5 Significant Moments in the History of Working Women

4 minute read

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.

We may still have a way to go to reach a golden state of balance. But in honour of International Women’s Day, we want to take a moment to celebrate the amazing women who came before us. Women who made strides and sacrifices that shaped the modern working world and made it a more inclusive place. Women who changed the course of history forever. Here are five significant moments in the history of working women in the UK.


1. When did women start working? A shift in gender roles: WWI & WWII

Before the First World War, women’s jobs in the 1900s were 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 I allowed women the chance to enter the workplace; it was up to 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 done 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 on throughout the decades.

In 1941, war work was needed again, with women working as mechanics, engineers, air raid wardens and fire engine drivers. Mid-1943 found almost 90% of single women and 80% of married women working in factories or in the armed forces. Even Queen Elizabeth II, 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 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 18 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.

5 Significant Moments in the History of Working Women

3. Tackling discrimination in the workplace: The Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act 1919

In 1922, Dr Ivy Williams was the first woman 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 Disqualification Act 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 working women, that didn’t mean that attitudes had changed. Horrifying and sexist adverts that objectified women in the workplace were still rampant.

90 years later, Parliament passed the Equality Act 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 1970

Since 2017, 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, in 1968, 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 for working women. 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 Equal Pay Act 1970, which made it illegal to discriminate against women by paying them less for equally skilled work.

5 Significant Moments in the History of Working Women

5. Embracing the modern age

Even now, despite having made technical strides on the basis of law, women are yet to see many of these equalities put into practice. Men still earn an average of 4.56% more per hour than women. We’re seeing substantial gaps in pay and opportunity, with women still underrepresented in certain roles and at certain levels, such as senior management.

The situation is even worse for ethnic minority women, who earn on average 15.8% less in median pay than men. Ethnicity pay gap reporting is still not mandatory for any organisation.

In the charity sector, the median gender pay gap is smaller than the median for all sectors combined. However, the gap hasn’t significantly decreased over the last five years, and has actually increased at large charities in the past couple of years.

True, women’s rights 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 inclusion in the working world. Let’s be champions for working women and help to #InspireInclusion.


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This post was originally published in 2022. We’ve updated it to ensure relevance and to reflect the current job seeker experience.


Karen Harlow

Karen Harlow is Senior Content Manager at CharityJob.