Home News & eventsBlogsThe Workflex Blog What should mums and dads do? Changes in attitudes towards parenting

What should mums and dads do? Changes in attitudes towards parenting

Published: 24 Mar 2017

Manchester University’s Helen Norman, Colette Fagan and Laura Watt discuss the disparity between changing attitudes about gender roles and putting them into practice.

More women are in paid work than ever before yet they still spend more time on unpaid work than men. Even in countries that have introduced policy measures to support a more gender equal sharing of parenting and household tasks such as in Sweden, Norway – and even the UK where gender equality legislation has been in place since the 1970s (see Fagan, Teasdale and Norman 2017) – women still spend around twice as long on housework and childcare compared to men (Eurofound 2016).

What’s more, time spent in the labour market does not appear to impact on this. In most countries, women’s total working time (i.e. paid and unpaid work hours combined) is much higher than men’s, even if they work shorter hours in employment (see Eurofound 2016). Recent analysis of the European Social Survey, which covers 30,000 men and women across the EU27 and Israel, shows that women do more housework even if they are employed and their partners are unemployed (van der Lippe et al. 2017). This suggests that a ‘double shift’ of (paid and unpaid) work prevails for the majority of women today.

Are attitudes towards gender roles changing?

Contrary to behaviour, attitudes towards gender roles are changing in favour of a more equal sharing of responsibilities (see graph below). According to the British Social Attitudes survey (covering around 3,000 people living in Great Britain):

  • In 2012 only 13% of men and women agreed that a man’s job is to earn money and a woman’s job is to look after the home and family – down markedly from 48% in 1987;
  • In 2012 nearly two in three (62%) men and women agreed that both men and women should contribute to the household income, up from just over half (53%) in 1989.

Attitudes towards mothers’ employment are also changing:

  • By 2012 one third of the population agreed that a mother should stay at home rather than go out to work when there is a child under school age, down from two-thirds in 1989;
  • In 2012, the proportion of men and women who agreed with the statement that “a pre-school child is likely to suffer if his or her mother works” was less than a third (30%) compared to just under a half (46%) in 1989;
  • Between 1989 and 2012, the proportion who believed “family life suffers when the woman has a full-time job” fell from 42% to 27%.

Changes in attitudes towards gender roles, 1987-2012


Our own analysis of the UK’s 2000-01 Millennium Cohort study (MCS) suggests that fathers are more likely than mothers to have traditional attitudes about the mother’s parenting role: one quarter (24%) of mothers and one third (34%) of fathers with at least one dependent child under the age of one agreed that children suffer if the mother has paid employment before the child starts school. However, the overwhelming majority of both fathers and mothers (approximately 90%) agreed that a father should be as closely involved in the child’s upbringing as the mother.

If attitudes towards gender roles are becoming more egalitarian, why is there such a mismatch with practice?

When couples have children, parents often assume more traditional gender roles. There are several explanations for this.

First, work-family policies have traditionally focussed on supporting the mother, rather than the father, to adapt her employment hours and schedules after having children (see Norman and Fagan 2017). For example, the mother is encouraged to take time off via a long period of maternity leave, she is more likely to request and take up flexible working and the lack of affordable and flexible childcare makes it difficult for a mother to find a job that is compatible.

Although the Government has promised to increase the current statutory childcare entitlement from 15 to 30 hours a week from September 2017, the provision needs to be flexible in order to be compatible with full-time employment. In 2015, average full-time hours in the UK were recorded to be much longer than 30 hours (42.9 per week) (Eurostat 2016) suggesting the provision will not align with many full-time jobs.

The introduction of Shared Parental Leave (SPL), which allows parents to share up to 50 weeks of leave and receive statutory pay previously only available to the mother, is a step in the right direction because it is a policy which recognises the importance of a father’s role at home. However, only a minority of fathers are taking it up because they cannot afford to, the policy is too complex and/or their partner is reluctant to give up part of their entitlement (e.g. see My Family Care 2016; Working Families 2016; Norman and Fagan 2017).

