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‘Gendered double standard’ in attitudes to working mothers

11 March 2021 | Tags: British Social Attitudes, gender, equality, families, European Social Survey

The UK public are four times more likely to disapprove of mothers with young children working full-time than fathers in the same situation, according to a new British Social Attitudes report published today by the National Centre for Social Research (NatCen).

The report examines new data collected on the European Social Survey (ESS) in 2018/19 alongside data from 2006/7. In both years, the survey used a distinctive ‘split ballot’ to assign participants questions asking about either women or men at random.

The research highlights how differences in social expectations of mothers and fathers persist in the context of increasingly liberal views about family life.

In 2018/19, 17% of people said they disapproved of mothers with children under 3 working full-time, while 4% expressed this view when asked about fathers.

The gap in attitudes towards mothers and fathers was significantly larger twelve years ago, when 37% in the UK said they disapproved of mothers combining full-time work with childcare, compared with 3% of those asked about fathers.

The results also show how ‘gender traditionalism’ applies to fathers as well as to mothers. Twice as many people in 2018/19 said they would disapprove of a father with young children divorcing (22%) than said they would disapprove of a mother doing the same (12%).

Gillian Prior, Director of Surveys, Data and Analysis at the NatCen said: “With one in six of us taking a disapproving view of women combining full-time work with childcare, there is some distance to travel before we can declare the end of the ‘gendered double standard’ for working mothers with young children. At the same time, these results make clear that traditional views of motherhood are much less prevalent than they were as recently as the mid-2000s.”

The survey, which interviewed 2,394 respondents in 2006/7 and 2,204 respondents in 2018/19, also highlights an overall shift towards more liberal views of ‘non-traditional’ family life:

  • Since 2006/7, every adult generation in the UK has become more accepting of parents combining full-time work with childcare and divorce when children under 12.
  • 52% of people now approve of parents working full-time with young children, an increase from 37% twelve years ago.
  • Around two thirds of the public (66%) expressed approval of at least one ‘non-traditional’ family behaviour in 2018/19, up from around half (53%) in 2006/7.
  • Disapproval of having children outside marriage has fallen from 21% to 12% in the same period, while disapproval for divorcing when a child is under 12 fell from 28% to 16%.

Eric Harrison, Senior Lecturer in Quantitative Sociology at City, University of London and Deputy Director of the ESS said: “The public are half as likely to disapprove of parents having children outside marriage or getting divorced with young children than they were just over ten years ago. This represents a significant shift in our views on family life in a relatively short period.”

Read the British Social Attitudes: Family life report.


For more information please contact:

Oliver Paynel, NatCen Media and Communications Officer
Direct: 0207 549 9550
Mobile: 07734 960 071 

Notes to editors

1. The National Centre for Social Research (NatCen), Britain’s largest independent social research organisation, aims to promote a better-informed society through high quality social research (
2. The European Social Survey (ESS) is a cross-sectional cross-national general social survey, carried out every two years since 2002 in countries across Europe. It is a European Research Infrastructure Consortium (ERIC). Participating countries contribute to the central coordination costs of the ESS ERIC as well as covering the costs of their own fieldwork and national coordination. In the UK these funds are provided by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) ( The views expressed in this report are those of the author and editors alone.
3. The findings are based on interviews conducted on two rounds of the ESS, with respondents aged 15+. In the UK, 2,394 respondents took part in interviews in 2006/7 and 2,204 took part in 2018/19. Views on norms about family behaviour were measured by a set of five items. These were asked as follows:

How much do you approve or disapprove if a woman/man…
…chooses never to have children?
…lives with a partner without being married?
…has a child with a partner she/he lives with but is not married to?
…has a full-time job while she/he has children aged under 3?
…gets divorced while she/he has children aged under 12?

Respondents could answer on a 5-point scale ranging from ‘strongly approve’ to ‘strongly disapprove’. Half the sample was randomly assigned to be asked questions about women and half the sample asked questions about men.