Blogs / 13 May 2024 8 min

The Great Gender Divide: how the ‘Male Ideal Worker’ vs. ‘Mother Track’ paradigm hinders progress for gender equity 

4 things that organisations can do to disrupt the gender divide and promote equity 

 By Dr Priscila Pereira, Director of Research & Innovation, Shape Talent 

In the last century, we have witnessed marked changes in the dynamics of work and family life. Notably, the increasing participation of women in the employment market has weakened the barriers between work and personal spheres. Through three significant stages of social change, there have been some improvements in gender equity, but the ideal worker (male breadwinner) model still influences a considerable proportion of work design slowing down progress significantly. 

Stage 1: Industrial Revolution and the birth of the male breadwinner model- (until 1960’s) 

Before the Industrial Revolution, the domains of work, rest, and recreation were clearly separated. Seasonal demands limited working life to a day and night cycle. At the onset of the Industrial Revolution, the introduction of heavy machinery allowed a surge in industry driven by increased working hours, driving greater productivity.1 

An important social factor in this phase of the Industrial Revolution was that while it obliged workers – mainly male – to commit to long working hours, it offered no provision for childcare. This factor skewed workers towards the single ‘breadwinner’ model where men were obliged to work to earn money while women were obliged to stay at home with the children.2 And this familial model is still predominant today. There were substantial setbacks for women during the COVID pandemic with vast evidence indicating that women were the ones taking most of the childcare and domestic work burden, leading some women to quit employment altogther.3 

Stage 2: Women are pulled to “enter and stay” in employment (during 1960’s)  

At the onset of World War II, there was a significant shift in the predominantly male model of employment. Women were co-opted to work in the manufacturing industries in place of enlisted male workers.  

However, as male workers returned from war combined with unprecedented post-war spike in birth rates, women were sent back home to resume their domestic duties. Nevertheless, the profile of the workforce was still rapidly transforming beyond wartime, largely because of deindustrialisation and a shift from manufacturing to service industries. With deindustrialisation, there were high levels of male unemployment in the manufacturing sector, while women were increasingly drawn into paid service sector work. As a consequence, in the 60s dual-earning couples became the norm for many families across Europe and governments encouraged female employment in order to minimise family poverty and to accommodate the rising costs of the welfare state.4 

Although this drive to engage women in the workplace included those with small children, there was little associated support for childcare, despite the need for women to work in order to supplement the family income. 

Thus, a trend in female employment began to emerge, for child-bearing women to leave full-time employment and instead to pursue part-time or irregular employment so that they could manage both work and childcare. Part-time work began to be promoted as an ideal solution for women to manage work and family, putting aside the reality that their lifetime earnings would be much lower than men’s as a result.5  

Women nowadays are overrepresented in part-time jobs, and this has a negative impact on the quality of their jobs, careers and pension. For example, in the UK, 38% of women engage with part-time work as compared to 14% of men (House of Commons research briefing, 2024). 6 Most recent data shows the Gender Pension Gap (GPeG) at 35%.7 Eurostat reported that in the third quarter of 2022, 48% of women in elementary occupations were part-time workers as compared to 19% of men. Elementary occupations include helpers, cleaners and assistants. 8 Part-time work is one of the most damaging strategies for women when considering economic empowerment but yet, it is the only choice for many.  

So, back when they entered the workforce initially, women were pulled to serve the economy albeit with precarious conditions. Despite much progress and innovation, this is still the case in modern society. It’s not surprising given that the politicians making policies and laws that impact women were and still are men mostly. The political gender gap has a lot to answer in this evolutionary mess.  

Stage 3: Women’s liberation movement and focus on equality at home (late 1960 and 1970 onwards)  

After being exposed to precarious conditions in employment and an unfair designation of unpaid work, the women’s liberation movement beginning in the late 1960’s started influencing social and economic reforms.  

Women put childcare on the agenda, demanding shared responsibilities at home in order to attend full-time paid work. Sweden, for example has led the way in promoting a “shared parenting ideology” since the mid 70s, offering a sustainable approach to gender equality which works to integrate the involvement of men and women in paid work and family demands. This includes men’s participation in the equitable division of care and domestic responsibilities by enabling a decrease in paid working hours and an increase in the hours available for domestic labour and childcare.9  

However, there is still a very strong gender bias in the way the daily demands of the family are managed. Even in Sweden, 50 years since its shared parental leave policy was announced, it has been a long journey to persuade popular opinion and practice to encourage men to take a role as carer in the home.  

The model of the ideal male breadwinner worker and the “mother track” of part-time and flexible work remain unquestioned dominant practices across most cultures in the world, even though the practical demands of the family set-up may have changed. 

4 things organisations can do to support a more equitable working model 

Takeaway #1-Review how you approach work design whether there are still influences from historical notions of productivity from the last century. It is shocking how humans replicate norms through intergenerational influence without challenging and transforming what is required to meet current needs. How can organisations respond? Flexible working needs to be your default design (rather than the exception) for all genders.  

Takeaway #2- Compensate for the delays in statutory reforms to accommodate dual-earner households. Governments worldwide pushed for dual-earner households to drive the economy and release the pressure on welfare states, but they forgot about the children at home. This is not surprising considering the political gender gap and its impact on policy decision-making. How can organisations respond? Organisations can enhance paternity entitlements and create a culture that normalises parental responsibility across all genders by offering equalised parental leave pay and entitlement, and encouraging all genders to take advantage of it. 

Takeaway #3- Watch out for part-time work and its impact on gender equity, particularly your gender pay gap.Although part-time work is still a common strategy for women to reconcile work and family life, it is one of the critical drivers of gender inequality. Part-time work is usually allocated to lower-paid jobs, attracts a lower pension, and often limits career progression and exposure to opportunity, sponsorship, mentoring and visibility within the organisation. How can organisations respond? Consider job sharing for high-profile roles and flexible working instead of part-time roles. Managerial roles should be open to those working different work patterns, whether that be full-time, part-time or job-share. 

Takeaway #4- Equality starts at home. Men face a lot of prejudice when they don’t comply with the ideal male breadwinner worker, so pay extra attention to normalising flexible working for men and equalising working hours between men and women (actual as well as contractual hours). How can organisations respond? Make sure working hours by gender is one of your metrics in your EDI dashboard. This way men can become available to do their fair share at home while competing more fairly with their female counterparts at work.  


Dr Priscila Pereira is the Director of Innovation and Research at Shape Talent Ltd, the diversity, equity and inclusion experts for complex multinational organisations who are serious about gender equality – and what it can achieve for their business. 

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  1. Brough, P., Holt, J., Bauld, R., Biggs, A. and Ryan, C. (2008). The ability of work-life balance policies to influence key social/organisational issues. Asia Pacific Journal of Human Resources, 46(3), 261–273. 
  2. Crompton, R. and Lyonette, C. (2006). Work life “balance” in Europe. Acta Sociologica, 49(4), 379–393. 
  3. Sharon Peake (2021). Three Barriers to Women’s Progression – What organisations can do – Shape Talent  
  4. Crompton, R., Lewis, S. and Lyonette, C. (2007). Women, Men, Work and Family in Europe. London: Palgrave Macmillan. 
  5. Tomlinson, J. and Durbin, S. (2010). Female part-time managers: Work-life balance, aspirations and career mobility. Equality, Diversity and Inclusion: An International Journal, 29(3), 255–270. 
  9. Haas, L., Hwang, P. and Russell, G. (2000). Organizational Change and Gender Equity: International Perspectives on Fathers and Mothers at the Workplace. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.