarising research that has had a direct benefit for society. Previous topics include crime, climate change, ageing, management and sport. The booklets are used to influence government policy and the public’s perceptions of important social issues.

Full presentation

Working parents: Evidence from longitudinal studies. Presentation by Prof Heather Joshi to Academy of Social Science, June 2013.