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Alison Park

NatCen Social Research

Director of The British Social Attitudes Survey

Read more about Alison Park

An incomplete revolution: is a gender equal workforce a realistic prospect?

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In June earlier this year the Women’s Business Council (WBC), established by the Home Office to tackle barriers to female success at work, published a report making the business case for a gender equalisation of the workforce. The WBC argued that equalising the labour force participation rates of men and women could increase economic growth in the UK by 0.5 percentage points per year, leading to a potential gain of 10% of GDP by 2030.

This is an issue on which NatCen’s British Social Attitudes survey shows there has been a big shift in public opinion. As recently as the 1980s the argument that women (particularly mothers) should be doing the same amount of paid work as men would not have been well received by large numbers of the public – in spite of the fact that the country had elected its first female Prime Minister.

It may seem remarkable now, but in the mid-1980s almost half (49%) of the population believed that it was a “man’s job” to earn money and a “woman’s job” to look after the home and family. By 2012, only 13% agreed with this point of view. And while in 1989, around two thirds (64%) thought that a mother should stay at home while her child was under school age, now only a third (33%) agree .

Since the 1980s, both in the UK and EU, these changes in attitudes have been accompanied by major legislative changes that have removed barriers to women entering work and led to a considerable shift in the way women participate in the workplace. In particular, there has been a marked increase in the proportion of mothers in the labour force, such that women with dependent children are very nearly as likely to work as women without dependent children (ONS, 2011).

Yet, what the WBC report highlights is that in spite of these considerable attitudinal changes many women who want to work still cannot find employment. Equalisation of the workforce is still a long way away.

Part of this story is apparent in our attitudinal data. While there have been big changes in attitudes there are still significant minorities who hold traditional views about gender roles. So, even though there has been a significant fall in the proportion of people thinking that pre-school children suffer if their mother works, 30% of people still take this view. Indeed, over a quarter (27%) say that family life suffers when the woman has a full-time job.

Moreover, what people believe does not always play out that way in practice. A look at some of our other British Social Attitudes data on gender equality in the home shows that even though only 13% think it a woman’s job to look after the home and family, women still undertake a disproportionate amount of unpaid labour at home and are more likely than men to report doing more than their fair share of housework.  This imbalance is also clearly a cause for concern if we expect women to take on more responsibility in the workplace.

So is a gender equal workforce possible?

Clearly, the data shows that an equalisation of the workforce is a long way off and it remains to be seen whether changes in attitudes will be reflected in people’s behaviour.

But our research does suggest that, at the very least, things are likely to continue to move in that direction. Overall, the changes we have seen in people’s attitudes to women in work and at home have coincided with a change in the workplace roles of women. And we expect this change in attitudes to continue because much of the decline in support for traditional gender roles is primarily a result of generational replacement (with each consecutive generation being less supportive of traditional gender roles than the one before it).

However, we should be concerned about the gender inequalities that continue to exist at home, which have not kept up with changes in attitudes to women’s place at work and which will undoubtedly make it difficult to achieve gender equality in the workplace. 

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Alison Park

Director of The British Social Attitudes Survey

Read more from Alison Park
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