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Numbers of female breadwinners rise


coin towersResearch indicates necessity rather than choice.

The number of working mothers has increased by one million since 1997, with more than 2.2 million now the main wage-earner in their family.

Initially that sounds like good news, as if women are beginning to earn more equitable wages.

The reality is more complex, with many single mothers driven to find work because of the loss of benefits and some families struggling with the decline of what had been traditionally male industries such as manufacturing.

Sponsored by counselling charity Relate, recent research on breadwinning by the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) concluded that ‘the current policy landscape is not geared up to deal with the reality that many families now face’.

The IPPR’s report focused on maternal breadwinning, defining breadwinning as ‘the act of earning the same as or more than a spouse or partner, or earning the family’s sole wage if a single parent’.

The research found that the trend of increased numbers of mothers working ‘is not restricted to one group of mother, but can be seen across all age groups, income groups, and family types’.

The IPPR calls this ‘a significant finding’, demonstrating ‘unequivocally that mothers’ incomes are vital to the economic survival and wellbeing of a rising number of families’ and that ‘it is hard to see how this trend could possibly be reversed in the future’.

With two incomes increasingly necessary for families to survive, UK policy is lagging behind the needs of much of society in several important ways.

“The inflexibility of parental leave and the high cost of childcare are making it more difficult for families to decide what works best for them, in terms of who goes out to work and who cares for children”, said Relate’s chief executive Ruth Sunderland.

And while women today are far less constrained by expectations and experiences of having children, there remains considerably more pressure, particularly societal and financial, on them than on men regarding their choices about work.

Even the language used in discussions about work and parenting can be part of the problem.

The former political editor of The Observer, Gaby Hinsloff said in her book ‘Half a Wife: The Working Family’s Guide to Getting a Life Back’ that ‘working mother’ is a very commonly used phrase, whereas ‘working father is a rarity. She recommends ‘working parent’ as the most equitable.

Broad changes to the gendered approach to the division between work outside the home and childcare are needed to create a more equitable situation for parents deciding who works what hours and who has the most responsibility for caring for the children.

Specifically, IPPR recommends ‘higher quality and more accessible flexible working arrangements’ that ‘would benefit all workers, particularly women’.

Such a change would help women be less likely to get trapped in low-paid part-time work and make it more acceptable for men to ask for and receive family-friendly working patterns.

Additionally, by making universal childcare ‘affordable and accessible’, families would have more options to consider in finding the best combination of childcare and work for themselves.

In the current situation, the ‘high cost of childcare exacerbates the pay penalty for mothers’.

The IPPR calls on the government to make a policy that better reflects the current reality of work and childcare specifically ‘to enable women to make choices about work, and to mitigate the obstacles which face working mums as well as mums who are not currently working.’

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