5 Significant Moments in the History of Working Women
Nearly a century ago, women in the UK weren’t allowed to own property, serve on a jury, open a bank account, drink unaccompanied in a pub or work in a legal or civil service job. Today, the gender landscape is so far from what our grandmothers and great grandmothers experienced – and there are no signs of it slowing down.
Though we may still have a way to go to reach that golden state of balance, we can’t help but stop and revel in the amazing women that came before us, making strides and sacrifices that shaped the modern working world.
In honour of International Women’s Day and the campaign to #BreakTheBias, we want to take a moment to celebrate the astonishing women that changed the course of history forever, making the working world a more inclusive space. Here are five significant moments in the history of working women in the UK.
1. A shift in gender roles: WWI & WWII
Before the first world war, life for Britain’s women was traditionally guided by domestic responsibilities. Their place was in the home, but the air was stagnant with unease. With the rise of the Suffragettes, more women were finding their voices and speaking out for change, but it wasn’t until the global outbreak of war that they were able to start shifting the gender dynamics. World War One allowed women the chance to enter the workplace; it depended on them to keep the home front moving.
More than a million women joined the workforce between 1914 and 1918, helping to fill the gap left by a generation of military men. Women worked as drivers, postal workers and police. They stood in factories and cleaned trains. But despite the new opportunities, conditions were poor and the work was gruelling. They were earning more than they had before the war, but they were still being paid less than half of what the men were for doing the same jobs. This is a theme that carried throughout the decades.
In 1941, women were called up for war work again, taking on roles as mechanics, engineers, air raid wardens, and fire engine drivers. By mid-1943, almost 90% of single women and 80% of married women were working in factories or in the armed forces. Even the Queen, then Princess Elizabeth, was a Junior Commander in the ATS and trained as a driver and mechanic.
2. Breaking barriers: the first woman MP
Who was Constance Markievicz? A radical? An activist? A game changer? Her father was an Anglo-Irish aristocrat and her mother was a Lady who grew up in a castle in Yorkshire. But despite her privileged background, she was an advocate for change, fighting for Irish independence from Britain. Her story is nearly impossible to disconnect from the history of women’s rights in the UK.
In 1918, while sitting in a cell in Holloway Prison, Markievicz campaigned to become the first woman to be elected to the House of Commons, less than a month after the Qualification of Women Act gave women the right to stand as candidates in an election for the very first time. Out of eighteen candidates, she was the only one to win a seat, which she rejected as an act of protest. She refused to acknowledge the authority of the British government and instead established the first Dáil at Dublin’s Mansion House.
3. Tackling discrimination in the workplace: The Sex Discrimination Removal Act
In 1922, Dr. Ivy Williams was the first women to be called to the Bar in England and the first woman to receive a degree as a Doctor of Civil Law in Oxford in 1923. The Sex Discrimination Act of 1919 opened the doors that allowed her to achieve such an astounding degree, removing the discriminatory policies that disqualified women from certain positions on the grounds of sex. Although this was a big step forward for women, that didn’t mean that attitudes had changed, and horrifying and sexist adverts still ran rampant that objectified women in the workplace.
90 years later, Parliament passed the Equality Act of 2010, which replaced that, as well as a series of other anti-discrimination laws. This legally protected people from discrimination in the workplace and wider society.
4. Striving for balance: The Equal Pay Act
Over the past few years, we’ve seen organisations across the UK publishing their gender pay gap reports. Despite a push for greater balance in the workplace, progress is still very slow. But this is not a new conversation. In fact, fifty years ago, 187 female workers at a Ford factory in Dagenham went on strike in protest against their male colleagues earning 15% more than them. This was a turning point in the fight for equality.
It wasn’t the first strike, and it definitely wouldn’t be the last. But it was a significant moment because of the ripple effect it had. The women on strike were brave, standing up to their bosses, the press, the government and even the unions. Not only did their struggle inspire generations of women that came after them, but it was a catalyst for the 1970 Equal Pay Act, which made it illegal to discriminate against women by paying them less for equally skilled work.
5. Learning to embrace the modern age: The Equal Pay Amendment
In 1983, The Equal Pay Amendment was passed by Parliament, allowing women to be paid the same amount as men in the workplace. However, this is not always the case. Despite having made technical strides on the basis of law, women are still yet to see many of these equalities put into practice. Nearly 83% of the British public support equality of opportunity for women, yet we’re still seeing substantial gaps in pay and opportunity.
True, women’s right have come a long way and there’s more inclusion in the workplace. In the 20th century, we saw provisions made for maternity leave, but UK maternity pay is amongst the lowest in Europe. In fact, countries like Sweden, Norway and Finland have a nearly equal balance of genders in the labour market.
It’s up to us to continue being the change, following in the footsteps of all the influential women before us to keep pushing for equality and fairness in the working world. Let’s be champions and help to #BreakTheBias.