The gains made during the Second World War proved transitory as women were demobilised from ‘men’s work’ to make way for the returning servicemen, as had happened following the First World War. However, unlike the 1920s, the late 1940s and 50s were periods of sustained economic growth. The post-war reconstruction effort made the need for an expanded labour force urgent. In the late 1940s, the government launched campaigns to encourage women to enter or stay in the labour market, and encouraged the migration of workers from (former) British colonies to fill the labour shortages.
The welfare state created many job opportunities in what was seen as ‘women’s work’. Jobs were available in the the newly created National Health Service for nurses, midwives, cleaners and clerical staff. Banking, textile and light industries such as electronics also expanded during this period and provided women with opportunities in clerical, secretarial and assembly work. Jobs were still strictly segregated by gender and routine repetitive work was categorised as women’s work for women’s (lower) wages.
The proportion of women in the labour force as a percentage of women of working age (15-64) increased from 45.9% in 1955 to 51% in 1965. Despite this increase in the rate of women’s employment, women were still considered to be 'secondary workers'. Women's wages were not considered central to families’ income, instead it was thought that women's wages were for ‘extras’ such as holidays or new consumer durables. Mothers of young children were once again discouraged from working and most of the state funded nurseries set up during the WWII were closed by the post-war Labour government. Welfare payments for families were based on the assumption that a man’s income supported his wife and children who were his dependants (the ‘family wage’). The benefit rates for married women were set at a lower level than those for married men.
In the early 50s, many employers still operated a ‘Marriage bar’, whereby married women were barred from certain occupations like teaching and clerical jobs (but not lower paid jobs) and those working were sacked upon marriage. But throughout the 1950s and 60s it became more common for married women to work for wages - at least part-time. By the 1960, 38% of married women worked but women were routinely sacked when they got pregnant and continued to be paid less than men even if they did the same jobs.
The struggle for equal pay
Women workers continued to campaign for equal pay through the 1950s. Women teachers and some civil servants were the first to win equal pay in 1961 and 62 respectively. However, these early victories only applied where women and men were employed in exactly the same jobs. However, most women workers in the public sector had jobs which were gender segregated and where no men were employed in roles such as secretaries, cleaners and typists. Women in these workplaces remained excluded from any of the ongoing debates about equal pay, as did women who worked in the private sector.
Women’s trade union membership increased through the 1950s and the 60s. In 1946, some 1.6 million women workers were unionised (24% of all women workers) and by 1969 this had risen to 2.5 million (29% of all women workers) (Undy, 2012). However, during this period trade unions continued to be led by white men who did not always prioritise the demands of their women and non-white members.
1968 was a significant year in the struggle for equal pay. Women sewing machinists who sewed car seat covers at the Ford car factory in Dagenham went on strike. They were angry because their jobs had been re-graded as unskilled, which resulted in them being paid 13% less than the male assembly workers. The women argued that their job required the same level of skill as the men’s jobs. The strikers had to overcome the initial reluctance of male workers and the trade union to support their cause. Eventually, the women accepted an increase which took their pay to 92% of the men’s pay. This was followed by other strikes over equal pay across the country and to renewed trade union support and campaigning on this issue. These campaigns led to the passage of the Equal Pay Act (1970), which applied to the public and private sectors where men and women were engaged in the same or broadly similar work.
Migrant workers in the UK labour market: 1946-1970
From the 1950s onwards, due to the labour shortages following WWII, the UK government encouraged the immigration of migrant workers to rebuild Britain and service the newly created NHS. While more men than women migrated in the earlier years, from the late 1960s, there were significant numbers of women who migrated to join their families settled in the UK. Many of these women worked in the health service but, like women from all ethnic backgrounds, were more likely than men to be engaged in repetitive jobs which were poorly paid and had little prospect of promotion.
Even where migrant women were educated in English and held professional qualifications, they found that only low-paid, unskilled jobs were open to them. In those days, there were occasions when trade unions colluded with the management to maintain differential wages between men and women, and between white and non-white workers. In 1963, Bristol Omnibus Company, supported by the local Transport and General Workers Union (TGWU) branch, refused to employ black or Asian bus crews. At this, the local black communities boycotted bus services for four months until the company backed down and overturned the ‘colour bar’. Similarly, a strike by black workers took place at Courtauld's Red Scar Mill, Preston, when the management forced Asian workers to work more machines for less pay, with the collusion of white workers and their union. Such attitudes by trade unions of the day meant that migrant women workers were disadvantaged in the labour market both because they were women and also because they were immigrants.