The number of women in the workplace may be growing, but attitudes to financial protection are stuck in the 1970s, it was claimed this week.

According to insurer AXA, nearly half of all working women do not have any form of financial protection despite a significant increase in their economic activity over the past 30 years and the dramatic rise in female breadwinners.

The number of women of working age is projected to overtake the number of men of working age in 2018. But AXA said its research shows that the eight million working women who do not have life insurance, critical illness or income protection cover could potentially face serious financial shortfalls if they fall ill or lose their jobs.

One in nine women will be diagnosed with breast cancer in her lifetime, resulting in severe emotional and financial strain.

While the average annual earnings of women are still not quite level with men (£20,476 compared with £26,297), the past 30 years have seen a significant rise in female employment and changing family roles, with more women than ever contributing significantly to their own or their families’ incomes.

One in four women will be the main breadwinner in homes by 2030, while women will own the bulk of Britain’s wealth in 20 years. Women set up 30 per cent of businesses in the UK and 25 per cent of all businesses are already run by women.

Despite being more financially independent than ever before, AXA’s own research shows that more than one in four uninsured women might want to rely on their partner’s insurance protection should things take a turn for the worse, which is an attitude more suited to the 1970s.

As AXA points out, this protection is only likely to cover their partner’s earnings not their combined income.

Iain Mallon, head of protection at AXA, said: “We have seen a significant shift in the role of women since the 1970s.

“However, this shift has not been replicated in women’s attitudes towards protection cover.

“The noughties is an era in which women have greater control than ever before over their lives and their finances but they are still failing to recognise their own financial and lifestyle developments in their protection cover.

“Unlike during the 1970’s, women becoming ill and unable to work now could have significant financial implications for the whole family.”

The key findings by AXA include:

* Since 1978 the average annual household income has more than doubled

* Women are more likely to be working (both full time and part time) with the number of economically inactive women falling from 36.7 per cent in 1978 to 26.4 per cent in 2007. In stark contrast, men today are more than twice as likely to be economically inactive (16.4 per cent compared with 7.9 per cent in 1978).

* Women born in 1950 can expect to spend a quarter of their lives in the “family stage”, with young dependent children.

For those born in the 21st century this will reduce to less than a fifth.

* More and more people of working age are living on their own – eight per cent in 1981 compared with 14 per cent in 2007 – and the majority are women.n Since 1981, the number of lone parent households has more than doubled, from six per cent of all households to 12 per cent in 2007; and the number of lone mother families with two children has doubled from four per cent to eight per cent.n Fifty per cent of women across Britain have no form of life insurance, life assurance, critical illness protection or income protection.

* Nearly half (46 per cent) of all working women have no form of protection; 40 per cent of women with dependants do not have any form of life insurance cover; 43 per cent of women with financial commitments do not have any form of insurance; and 55 per cent of women without insurance, have ongoing mortgage or rental commitments, should the worst happen.

* Just 19 per cent of insured women without a partner believe they have adequate insurance should they lose their job.