Understanding Society - Gender and Work in Scotland: research findings

Analyses data from Understanding Society on mothers returning to work and gender roles and attitudes


This report has used data from Understanding Society to investigate two aspects of gender and work: the intentions of new mothers to return to employment and their frequency of doing so; and the gender roles and attitudes of married mothers and fathers. On the whole, the findings reinforce those from similar studies and therefore strengthen the evidence base in these areas.

Mothers Returning to Employment

The fact that women are more likely than men to be out of employment due to caring responsibilities, and more likely to move into part-time employment after having a child, is well established.[4] Other research on barriers to maternal employment has cited lack of suitable jobs, childcare issues, a preference for caring for children, a lack of qualifications and experience, and issues organising transport. [5] Mothers are more likely to sacrifice employment than fathers for a variety of reasons, including the fact that fathers often receive a higher salary as well as social expectations around gender roles.[6] Research has also shown that mothers who do return to employment often shift to lower-paid jobs and, even if they continue in the same job, are less likely to gain promotion.[7]

A particularly relevant finding of the present research is that patterns of maternal employment were especially pronounced for mothers in the Scottish Government's child poverty priority groups, who were less likely to be employed when the newborn was first recorded and more likely to be carrying out family care. A report on the Growing Up in Scotland study similarly found that single mothers, those with less qualifications, those with multiple children, and those with children with long-term health conditions were less likely to return to employment by the time the child was 5. This highlights the linkage between child poverty and maternal employment, as recognised in the Scottish Government's action plans on child poverty and the gender pay gap.[8]

Gender Roles and Attitudes

The findings of this report relating to gender roles and attitudes are in line with the body of research in this area, including the latest Time Use Survey for Scotland (2014-15) and the latest British Social Attitudes Survey (2019).[9] These sources confirm, for example, that women tend to spend more time on house work than men and to have more progressive attitudes towards gender roles. The present research has shown, however, that gender roles and attitudes vary by employment status, with married women in employment tending to have more progressive gender attitudes and to spend less time on house work than married women out of employment.

This research is complemented by the findings of the British Social Attitudes Survey, which, unlike this report, considers changes in gender attitudes over time.[10] Although separate results are not available for Scotland, the Survey found that support for various forms of gender equality, including in terms of employment and childcare responsibilities, had increased in recent years. For example, in 2012, 31% of respondents thought that the best way for a family with a child under school age to organise their life was for the mother to stay at home and the father to be employed full-time. By 2018, this figure had dropped to 19%. This is in contrast to the present research, which found that younger cohorts were no more likely to have progressive gender attitudes. If both of these findings are correct, the implication is that recent changes in gender attitudes are not necessarily generational in nature but have rather been shared across age groups.


Email: Spencer.Thompson@gov.scot

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