BSA37: Family life press release

‘Gendered double standard’ in attitudes to working mothers

The UK public are four times more likely to disapprove of mothers with young children working full-time than fathers in the same situation, according to a new British Social Attitudes report published today by the National Centre for Social Research (NatCen).

The report examines new data collected on the European Social Survey (ESS) in 2018/19 alongside data from 2006/7. In both years, the survey used a distinctive ‘split ballot’ to assign participants questions asking about either women or men at random.

The research highlights how differences in social expectations of mothers and fathers persist in the context of increasingly liberal views about family life.

In 2018/19, 17% of people said they disapproved of mothers with children under 3 working full-time, while 4% expressed this view when asked about fathers.

The gap in attitudes towards mothers and fathers was significantly larger twelve years ago, when 37% in the UK said they disapproved of mothers combining full-time work with childcare, compared with 3% of those asked about fathers.

The results also show how ‘gender traditionalism’ applies to fathers as well as to mothers. Twice as many people in 2018/19 said they would disapprove of a father with young children divorcing (22%) than said they would disapprove of a mother doing the same (12%).

Gillian Prior, Director of Surveys, Data and Analysis at the NatCen said: “With one in six of us taking a disapproving view of women combining full-time work with childcare, there is some distance to travel before we can declare the end of the ‘gendered double standard’ for working mothers with young children. At the same time, these results make clear that traditional views of motherhood are much less prevalent than they were as recently as the mid-2000s.”

The survey, which interviewed 2,394 respondents in 2006/7 and 2,204 respondents in 2018/19, also highlights an overall shift towards more liberal views of ‘non-traditional’ family life:

  • Since 2006/7, every adult generation in the UK has become more accepting of parents combining full-time work with childcare and divorce when children under 12.
  • 52% of people now approve of parents working full-time with young children, an increase from 37% twelve years ago.
  • Around two thirds of the public (66%) expressed approval of at least one ‘non-traditional’ family behaviour in 2018/19, up from around half (53%) in 2006/7.
  • Disapproval of having children outside marriage has fallen from 21% to 12% in the same period, while disapproval for divorcing when a child is under 12 fell from 28% to 16%.

Eric Harrison, Senior Lecturer in Quantitative Sociology at City, University of London and Deputy Director of the ESS said: “The public are half as likely to disapprove of parents having children outside marriage or getting divorced with young children than they were just over ten years ago. This represents a significant shift in our views on family life in a relatively short period.”