Who’s breadwinning in Europe? A comparative analysis of maternal breadwinning in Great Britain and Germany

Published Tue 20 Oct 2015
As the number of maternal breadwinners continues to rise across Europe, this report compares the demographics of this phenomenon both across the continent and in Britain and Germany specifically, considering how policy should respond to better support families and promote greater gender equality.

The nature of work, earning and family relationships has changed. The model of a male breadwinner and a female carer as the ‘default’ for European families is long gone. The employment rate among women – and particularly among mothers – has risen, and dual-earner couples have become more common. And while the dual-earner model often means men working full-time and women working part-time, there is also a significant proportion of women who are either the sole or main breadwinner for their family. Across Europe nearly one in three mothers in working families with dependent children are breadwinners – a figure that has risen in recent years across most European countries.

However, behind these numbers lie a great diversity of experiences that reflect increasingly dynamic family lives as well as changing economic pressures. This report explores the trends and patterns in maternal breadwinning across the continent, with a particular focus on Britain and Germany: two countries that offer interesting comparisons and contrasts in terms of demography, culture and economic make-up as well as historic and continuing contrasts in their approaches to family policy.

We here define ‘maternal breadwinners’ as mothers of dependent children who bring in 50 per cent or more of total household earnings – a definition that now applies to over 2 million women in both countries.

While maternal breadwinning has increased across most groups of mothers in both Germany and the UK, through original analysis of the data we demonstrate that it is more common among certain groups, including lower-income families, older mothers and mothers of older children, more educated mothers, and service-sector and public-sector workers.

We also ask what this rise in maternal breadwinning means for public policy. Work and family policies need to adapt in order to keep up with these changing family structures, and ensure that all families are supported to balance work and care. We therefore suggest a number of steps that the UK government could take to better achieve these ends, including:

  • closing the gender pay gap by ensuring that organisations perform and publish full equal pay audits
  • improving flexible working arrangements by introducing a German-style income-smoothing programme to better enable parents to respond to their family’s needs at crucial times
  • ensuring greater availability of affordable, high-quality childcare by extending the current early years entitlement of 15 hours of free childcare 38 weeks to 48 weeks of the year for 2–4-year-olds who fall within the poorest 40 per cent of families
  • improving options for parental leave, introducing a dedicated ‘use it or lose it’ paternity leave of at least four weeks at a sufficient replacement wage
  • Improving work incentives by introducing a second earner disregard to universal credit.
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