Page last updated at 10:26 GMT, Wednesday, 6 August 2008 11:26 UK

'Support for working mums falls'

A mother and baby
A UK mother is entitled to a year off

Growing numbers of people are concerned about the impact of working mothers on family life, a survey by Cambridge University suggests.

It compared results of social attitude polls from the 1980s, 1990s and 2000s.

In 1998, 51% of women and 45.9% of men believed family life would not suffer if a woman went to work.

This had fallen to 46% of women and 42% of men in 2002, amid "growing sympathy" for the old-fashioned view women should be in the home and not the workplace.

'Super mum'

The survey, which questioned between 1,000 and 5,000 people, was conducted by Professor Jacqueline Scott from the university's department of sociology.

She used recent data from the International Social Survey Programme and older polls.

Until workplaces start to offer true flexibility, it will be very difficult to be both employee and parent
Rachel, Maidenhead

Professor Scott said the idea that support was steadily growing for women taking an equal role in the workplace, rather than their traditional role in the home was "clearly a myth".

She added: "Instead, there is clear evidence that women's changing role is viewed as having costs both for the woman and the family.

"It is conceivable that opinions are shifting as the shine of the 'super-mum' syndrome wears off, and the idea of women juggling high-powered careers while also baking cookies and reading bedtime stories is increasingly seen to be unrealisable by ordinary mortals."

Overseas figures

Yet, it also showed the numbers of people who believed it was the man's role to work and the wife's to look after the children had fallen.

In 1984, 59.2% of women and 65.5% of men believed that was the case, compared to 31.1% of women and 41.1% of men in 2002.

Women, particularly mothers, can experience considerable strain when attitudes reinforce the notion that employment and family interests conflict
Professor Scott

The survey focuses on results from Britain, the US and, because the earlier surveys pre-dated the fall of the Berlin Wall, the former Federal Republic of Germany.

In the US the percentage of people arguing that family life does not suffer if a woman works has plummeted, from 51% in 1994 to 38% in 2002.

About the same number of West Germans (37%) agree; but the number there has risen, having been just 24% in the mid-1990s.

'Considerable strain'

The report adds there should now be further investigation to understand why the attitude shift is occurring.

It asks whether this is because caring for the family is seen as women's work, or because people feel there is no practical alternative to a woman taking the role.

Prof Scott said a change in attitude was not the same thing as a change in behaviour, but it mattered.

She said: "Women, particularly mothers, can experience considerable strain when attitudes reinforce the notion that employment and family interests conflict.

"If we are to make progress in devising policies that encourage equal working opportunities for women, we need to know more about what gender roles people view as practical, as possible and as fair."

'Transformation needed'

Meanwhile, the Fawcett Society, which campaigns for equality between women and men in the UK on pay and pensions, said attempts to force women into a male-created workplace were failing.

Its campaigns officer Kat Banyard said: "The long working hours culture and lack of flexible working means women are presented with impossible choices - forced to choose between caring for a family at home or maximising their career opportunities.

"The result is that motherhood carries a penalty and women and men are strait-jacketed by gender stereotypes.

"We need wholesale transformation."

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