A revolution has taken place in this country over the past 30 years. As a result of feminist pressure, the shift in our economy from manufacturing to services and the long and deep recession, women now play a dramatically larger part in the workforce than ever before. Their earnings play a huge and rapidly increasing role in the survival and prosperity of the nation's families. As we report today, 83 per cent more mothers are working than 15 years ago, 2.2 million mothers are now their families' main breadwinners – contributing more to the family income than the men – and more than half the nation's household earnings are provided by working women.
This is a revolution to cheer. Attitudes to gender may evolve with glacial slowness, but for those who would like to send women back to the kitchen and define them once again in terms of childrearing and homemaking, the message is that those times are gone for good. We are in a different age now. Without the earnings of Britain's women, Britain would sink.
We are, though, some way yet from the new Jerusalem. As the IPPR's report spells out, these important advances cloak a multitude of abuses and failings which continue to limit the roles women can play and lock couples into antiquated ideas about gender roles. To a large extent, this is a revolution that has been won despite the failure of successive governments to recognise and respond to the changes taking place under their noses.
Childcare is the most obvious example of this. It is striking that it is among better-educated women and those in their twenties that the advances of women in the workplace have been most impressive. More than a third of women with degree-level qualifications now earn more than their male partner, a steep rise over the past 14 years, while for working women in their twenties, gender pay differentials have almost disappeared.
What these facts underline is that it is those women less burdened with child care challenges – either because they have not yet become mothers, or because their earnings are at a level where they can afford the market price – who are finding it easiest to fulfil their professional potential. For the less educated, by contrast, those in lower-skilled and worse paid jobs, the problem of how to care for young children remains formidable: the cost of nursery school places has soared 77 per cent in real terms in the past 10 years. The report's authors argue for universal child care provision, which could make it possible for millions of women still trapped at home to enter the workforce, providing a net return to the exchequer.
The other major reform which could improve the situation dramatically concerns flexibility. Once they have become mothers, even today women often need to be far more flexible than their partners in terms of working hours, in order to fulfil their traditional role as carers. It is time employers and lawmakers got to grips with the new reality. In Germany, there is a scheme called Familienpflegezeit (family caring time), from which we could learn much. The release of the IPPR's report was timed to coincide with the end of the Duke of Cambridge's statutory fortnight's paternity leave. That brief interlude may be enough for the Cambridges; for the rest of us, far more flexibility and the removal of the vestiges of gender prejudice regarding maternity and paternity leave are essential.
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