Attitudes to gender roles: change over time
Periodically since the mid-1980s, British Social Attitudes surveys have included attitudinal questions asking about the roles of men and women within the family, in particular around providing an income from work versus playing a caring role in the home. Tracking responses to these questions over the past three decades, we report on whether, in line with women's increased participation in the labour market, there have also been changes in what the public believes men's and women's roles should be. Have we reached a point where the public thinks that men and women should have equal roles in the workplace and at home? Or is there still a perception that there should be a gender divide?
Figure 5.2 shows the percentage of people who agree to each of the following two statements about the gender division of responsibilities around providing an income versus looking after the home:
A man's job is to earn money; a woman's job is to look after the home and family 
Both the man and woman should contribute to the household income
In the mid-1980s, close to half (43 per cent in 1984 and 48 per cent in 1987) of people supported a gendered separation of roles, with the man in the 'breadwinner' role and the woman in the caring role. Clearly, at that time, there was a strong belief in the traditional gender divide. Since then, there has been a steady decline in the numbers holding this view. In 2012, only 13 per cent of people - or one person in eight - thinks that this should be the case. So, in respect of whether women should stay at home rather than take on paid work, there has been a dramatic shift in attitudes to gender roles in the past 30 years.
The second measure, asking whether men and women should both contribute to the household income, has been asked in British Social Attitudes since 1989, when half (53 per cent) of the public agreed this should be the case. In 2012, the proportion agreeing has risen to 62 per cent (with some fluctuations in the intervening period). So, while few people now support the idea that there should necessarily be a clear gender division of labour, with men working outside and women working inside the home, there is considerable support for both men and women contributing to the household income.
Figure 5.3 shows the responses over time to two further statements which explore whether the 'caring' role ascribed to women is one which people think reflects women's own preferences and experiences:
A job is alright, but what most women really want is a home and children
Being a housewife is just as fulfilling as working for pay
In 1987, a third (36 per cent) of the public thought that most women would prioritise their caring role over having a job. That proportion has dropped to a quarter (26 per cent) in 2012. There has been very little change (from 41 per cent in 1989 to 45 per cent in 2012) in the proportion of people believing that the role of the housewife is just as fulfilling as the role of worker. The answers indicate more limited change in the public's perceptions of how women regard and experience a 'caring' role in practice, compared to the substantial change we saw in relation to abstract perceptions of what male and female roles should be.
People's attitudes on the appropriate gender division between men and women may relate to their views about whether mothers' employment is detrimental for family life and for children. We know about public perceptions of this issue by their responses to the following statements:
A working mother can establish just as warm and secure a relationship with her
children as a mother who does not work
A pre-school child is likely to suffer if his or her mother works
All in all, family life suffers when the woman has a full-time job
On each measure, there has been a clear decline since the questions were first asked in 1989 in the proportion of people who perceive a woman's adoption of a 'breadwinner' role (by having a paid job) as damaging for her children and family. However, it is still evident among a minority, particularly when children of pre-school age are involved. In 1989, six in ten (58 per cent) people agreed that a working mother can establish as warm and secure a relationship with her children as a mother who does not work, but almost three in ten (28 per cent) disagreed. By 2012, almost eight in ten (77 per cent) subscribe to this view, with only one in ten (11 per cent) disagreeing. Similarly, there have been drops in the proportion of people thinking that pre-school children suffer if their mother works (from 46 per cent in 1989 to 30 per cent in 2012), and in the proportion of people expressing the view that family life suffers when the woman has a full-time job (from 42 per cent in 1989 to 27 per cent now).
So, it seems that while attitudes that there should be a clear gender divide - with male breadwinners and female home-keepers - have been almost eradicated (believed by only one in eight people in 2012), when children are involved, substantial minorities of the public still believe that women would prefer to, and indeed should, stay at home rather than take on paid work.
In addition to the measures of how far the public agrees to the statements above, British Social Attitudes has included the following question, asked in relation firstly to when there is a child under school age, and secondly to when their youngest child has started school:
Do you think that women should work outside the home full-time, part-time or not at all under the following circumstances?
We look at people's responses to these two questions to explore further how people's attitudes on women working are influenced by the age of their children - and whether these attitudes have shifted over the past two decades, since the questions were first asked in 1989.
Since 1989, there has been a substantial shift in people's views, particularly about mothers working while their children are under school age. Here, the major shift has been between thinking that mothers should stay at home and thinking they should work part-time. In 1989, two-thirds of the public thought a mother should stay at home with pre-school children; by 2012, the proportion thinking this had dropped to a third. Over the same period, the proportion thinking she should work part-time rose from 26 per cent to 43 per cent. While support remains rare for the idea that a mother with a child below school-age should work full-time, it has doubled from two
per cent in 1989 to five per cent in 2012.
In terms of views about a mother whose children are all of school age, support for her staying at home or working part-time has dropped since 1989, while the proportion holding the view that she should work full-time has increased - from 13 per cent in 1989 to 28 per cent in 2012. Working part-time remains the most popular option (cited by 52 per cent in 2012), although support for this is less pronounced now than it was in 1989 (when 68 per cent agreed a woman with children of school age should work part-time). Interestingly, uncertainty has risen in relation to both circumstances (from six and seven per cent in 1989 to 17 and 16 per cent now) - perhaps resulting from the fact that mothers' actual behaviour is more diverse now than it has been in the past.
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- When this question was originally developed in 1984, it asked about "a husband" and "a wife" rather than "a man" and "a woman". This was replaced by a variant of the question using the latter terminology in 1994.
- In 2002 and later years, answer categories were framed with reference to the respondent - "always me", "usually me", "about equal", "usually spouse/partner" and "always spouse/partner". In 1994 and earlier years, response categories were framed with reference to the gender of the individual performing the specific task - "always the woman", "usually the woman", "equal or both", "usually the man" or "always the man". The data presented in Table 5.6 was re-classified for the later years, to reflect the format in which the question was asked in earlier years.
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