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Strong family services are needed to allow mothers to participate in adult education

By Patricia McMullin and Heta Pöyliö

Formal adult education can help promote gender equality by fostering female employment and reducing women’s disadvantages in the labour market. This can be achieved with policies that enhance work-family balance and thus reduce barriers for mothers to invest in their further education.

Pexels / Karolina Grabowska


Studies have shown that women benefit more than men from attending and upgrading formal adult education, which can lead to better employment opportunities. Therefore, policies that support and encourage women's participation in adult education can help narrow the gender gap in education, labor market activity, and career advancement. However, there are both individual and institutional incentives and barriers to participate in adult education.

Our recent article "Participation in formal adult education and family life - a gendered story" discusses gender differences in participation in formal adult education and how family resources, such as income, and family life, particularly the number and age of children, influence these differences.

While gendered roles within the household and the labour market influence the motivation and decisions to enrol in formal adult education differently for men and women, institutional settings can either facilitate or hinder equal opportunities. We provide evidence of this in Finland and Great Britain, where participation rates in formal adult education are high but the educational systems (both initial and adult education), labour market regulations, and family policies are very different.

Our results demonstrate that family responsibilities restrict women, particularly mothers with small children, from participating in formal adult education to a greater extent than men in Great Britain, but the picture is less gendered in Finland. In general, the Finnish welfare state supports disadvantaged populations (single mothers, large families) to enrol in adult education, whereas in Great Britain the possibilities to participate are provided mainly for those without children or in stable family situations.

Our results suggest that the Finnish system promotes opportunities for individuals in vulnerable or disadvantaged life situations, and adult education is used as a booster of wellbeing across family types. In contrast, the formal adult education system in Great Britain emphasises the updating of skills for those in well-off situations, with family constraints often preventing participation. In other words, a more comprehensive social welfare system that supports families and provides affordable childcare reduces barriers for mothers to invest in their educational attainment, making it easier for women to balance their family responsibilities and participation in formal adult education to improve their skills and career prospects.

Promoting gender equality in participation in formal adult education is essential to ensure equal opportunities for both men and women. Governments must recognize the barriers that women face in accessing education and training opportunities and take measures to address them. We recommend providing financial assistance to adult learners to cover the costs of tuition fees, travel, and accommodation in order to remove financial barriers to participation; and to provide affordable childcare and strong family services, to make it easier for women to balance their family responsibilities and participate in formal adult education.

Additional Information

Authors of Original Article


Pöyliö, H. & McMullin, P. (2023) Participation in formal adult education and family life - a gendered story. INVEST Working Papers 68. DOI: 10.31235/