The rise and rise of female breadwinners

Increasing numbers of working mums are the main breadwinners in their families. spoke to Dr Suzanne Doyle-Morris about the phenomenon and its implications for employers.

The number of women who are the main breadwinners in their family is set to rise. A recent survey by Aviva shows that in 25% of couples women are the main breadwinner. Many of these are working mums.
It’s a trend that’s set to continue as women continue to make up the majority of high qualified graduates coming out of university. One woman who has explored the implications for employers is Dr Suzanne Doyle-Morris, author of Beyond the Boys’ Club and Female Breadwinners, which was published last year.
She has been running her website with a huge number of articles on a range of issues relating to women and work since 2007, but recently rebranded it as to link up with the book. “It was originally named after me which was good for my consultancy work, but it did not give the impression that I specialise in women who work in male-dominated fields. It seemed more important to name the website after the women I work with,” she says.
She adds that in her work she has noticed that many women breadwinners still do feel the need to be the primary carer of children. “It depends on how much support they have at home,” she states. She thinks around 20% of women breadwinners have partners who are very supportive at home and do most of the cooking, cleaning and childcare. At the other end of the spectrum 20% have partners who do almost nothing at home. The vast majority, though, still consider themselves the primary carers, but share childcare and domestic duties. However, she says how much they share that is their “biggest bugbear”. “Many are still not getting the support they deserve and the women tend still to be doing most of the work in the home,” she says.


This is partly due to social expectations about what it is to be a mother which Suzanne says run alongside changing expectations of what women can achieve in their professional lives. “The latter have increased dramatically. Women now feel they can get to the top, but the expectations on them at home have not diminished at all,” she says. “They are not being cut any slack and men do not always step up to the plate.”
Indeed, she adds, the expectations on them as mothers have increased. In the 50s and 60s mothers were just expected to keep their children fed and safe. By the 70s they were also expected to talk to them and encourage them, to take care of their psychological health. “Now they have all that plus the expectation to run a full extra-curricular schedule,” says Suzanne.
She adds that part of the problem is that women are not delegating enough to men and accepts there is a certain amount of maternal gatekeeping. “Women may need to accept that their partner may not do things the way they do it and not complain or their partner may be less likely to help out in the future,” she says.
She thinks many men want to do more to help in the home and want more of a work life balance. “They want a better relationship with their children and with their partner,” she says.
Getting the balance right between work and home responsibilities is a big struggle for many women breadwinners and each addresses the issue differently. “Some are happy to log on every night when the children are in bed,” says Suzanne. I know one woman who never worked at weekends and did a two-hour commute each way when she worked. Once she got home she never turned on her emails and spent time with her children. Another I interviewed for my book is a lawyer and her family lives in the home counties. She worked very long hours four days a week and lived in a London flat for those days then spent long weekends at home. Employers have to be smarter and accept that everyone has a different version of work life balance and flexible working.”
Many of the women she interviewed for her book were fairly senior and she says they have more freedom to negotiate the flexibility that suits them. It is important, she adds, that they role model these patterns and advocate for that flexibility for others further down the chain. The fact that growing numbers of men want flexible working will help to push the case for flexible working.
One of the big dangers for women breadwinners is burnout, says Suzanne. That is why it is vital they create boundaries around their home life and delegate anything they can. Women who are the main breadwinners are more likely, she says, to have cleaners or nannies than couples where the man is the main breadwinner. This is often because it is harder to get the woman’s partner to do these kinds of chores, even if they are at home all the time.
“Paid help is undervalued,” says Suzanne, “ and some high-profile women in the media are presented in a way which suggests they do everything when you know they have a team of paid support. That can be demoralising for other women.”

Flexible working

She believes employers need to wake up to the kind of issues many working mums are dealing with because women will increasingly be the main breadwinners in their families. “They need to get their heads around flexible working for women and men and promote positive role models. They also need to rethink the long hours culture and international travel, corporate entertaining and internal politicking,” she says. “They also need to make sure their values are in line with what women want. Research shows women are less likely to agree that they identify with their company’s values.”
She hopes companies will wake up to the need to recognise employees’ real achievements rather than allow politicking and schmoozing to get in the way. She adds that flexible ways of working, such as homeworking, cut down internal politicking, but advises homeworking full time. “Homeworking can cut your visibility and you can end up out of sight out of mind. It’s important to be seen.”

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