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. With the employment rate of women – and especially mothers – having risen, dual-earner couples are more common. This has been driven by three key factors.

  • Women want to have as secure and fulfilling a role in the labour market as men, with traditional ideas about gender roles losing traction with both men and women.
  • Trends in earnings and living costs have necessitated dual-earning in couple households: in many parts of Europe, most families need two earners to make ends meet.
  • The number of single-parent families – the majority of which are headed by women – has risen across Europe over the long term. Single-parent families make up a large minority of families in the UK and Germany, and these single parents tend to be in employment.

The dual-earner model often translates to men working full-time and women working part-time. However, there is also a significant proportion of women who are either the sole breadwinner or the main breadwinner for their family. Across Europe1 nearly one in three (31.4 per cent) mothers in working families with dependent children are breadwinners.

The story across Europe is one of increasing rates of maternal breadwinning. Of European countries for which trend data is available, the majority have seen increases in maternal breadwinning over recent years. However, behind these numbers is a great diversity of experiences, reflecting increasingly dynamic family lives as well as changing economic pressures.

Britain and Germany: patterns of breadwinning

This report explores the trends and patterns in maternal breadwinning in Europe, with a particular focus on Britain and Germany.2 These two countries offer interesting comparisons: while both are broadly similar in terms of demography, culture and economic make-up (notwithstanding numerous notable exceptions), family policy has evolved in markedly different ways in each country, with historic and continuing contrasts in their approaches to it.

We here define ‘maternal breadwinners’ as mothers of dependent children who bring in 50 per cent or more of total household earnings. This includes mothers in couple households who earn as much as or more than their partner, and single mothers who are in work.

There are 2 million maternal breadwinners in Britain, making up one in three (33 per cent) of mothers in working families. Breadwinning is less common in Germany, where just over a quarter (27 per cent) of mothers in working households are breadwinners, although a larger population overall means that the number of maternal breadwinners is, at 2.1 million, similar to that of the UK. In both countries, single parents make up around half of maternal breadwinners.

Maternal breadwinning is on the rise in both countries: between 1996 and 2013, rates in Britain rose from 23 to 33 per cent, while rates in Germany rose from 21 to 27 per cent. However, this trend has stagnated in both countries over recent years, with little change in Germany since 2005 and in Britain since 2011.

Who’s breadwinning?

Maternal breadwinning has increased across most groups of mothers in both Germany and the UK. However, it is more common among certain groups.

  • Lower-income families: in both countries, breadwinning remains more common in low and middle-income households.
  • Older mothers and mothers of older children: in both countries, breadwinning is more common among older mothers and mothers of older children (indeed, these factors are interrelated).
  • More educated mothers: in both countries, and across Europe, breadwinning is more common among those with a tertiary education.
  • 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 per cent of maternal breadwinners but only 23 per cent of all earners. Although the data permits a less detailed analysis for Germany, it appears to have a similar overall sectoral distribution among maternal breadwinners.

What does the rise in breadwinning mean for Britain?

Our research shows that maternal breadwinning is a significant feature of household income structures in both Britain and Germany, as it is across much of Europe. Work and family policies need to keep up with these changing family structures and ensure that all families are supported to balance work and care. Public policy has a twofold purpose:

  • to recognise and respond to the rise of maternal breadwinning
  • to ensure greater equality of opportunity for those women who want to work, particularly for those who are currently under-represented in the workforce.

Despite increased labour market participation, women, and particularly mothers, still face considerable challenges. In the UK, the gender pay gap remains significant and stubborn, at 10 per cent for full-time employees and 20 per cent for all employees (ONS 2014a). Mothers also experience a ‘motherhood penalty’ in earnings when they have children, while fathers get a ‘fatherhood bonus’ (Lanning 2013). And outside of the workplace, things remain unequal, with working mothers doing more domestic work than fathers, and providing more care both to children and to older generations (Ben-Galim and Silim 2013). The increased significance of women’s economic contributions to their family’s wellbeing underlines the importance of tackling the gender pay gap to ensure women and men are paid equally for equal work.

