A new report from ippr, by Dalia Ben-Galim and Spencer Thomson, looks at how many women are now breadwinners.  The answer is, of course, many more than there used to be.

Who counts as a ‘breadwinner’?  The report defines it as someone who earns as much or more as their partner, or is the sole earner.    On this basis there are now 2.2 million female breadwinners, up by a million since 1996.  1 in 3 working women are now the breadwinner (don’t forget, this includes a lot of single mums, 43% of whom are now employed).

The definition covers a huge variety of circumstances.  It includes a solo working mother alongside a corporate lawyer who earns just more than her high-earning husband and someone who earns modestly but nevertheless is the main income source in the family.  There is obviously a massive difference between a 50%+1 situation, and a 100/0 or even 80/20.    (A thought:  what is the respective impact on the male psyche of these differing circumstances?)

Interestingly the report shows that where there are two earners the biggest growth has been in women who bring in between 40 and 50% of the total income (all these figures refer only to earned income, not to benefits).  This is more or less what one might expect, and it seems to me to reflect – although of course not fully/adequately –  women’s increased qualifications and skills.

The female breadwinner is most common amongst older couples.  37% of those aged 45+ were the main earner.  I assume that is because more of these had had the chance to build up their careers after child-rearing, though in some cases it will be because the male partner has retired.  It’s another argument for taking a lifecourse perspective, looking at careers over time.

In the section on policy implications, one very interesting innovation  gets a mention: Familiepflegenzeit, from Germany.  This is a way of helping flexible employment by smoothing income over time.  It allows people (mainly women) to reduce their hours by up to 15% for caring responsibilities.  They get a reduced salary, but the reduction is less than the reduction in hours.   Then when they return to work they continue with the reduced salary until they have paid off the difference.  As the report says, “this more creative approach demonstrates there are ways to develop the potential of more flexible work.”



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