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Who’s breadwinning? Working mothers and the new face of family support

children, economy, equality, families, jobs

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Working mothers are ‘breadwinning’ – earning as much as or more than their working partner or bringing in the sole household income – in record numbers. But who are these new breadwinners? How has the pattern of maternal employment changed over the last few decades, and in the last few years of straitened finances in particular? And is public policy geared up to deal with the new and difficult reality that currently faces many families?

Over 2.2 million working mums are now breadwinners – an increase of 1 million since 1996/97 – which means that almost one in three of all working mothers with dependent children are now the primary breadwinner for their family. However, behind these numbers is a great diversity of experiences which reflect increasingly dynamic family lives as well as changing economic pressures.

The analysis in this report explores these trends and how they affect different groups of women and different kinds of households. In doing so it unequivocally demonstrates how vital mothers’ incomes have become to the economic survival and wellbeing of a rising number of families.

Yet despite this profound social change, many working mums – the majority of whom also take primary responsibility for care – still face significant barriers to entering and remaining in work. This report also considers the specific steps that could be taken to address these barriers, which include a lack of flexible work opportunities, unaffordable childcare and gendered parental leave entitlements based on outdated stereotypes.

Among this report’s key findings are that:

  • The proportion of working mothers in couples who are breadwinning has increased, and the number of breadwinning cohabiting mothers has doubled, since 1996/97.
  • There has been a substantial increase in the employment rate of lone parents since 1996/97.
  • Mothers with degrees are more likely to be breadwinners than lower-skilled mothers: more than a third of mothers with a degree-­level qualification now earn more than their partner, compared to just over a quarter of mothers without a degree.
  • Breadwinning by young mothers has risen sharply in the recent poor economic climate.

Watch this short video for a more animated summary of our findings:


Our people

Dalia Ben-Galim, Associate Director for Families and Work

Spencer Thompson, Economic Analyst


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