Second, the long-hours culture of the UK workplace continues to put pressure on full-timers to work long hours and be constantly available (e.g. see Working Families 2017). This mainly affects men because there is still a prevalent expectation that fathers should provide for their families through earning an income, as well as being involved in childcare at home (Norman 2015; Dermott 2008). UK fathers have the second longest working hours in Europe (behind Greece) working an average of 44.6 hours per week (Modern Fatherhood 2016); and long hours of work have a negative impact on paternal involvement in childcare at home as we discovered in our earlier research (see Norman et al. 2014; Fagan and Norman 2016).

Third, the gender pay gap increases the likelihood that the father will earn more than the mother, creating a short-term financial logic for the father to invest his time in employment and the mother to leave employment or switch to part-time hours to care for young children.

Will parity in gender roles ever be reached?

Cultural ideals about ‘good parenting’ still exist, which means parents have to navigate within strongly held social norms about what the socially acceptable or ‘proper’ way to combine employment and parenting is (Duncan 2006). Some parents favour the mother not being employed when there is a pre-school child to care for, but the proportion of parents who think it is acceptable for mothers to be employed (and employed full-time) has increased (e.g. Park et al. 2013; also see Working Families 2017)

It is important to create the conditions in which parents can secure their preferred arrangements for parenting and employment. This will only happen if we create a context in which mothers are supported back into employment and fathers are supported to be more involved at home. Closing the gender pay gap, addressing the long hours culture through limits on long hours of work, improving work-family reconciliation rights for fathers via well paid parental leave and opportunities for flexible working, and ensuring families have access to good quality, affordable and flexible childcare will help in this respect by challenging ideas that it is mothers who should devote most of their time to childrearing and unpaid domestic work, while fathers spend more time in paid work.


Dermott, E. (2008) Intimate Fatherhood: a sociological analysis, Routledge: London

Duncan, S. (2006). Mothers’ work-life balance: individualized preferences or cultural construction in “Gender Divisions and Working Time in the New Economy: Changing Patterns of Work, Care and Public Policy in Europe and North America”. D. Perrons, C. Fagan, L. McDowell, K. Ray and K. Ward. Cheltenham, Edward Elgar.

Eurostat (2016) Average number of usual weekly hours of work in main job

Fagan, C., Norman, H. (2016) Which fathers are involved in caring for pre-school age children in the UK? A longitudinal analysis of the influence of work hours in employment on shared childcare arrangements in couple households in Crespi, I. and Ruspini, E. (eds): Balancing Work and Family in a Changing Society: The Fathers’ Perspective, Palgrave Macmillan.

Fagan, C., Teasdale, N., Norman, H. (2017) #BeBoldForChange: Taking stock of gender inequalities in the UK in the face of Brexit, Manchester Policy Blogs

Modern Fatherhood (2016)UK parents no longer work the longest hours in the EU, press release, 24 March 2016

My Family Care (2016): Shared Parental Leave – One Year On – Where Are We Now?

Norman, H. (2015) Paternal involvement in childcare: how can it be classified and what are the key influences, Families, Relationships and Societies

Norman, H., Elliot, M., Fagan, C. (2014) Which fathers are the most involved in taking care of their toddlers in the UK? An investigation of the predictors of paternal involvement, Community, Work & Family, 17:2, 163-180

Norman, H., Fagan, C. (2017) What makes fathers involved in their children’s upbringing? Working Families Workflex blog

Park, A., Bryson, C., Clery, E., Curtice, J. and Phillips, M. (eds.) (2013), British Social Attitudes: the 30th Report, London: NatCen Social Research

Van der Lippe, T., Treas, J., Norbutas, L. (2017) Unemployment and the division of housework in Europe, Work, Employment and Society, 1-20

Working Families (2017): Modern Families Index 2017, Working Families and Bright Horizons

Working Families (2016): Shared parental leave: the perspective from employers January 2016, Working Families Briefing


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