And if so, should women bow out of the workplace? Aminatta Forna on the big question of sex and society
Funny to think the latest gender battlefield was identified by Wham! "Wham, bam, I am a man, job or no job, you can't tell me that I'm not." Radio stations refused to play a record which glorified life on the dole. But George and Andrew went on defiantly singing that male identity did not depend on work. Were they right? More than ten years later, life on the dole looks increasingly like a male preserve. There are 1,124,300 men out of work, compared with only 340,000 women. And while it's hard to take statistics at face value, the sheer scale of the imbalance is enough to say that something is going terribly wrong.

The writer Melanie Phillips, in a paper for the Social Market Foundation, recently offered a solution. If there were fewer women in the workplace there would be more jobs for the boys. She said what some still privately think - that men deserve work more than women, and that women have taken jobs that rightfully belong to men. But do men really need work more?

"Despite the whole equality thing, men still need to feel they are the providers," says Eric, 40 and a father of three. A successful architect, he is the archetypal white-collar male provider. The idea of a bread- winning "instinct" is part of a philosophy which traditionally places men at the head of the family. In this view of the world, all the work is given to strong and caring men who then share it equally with their female mates. Yet this begs the question why there are now so many lone mothers struggling on their own in the first place.

"Men attach more importance and status to work," says Jayne, who worked part-time while her husband earned the main income. The idea that men require work for their self-esteem and sense of identity is popular and tied in closely with their perception of themselves. Her husband, Huw, says "work isn't necessary to Jayne the way it is to me". And adds that, for most of the men he works with, peer group opinion is intensely important.

Marianne, an advertising executive expecting her second child, observed how "dislocated" her husband became during a period of unemployment. In addition, several women offered warnings in the form of anecdotal accounts of role swaps which had caused marriages to break down. "Women find it hard to understand why men gain so much self-image from work," reports Relate counsellor Julia Cole.

But women can become bored at home with nothing to occupy themselves but housework and children. Isn't that what housewives feel when they complain about being socially invisible? The "problem with no name" is what got feminism off to a kick start in America decades ago. And there's new evidence as well, that women today increasingly link their self-identity to work, according to Melanie Howard, director of the Future Foundation, and who has recently concluded a study of 500 young women and their attitudes to work in association with Channel 4. "Women have now been raised with the same expectations as men," she says. And research from the Department of Applied Social Studies in Oxford of 3,000 girls confirms her findings: researchers termed them the "Can Do" girls - the new generation.

But the concurrently rising crime rate and figures for male unemployment seem to provide a more urgent imperative to find work for jobless men. Right-wing commentators emphasise the link between crime and idleness and hold women responsible for taking jobs which do not rightfully belong to them. But today the unemployment/crime parallel is being rethought. "If it were that simple there would have been a massive crimewave during the Thirties, which there wasn't," says Demos deputy director Ian Christie. Indeed, a forthcoming Demos report on young men reveals that it is the "expectation gap" between what impoverished young men think they are owed and what they are likely to get, and the resentment that produces, which leads to violence. "They still don't know they have to work hard. They still expect there to be something for them but the employment landscape has totally changed," explains George Lawson, also of Demos.

Interestingly, many men and women I spoke to thought that, nowadays, women might need jobs more than men. For most women the decision to work is about independence, which is not some form of female supremacy, as Phillips suggested. They live in a world where marriages fail and men walk out or just become ill or injured and unable to work. They live in the real world.

Joyce, aged 53, while comfortably married to an accountant, has always worked. She says: "Men often don't do their job as breadwinners, they don't always care and they leave their wives and children." A man in his thirties confessed that every single one of his divorced male friends fought tooth and nail to avoid giving anything at all to their exes. And the existence and efforts of the Child Support Agency are testimony to the shortcomings of some of the male population.

In fact, the issue of child support led a number of people of both sexes to remark that if anyone needed a job more it was probably women on account of their obligations to their children. Ben, a 31-year-old comedian, says: "More often than not it's the women who keep the kids, so perhaps they deserve the jobs." And Virginia, a divorced, single mother said firmly: "Women need work more." Moreover plenty of women, and increasingly more, do not have husbands: one in three households consists of single people, of which the majority are female. Men also die sooner, leaving many elderly women without support. More women are taking financial responsibility for the family. In one in five households, the woman now earns more than the man, although almost all rely on two incomes.

But there exists a parallel reality in which, despite this growing evidence, both men and women continue to behave as though a man's work is more necessary, thus fuelling a self-fulfilling prophecy. It is still the woman who is expected to make the necessary sacrifices when push comes to shove. (One woman I spoke to pointed to the examples of Cherie Booth and Hilary Clinton in this regard.) Among the middle classes, men's jobs also become more important because they command higher salaries. "He earns more than I do, so I guess we need his work more," says Diane, who is married to Eric and now works in his business.

Some women themselves regard their own work as important but perhaps not essential, which allows them the freedom to take career breaks or change direction in a way that their husbands cannot. Jayne explained that, unlike her husband, she had a variety of interests beyond work, which made a job less necessary to her. But this is a luxury unique to the affluent. Howard explains: "It would be much more sensible to look at [who needs] work in terms of class than gender. That has far more to do with it."

But the one area of work that largely remains gendered along traditional lines is childcare. Research says that the majority of people believe a mother should be at home, certainly in the early years of a child's life. And a major study from the Family Policy Studies Centre demonstrates that, across the board in households, it is women who look after the children. This also is true even if the man is unemployed! Outside a liberal minority, men overwhelmingly still "don't do" childcare. This has resulted in a situation where women have two roles: worker and principal parent, and men only have one. To some, that means that men should take priority if there is only limited work available.

We cannot go on thinking of most women principally as mothers for long. Fewer women are having children (40 per cent of 33 year olds are still childless), they have fewer, later and live longer overall. In short, women as a whole spend much less time mothering. What the new traditionalists also fail to take account of is the fact that, just as many men refuse to do domestic tasks because they believe it is women's work, they hold precisely the same view of the kind of new job economists predict will be created in the next decade. These are jobs in the service sector, often part-time and relying on skills, such as clerical skills, which more women currently hold.

The Demos report, which will be published early next year, reveals that not only would men refuse to do these jobs, they couldn't do them if they were handed to them on a plate. Young men really need to be helped to acquire the skills and the attitude to enable them to compete fairly in the new job market. There has been a revolution in work which has brought benefits to new generations of women. But you can't stop a revolution halfway through. When I was at school, all the girls were taught how to change an electrical plug, which was justified as necessary as well as progressive. Well, now it's time to teach the boys to type.