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The growing participation of mothers in the workforce – a major social change in the UK

The position of women in the UK labour market has come under close scrutiny this year, first with the publication of data on the gender pay gap and now with a study by the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) showing that the proportion of mothers who are in paid employment has grown significantly over the past 40 years. A quiet revolution has been taking place with the participation of all women in the labour market growing – a trend that seems likely to continue.

Let’s look at the figures first before examining the causes of this trend.

The IFS survey shows that the proportion of mothers aged 25 to 54 in employment grew from 52% in 1975 to 75% in 2015. The growth of participation in the workforce has been most pronounced amongst women with pre-school age children, those with children of primary school age and single mothers. This increase in the rate of employment of mothers is part of a wider picture of growing female participation in the workplace. In the 1970s only around 60% of women aged 25 to 54 were in paid employment. By 2017 this had risen to 78%.

The potential reasons for this growth in participation – particularly amongst women with children – are numerous. Clearly one motive is to boost household income and provide a higher standard of living for families.

But there is more to it than simple economics. The IFS study finds that women are having children less frequently and later in life than in past decades. This has helped to raise the proportion of women in employment. Additionally women are now less likely than in previous decades to give up work - at least entirely - when they do have children. Greater availability of pre-school nurseries has probably helped here.

But over-arching all of these explanations must be the social change in recent decades where, regardless of household finances, it has now become increasingly the norm for a women to continue with her career after starting a family. The social stigma of being a working mother (of young children) - a stigma I witnessed in the 1960s, 1970s and even the 1980s - is now largely a relic of the past.

With this growing participation in the labour market and with careers not being interrupted we should expect other developments in the position of women in the workplace - particularly when it comes to that ‘pay gap’. The recent BBC study showed that 78% of 10,000 companies surveyed paid the female employees less on average than their male staff. Surely this figure will fall in the coming years particularly as starting a family increasingly does not mean suspending a career.


Martin Upton

Director, True Potential Centre for the Public Understanding of Finance (True Potential PUFin)

27th April 2018

True Potential PUFin is based at the Open University Business School in Milton Keynes, UK

True Potential PUFin is the first and only personal finance research centre in the UK that has an active teaching programme freely available to the public. Supported by the University’s excellence in delivering distance learning, the Centre is uniquely positioned to develop the public’s financial capability and to research the impact and effectiveness of its education programme.

True Potential PUFin is supported by a five-year programme of financial support provided by True Potential LLP.

The views of True Potential PUFin academics do not necessarily reflect the views of True Potential LLP

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