Britons may have seen a recent news story from the Office of National Statistics showing that three quarters of all mums now work. 

Our analysis shows that, among the remaining quarter of families with only one earner, it’s invariably dad who works and mum who stays at home.

What may surprise you is that this ratio hasn’t changed in any meaningful way despite two decades of public policy and social pressure and paternity leave to encourage both parents into work.

This chart shows just how little change there has been. It comes from a one page briefing note I have just published for Marriage Foundation.

Have a look at the extraordinary consistency over the past two decades since 1999.

In one earner families, it is overwhelmingly the case that dad is the earner and mum is the stay-at-home parent.

For those with a child under four, 90 percent of one earner parents in 2019 were dads and 90 percent of stay-at-home parents were mums. That proportion has remained within a narrow range between 87 and 94 percent.

For those with older children, not surprisingly, more mums are breadwinners. But around 80 per cent of the time, it’s still dad who works and mum who stays at home.

In other words, despite all the public policies, tax breaks, incentives and other social pressure to put more dads in charge of child care and mums in work, there is no evidence whatsoever of any change in family roles. Nothing has changed. Nothing!

What has changed, and only recently, is the proportion of one earner parents with younger children.

From 1999 until 2016, around one third of families of children under four had one parent at home. It’s only since 2017 that there has been any real sign of change, with the proportion dropping to 27 per cent. This looks like the beginning of a new trend that may well be related to the roll-out of Universal Credit, which is aimed at encouraging more young parents into work. 

Among families with older children, once again, there has been little sign of change in the proportion of one earner families.

As a father of both daughters and sons, I am a huge champion of equal opportunities for both women and men alike. In our house, we are dismissive of the concept of glass ceilings for Benson women or Benson men. If you want to achieve something, we say, have a go. You can do it. Whether builder, nurse, actor, doctor, teacher, financier, entrepreneur, engineer, programmer, Prime Minister, somebody has to do it. It might as well be you.

But even if men and women have equal capacity for different working roles, what this evidence shows is that they don’t necessarily have equal orientation to family roles.

Men and women are different in the way they do family for one obvious and compelling reason.

Women have babies and men don’t.

It’s this that influences family orientation and preferences. Not always but in general. I wrote about this issue for my book ‘What Mums Want and Dads Need to Know‘. 

So it’s hardly surprising that in families where one parent stays at home, it’s going to be mum. Not always but in general.

Human nature is like that. In this case, 90 percent of the time.

Harry Benson is Research Director of the Marriage Foundation, a UK charity championing marriage for the good of society. This article is republished from the MF blog.

Carolyn Moynihan

Carolyn Moynihan

Carolyn Moynihan is a New Zealand journalist with a special interest in family issues. She began her working life as a secondary school teacher but always fancied the life of the scribe. Too late, she...