You are in: Browse

Historical Perspectives

It was soon apparent that to meet the needs of wartime production women would have to move beyond the narrow confines of routine assembly and packing and into areas previously occupied exclusively by male workers. As it was the usual practice for men's and women's work to be entirely separate with correspondingly different pay rates, this created much concern both from employers and unions. The Extended Employment of Women Agreement of 1940 gave women doing men's work without extra supervision or assistance the right to graduate towards the male rate. In practice, equal pay was rarely achieved and the majority of women continued to work on a process called 'women's work' for 'women's pay rates' which represented roughly half of the wages of skilled male labour and two thirds the wage of unskilled men. The only group of women manual workers to achieve equal pay were women bus and tram conductors (they were barred from driving). Towards the end of the war, progressive trade unionists had come to recognize that the best way forward was to argue for a rate for the job regardless of the gender of the operator. Groups such as the Equal Pay Campaign Committee and the Women's Parliament won some important victories, most notable being a commitment to equal pay for teachers in the 1944 Education Act.

The government were keen for women to work, but it was always made clear that women's primary responsibilities remained at home. The Restoration of Pre-war Trade Practices Act of 1942 guaranteed women's removal from 'male' areas of work at the end of the war. Women's work was defined as temporary, therefore they were always regarded as second class workers. For women workers the tension between home and work was always apparent. Even where men were still at home the government never suggested that men should take any responsibility for household chores. Many turned to the unions to take up issues relating to women. In 1942, the previously all male bastion, the Amalgamated Engineering Union, agreed to recruit women members and the general manual unions also recruited women members. Women's trade union membership increased from just over 1 million in 1939 to 1.6 million in 1945. Many women became shop stewards, although the male culture of evening pub meetings prohibited many women from full participation in their union.

One of the biggest problems facing women was long hours. A standard 54 hour week, including Saturday morning, was common, with overtime expected for 'rush jobs'. This left women with family responsibilities in a state of exhaustion. In these circumstances, it is not surprising that women were reluctant to work in industry or that rates of absenteeism among women were high. From 1943, employers began to make part-time work available and were delighted to find that women's productivity rates for part time work were higher than those working full time. By 1944 900,000 women in industry were working part time. It helped to resolve women's dilemma, but it also confirmed their status as second class workers. 750,000 women in industry had children under fourteen. For women with pre-school age children child care was a pressing problem. The most common solution was for relatives and neighbours to help out, but this was not possible for many women. To meet this need, the Ministry of Labour funded local authorities to provide nurseries so that by 1944 over 1500 nurseries were established, a few of which
Page 2 of 3
Go to Page:   Go

Women Workers in the Second World War by Professor Sue Bruley