What women want: evidence from British Social Attitudes

Geoff Dench, Hera Trust, 2010, xiii + 154pp, £12.95, ISBN 9780952352952

This is a review by Norman Wells of the Family Education Trust and is reproduced here with kind permission.

In this report, Professor Geoff Dench of the Young Foundation questions the common assumption that women in Britain have freely chosen to leave the domestic sphere in order to take a fuller part in the labour market without any regrets. Drawing extensively on British Social Attitudes (BSA) surveys, he shows that family life comes much higher in the scale of priorities of most women than work outside the home, that family life suffers when women put work first, and that being a housewife is a rewarding role.

The fact that working mothers have always shown a preference for part-time work is indicative of a desire to keep work subordinate to family and community life, and Professor Dench suggests that the decline in the proportion of mothers in the labour market over the past five years furnishes evidence of a return to more traditional views and patterns of family life, particularly among younger mothers. He argues that: ‘Policy-makers urgently need to face up to the fact that the values underlying much social policy may not match the desires of women to the extent that they have assumed.’

The BSA data reveal a growing disinclination to work among single mothers over recent years and Professor Dench notes that rising rates of lone parenthood have coincided with relatively generous levels of government support and low rates of employment among young men. He comments: ‘As long as policymakers give priority to getting women into work, push gender quotas for jobs that women don’t want to do, and are quick to provide independent homes for young single mothers, then they chip away at men’s motivation to work and in the process reduce women’s reasons to marry them.’

Female independence backfires

It is at this point that the promotion of female independence in the education system and in popular culture has backfired. In previous generations, boys were brought up to be conscientious and reliable workers in the knowledge that one day they would need to provide for their families. Now, however, it is no longer necessary for a woman to be dependent on a man: she can either support herself independently or she can be provided for by the state. The effect of this development on the attitudes and behaviour of men has received little attention, yet as Professor Dench observes: ‘The traditional full-time housewife may be more productive economically than usually given credit for. She helps motivate a full-time working man who might otherwise be dependent on the state himself or even drift into anti-social behaviour and criminality.’

Rather than pursuing policies aimed at increasing the participation of women in the workforce, the pressing need is to tackle male worklessness and to bring men back into useful, productive roles in families and the community: ‘Men tied into extended families as partners, and best of all as husbands, are far more motivated to hold down jobs and perform other roles in the community in order to increase family capital. On the other hand, those who are liberated from such responsibilities are not merely less useful, but are also much more likely to become a drain on society, by drifting into disorganised states and criminality.’

Ordinary women alienated

There have never been more women in Parliament and occupying senior positions in Whitehall and yet the BSA data show that ordinary women are feeling increasingly alienated from the political process. Professor Dench argues that this is because the minority view of middle class careerists has been dominant and the concerns and interests of ordinary women have been squeezed out of the public debate. Ironically, ordinary women feel that their views are less well represented now than they were in the past when they were mediated through men.

We are indebted to Professor Dench for bringing out into the open findings which have hitherto received very little publicity. The uncomfortable truths contained in this book demand an urgent reappraisal of policies which have undermined the importance of the domestic sphere for the welfare of children, families, communities, and of society as a whole.

Copies of What Women Want are available from the Family Education Trust office priced at £8.00, inc p&p.

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One Response to “What women want: evidence from British Social Attitudes”

  1. Jude Says:

    Not sure about this one- men without families/ wives might end up in criminal activity???? Eh? Sounds a bit daft to me….

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