For those mothers who still face barriers to entering or remaining in work, a wider range of policies are needed to help balance work and care within the family unit. As well as ensuring equality of opportunity for those women who want to work, increasing maternal employment is necessary if the UK is to achieve its goal of reaching the highest employment rate in the G7: a title currently held by Germany and sought by the UK chancellor George Osborne.

The UK government could take a number of steps to help address these issues.

  • Closing the gender pay gap: Although the government has recently taken action to close the gender pay gap by announcing a new requirement for large companies to report on their pay gap (enforcing section 78 of the 2010 Equality Act), these requirements are likely to fall short of the fuller equal pay audits required to bring about significant change in the medium term. These audits would provide a full picture of pay inequality, rather than the simple but unhelpful data that tells us only what men and women earn within individual companies, which leaves out the further detail required to know whether this difference is problematic. The government should ensure that organisations report data that makes it clear whether or not women and men are paid equally for equal work.
  • Improving 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. Good examples of work-care balance already exist: Germany has guaranteed access to flexible work for parents, and supports parents to switch to part-time working through income-smoothing programmes that enable employees to temporarily reduce their hours without a proportionate fall in income. A German-style income-smoothing programme for the UK could help to enable parents to respond to their family’s needs at crucial times.
  • Ensuring greater availability of affordable, high-quality childcare: Our analysis shows that mothers with younger children are less likely to be maternal breadwinners. For many families, the high cost of childcare will lock parents – and particularly mothers – out of the labour market, or confine them to low-skill, low-pay part-time work (Cory 2013). Primary caregivers, who are overwhelmingly female (Miranda 2011), are confined to part-time work, which is overwhelmingly low-skill and low-pay – thereby cutting off their access to roles that would better utilise their skills, and pay accordingly (Timewise 2015, Grant et al 2006). The cost of childcare is a particularly high barrier to work for low-income parents (Cory 2013). This is reflected in our finding that maternal breadwinning is less prevalent among those without a tertiary-level qualification – a group that is likely to command relatively low wages in the labour market.
    Access to flexible, affordable, high-quality childcare is crucial to supporting maternal employment and, more broadly, to better enabling women to access the labour market. The UK should move towards a system of universal, high-quality childcare. As first steps towards such a system, the UK should extend 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. This is affordable within the government’s current fiscal rules (see Thompson and Stirling 2015).
  • Improving options for parental leave: A key feature of a family-friendly labour market is that both men and women are able to start a family without losing their foothold in the labour market. Both the UK and Germany have legal entitlements to parental leave and pay on the birth of a child, but these entitlements are grossly unequal for mothers and fathers. Shared parental leave enables parents to be more flexible and for responsibilities to be shared more equitably, but by itself it is not enough. It is too easy for parents default to longstanding social norms, or else they find that the low replacement wages during parental leave mean that it makes poor financial sense for the primary earner – the majority of whom are men – to take this leave. Dedicated paternity leave is both an essential right of fathers and a boon for households in the long run: fathers who take a significant amount of leave when their children are infants dedicate more time to childcare even after that leave has ended (Huerta et al 2013). The UK should introduce a dedicated ‘use it or lose it’ paternity leave of at least four weeks at a sufficient replacement wage.
  • Improving work incentives: Opening up the labour market to primary carers means providing access to good-quality part-time jobs and strong financial incentives to work. At present, parents – particularly second earners, who are overwhelmingly mothers – face poor incentives or outright disincentives to work. In the UK, universal credit provides very little take-home income to second earners, while those on low wages are left with little or no additional income after both the withdrawal of universal credit and childcare costs are taken into account. Introducing a second earner disregard to universal credit, 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 (see Lawton et al 2014).

1 Here, ‘Europe’ refers to the EU28 plus Iceland, Norway, Switzerland and Serbia (‘EU28+4’).

2 Due to limitations in the microdata used in the analysis presented in this report, data for Northern Ireland is excluded. See the methodology section in the introduction for more on our data sources.