Breadwinner mums still face outdated attitudes

Business Woman


Over the course of the last 20 years, the gender balance in the workforce has started to shift. Women have slowly, but surely gained a place in the world of work, but they still face a major conundrum, namely that of balancing their job with their family life. To add insult to injury, they are constantly faced with discrimination from their peers.

Mothers joining the workforce

In 2017 there were 4.9 million working mothers in the UK. This represents a 1.2 million increase on the number reported back in 1997, which was 3.7 million. On top of that, women with toddlers between the ages of three and four at home are more likely to get a job post-partum nowadays.

According to data gathered and published by the Office for National Statistics, there were 133,000 more mothers of young children in the workforce in 2017 – some 65.1% of mothers of young children. In comparison, the proportion in 1997 was of 55.8%.

What is more, one-third of them are the main breadwinners in their families. In 2013, it was reported that 33% of working mothers were the main source of income in the household. This is a dramatic increase from the 23% registered in 1996. The main reason is the increase in employment among single parents, which had risen by almost 20% by 2014 due, in part, to benefits changes. Most of these were women.

The most dramatic upsurge in the numbers of women who are the main breadwinner was registered between 2008 and 2011, in the aftermath of the global financial crisis. Many men lost their jobs, which pushed women to go back to work or increase their hours and earnings.

Traditional male-centric fields saw an extraordinary influx of female talent amid technological changes which enabled greater flexible working. But while the image of the female breadwinner is truly an empowering one, it doesn’t come without its fair share of complications.

Fighting against prejudice

It is clear that more and more mothers have chosen to enter or rejoin the workforce, but you wouldn’t know it from the way domestic chores are still being divided among partners. In the US, a recent survey by the Working Mother Research Institute showed 79% of them do the laundry and the cooking.

Outdoor tasks and financial management are customarily left to the fathers while mothers still run the household even when they bring in most of the money. Why does this happen? Some argue that, because female breadwinners are coerced to be ashamed about their less than traditional role, they tend to overcompensate at home and overwork themselves in the process.

And yet successful women who support a family on their own or out-earn their spouses are a reality of the 21st century. 

More than fifty years ago, feminist author Betty Friedan predicted in her applauded work The Feminine Mystique that a career is the best solution for housewives to become happier with their lives and have more successful marriages. In this way, she argued, not only women will thrive, but also their husbands and children. Today, this is truer than ever before.

Recent studies conducted in the Netherlands and the United States demonstrate that the most functional marriages are those where both spouses do stimulating jobs. So, why are women who choose to pursue careers condemned for their choices by their peers? What’s wrong with having children and supporting them?

The simple, yet sad answer is that our society is still not properly equipped to fully dismiss discriminatory traditions.

Career women are still considered unfit or selfish mothers. And yet the family is better off with an additional source of income most of the time. While it is undoubtedly hard to forget about ideas that have been ingrained in our collective consciousness for centuries, now’s the time to do just that. Fortunately, some are able to get past these toxic attitudes.

Stay at home dads: a reality?

The stay at home dad is the yin to the breadwinner mum’s yang. More and more young men have been going down this road, although numbers have decreased in the UK of late which may in part be due to stagnating wages and the need for both parents to be active in the workforce so that they can make ends meet.

Fortunately, for families where the woman earns more than enough for the both of them, stay at home dads are still a reality. One example is the story of IT programme manager Liz Gendreau who is the sole breadwinner in the family, thanks to her sixfigure salary. But as empowering as her example might be, her husband often finds himself faced with prejudice.

Most people assume that he is just babysitting for the day. Otherwise he has no business assuming such a purely female role. Bias is a double-edged sword when it comes to gender equity in various fields and no one seems to be able to escape it yet. The only solution to this is social progress, which can be a slow process. The only way in which we can truly evolve is by letting go of restrictive traditions and embracing diversity in every single way.

*Dianna Howell is a non-conformist HR manager – her main focus is to help as many people as she can to find their dream job. She runs JobInterviewAdvice, a collection of job interview resources for career searchers. Dianna has an MBA in Managerial and Organisational Behaviour from the University of Chicago.

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