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The Progressive Policy Think Tank

One third of mothers in working families are breadwinners in Britain

Maternal breadwinning more prevalent in low and middle-income households

There are 2 million maternal breadwinners in Britain, making up one third (33%) of mothers in working families, according to a new report published by IPPR today.

The report shows the proportion of maternal breadwinners rose from 23% in 1996 to 33% in 2013. This growth predominately took place before 2011, at which point the rate stagnated. In Britain it was the increase in mothers in couple households becoming breadwinners that fuelled a substantial rise between 2008 and 2011.

The report also shows that not only is maternal breadwinning more prevalent in low and middle-income households, but that the largest increases have been in the middle of the distribution. 37% of mothers in working families in the bottom half of the distribution are breadwinners, compared to 29% in the top half. This is due to female-led single parent families being more likely to be middle income earners, compared to couple households who are likely to be spread across income distributions.

The report looks at the story across Europe and finds that there have been increasing rates of maternal breadwinning over the last decade. Just under a third (31.4%) of mothers in working families across Europe are breadwinners, putting Britain just above the European average. The report also specifically looks at the trends in Germany and Britain and identifies a number of differences:

· Prevalence and growth: Maternal breadwinning is more common in Britain than in Germany, with rates of 33 and 27% respectively. Britain has experienced a larger rise in rates of maternal breadwinning from 1996 to 2013 than Germany (rates in Britain have risen from 23 to 33 %, while rates in Germany have risen from 21 to 27 %). Moreover Britain has experienced consistent rises for much of the period, while Germany has been changeable; but change has now slowed or stalled in all three regions.

· Family structure: In Germany, around half of maternal breadwinners are single parents (52%), whereas in Britain single breadwinners make up a smaller proportion (42%).

· Women’s earnings: As well as having a smaller proportion of breadwinners, women, on average, are much more likely to earn less than 30% of household earnings in Germany than Britain. In Germany, more than half of mothers in working households earn less than this, compared to 37% in Britain. At the median, mothers earn 37% of household earnings in the UK compared to only 27% in Germany.

· Breadwinning by age of child: Differences in the prevalence of maternal breadwinning for mothers with younger vs older children are much higher in Germany than Britain. However the trends are in opposite directions with the disparity growing in Britain and shrinking in Germany.

· Breadwinning by mother’s education: In both Britain and East Germany the difference in rates of breadwinning among mothers with and without degrees is slight. In West Germany, this difference is marked, at 29% and 22% for mothers with and without tertiary education respectively.

· Regional variation: Regional variation is considerably higher in Germany, largely driven by Landers in the West. However small sample sizes do not permit conclusive analysis of regional variation.

Giselle Cory, IPPR Senior Research Fellow, said:

“The model of a male breadwinner and a female carer as the ‘default’ for families in Europe is long gone. With women’s – and especially mothers’ – employment rates having risen, dual earner couples are more common. Therefore work and family policies need to keep up with changing family structures, such as the rise in maternal breadwinners, to ensure that all families are supported to balance work and care.

There are ways that government can respond to diverse families structures in Britain, by making flexible work more available, making parental leave arrangements truly equitable, increasing the availability of high-quality, affordable childcare and working towards truly equal pay.

The report also shows that breadwinning is more common for:

· Lower income families: Breadwinning remains more common in low and middle income households in Britain and Germany.

· Older mothers and mothers of older children: In Britain and Germany breadwinning is more common among older mothers and mothers of older children.

· More educated mothers: Breadwinning is more common among those with tertiary education in Britain and Germany, and across Europe.

· Service sector and public sector workers: In the UK, maternal breadwinners are over represented in health, social work and education: these sectors account for 43% of breadwinners but only 23% of all earners.

The report recommends that policy solutions look to:

· Close the gender pay gap: The Government should ensure that the organisations report data that makes it clear whether or not women and men are paid equally for equal work.

· Improve flexible working arrangements: Flexible working arrangements are necessary both for breadwinners who need to balance work and care, and for mothers who want to move into the labour market on a part-time basis. A guaranteed access to flexible work as exists in Germany or an income smoothing programme for the UK could help enable parents to respond to their family needs at crucial times in the lifecycle.

· Ensure greater availability of affordable, high-quality childcare: Access to flexible, affordable, high-quality childcare is key to supporting maternal employment, and in particular enabling women to access the labour market in its entirety. The UK should move towards a system of universal, high-quality childcare for parents of pre-schoolers. As first steps to this the UK should extend the current early years entitlement of 15 hours of free childcare for 38 weeks to cover 48 weeks of the year for 2–4-year-olds whose parents fall within the poorest 40% of families.

· Improve options for parental leave: Enabling both men and women to start a family without losing their foothold in the labour market is a key feature of family friendly labour markets. The UK should introduce a dedicated ‘use it or lose it’ paternity leave of at least 4 weeks at a sufficient replacement wage.

· Implement financial work incentives: Opening up the labour market to primary care-givers means providing good quality part-time jobs and strong financial incentives to work. Introducing a second earner disregard so that second earners can keep more of what they earn would better balance incentives to primary and secondary earners and ensure that mothers in particular have better access to the labour market.

Note to editors

IPPR’s new report - Who’s breadwinning in Europe? A comparative analysis of maternal breadwinning in Great Britain and Germany will be available from Tuesday 20 October from:

The analysis in the report maps changes in the frequency, composition and character of maternal breadwinning using survey data from the UK, Germany and the EU. The micro data used in our analysis is drawn from the following surveys:

· UK: the Family Resource Survey (FRS)

· Germany: the ‘generated person-level variables for international comparison’ from the German Socio-Economic Panel (SOEP)

· EU: Statistics on Income and Living Conditions (SILC)

The report shows that 88% of families were working in 2014, the highest proportion since records began in 1996 – and dual earner households are now the norm. It also shows that while more than two thirds (68.3%) of couple households have both parents in work, it is single parents who have driven the rise in parental employment. Over the last two decades employment among single parents – mostly women –has risen dramatically from 47.1% in 1996 to 65.7% in 2014. And yet single parents are still nearly half as likely to be in work as couple parents when their children are young

When comparing analysis by age of child it should be noted that school stating ages are different. Most children start school at 4 in the UK though the legal requirement is at 5. In Germany, children start school at 6. This is likely to have a dampening effect on maternal employment for German mothers with children aged 4-6 in comparison to British mothers.


Sofie Jenkinson – [email protected] / 07981 023 031

Danny Wright – [email protected] / 07887 422 789