Prior to the introduction of the Equal Pay Act 1970, it was commonplace for women in the UK, particularly those in the private sector, to be paid less than men who were working in the same role. This disparity in pay, treatment and conditions of employment has rested on the long-standing assumption that a woman’s value in the workplace is less than that of a man.
Path to parity
Although the campaign for equal pay gained considerable traction in the 1960s, the struggle holds deeper historical roots. During World War I, large numbers of women were recruited into the jobs that were previously considered exclusively for men. By 1918 women were working across a number of sectors and in various positions including railway guards, ticket collectors, policewomen, postal workers and munitions manufacturers. Most notably the public transportation system offered many opportunities for women, with Mrs G Duncan becoming the first female London bus conductor in November 1915.
The number of women employed on trams and buses increased from 1,600 in 1916 to 26,500 by mid-1918, but these roles were still considered the domain of men. Transport companies firmly believed that women were not entitled to the same level of pay because they were less reliable, less able to enforce fares during rush hour, required more training and were subject to a greater number of complaints by the public. The women became increasingly frustrated that they did not command the same level of pay for their labour as their male counterparts and resentment towards their employers grew. In August 1918, female bus, tram and tube conductors implemented a strike intended to force the Committee on Production (a government institution to arbitrate on wage disputes) to give the same wartime bonus that was granted to men and equal pay. The strike action brought cities to a standstill, but even during the wartime effort public opinion remained favourable with a general expression of sympathy towards the women. Although the strikers ultimately received the wartime bonus, their ambition for equal pay was rejected.
In June 1968, equal pay hit the headlines again and this time caught the attention of the legislature. Sewing machinists at the Ford car production plant in Dagenham walked out after they learned their job roles were graded as Category B (less skilled production jobs) instead of Category C (more skilled production jobs). Roles filled by men that required equivalent levels of qualification and training were graded as Category C. The women machinists were also being paid 15% less than the unskilled men in grade B positions, which included floor sweepers and janitors. At the same time as the Dagenham strike, women in the Halewood factory began a similar strike.
Having no machinists meant that no car seats were made, and with no one else knowing how to make them, car production ground to a halt. The strike had a significant impact on Ford Motor Company’s bottom line, with estimates suggesting that it lost export orders worth £117m in today’s times and resulted in 9,000 layoffs.
It became evident that the strike would be unsustainable. Consequently, Barbara Castle, the Secretary of State for Employment and Productivity led an intervention and brokered a deal between the Ford directors and the strikers. The women accepted an initial pay offer that increased their salaries to just 8% less than those of men in their grade. It would take another 16 years before the Ford women would finally receive the recognition and pay that they deserved, but their activism acted as a catalyst for putting equal pay on the legislative agenda.
On 29 May 1970 the Equal Pay Act received Royal Assent with the provisions coming into force in December 1975. The Act prohibited any differentiation in employment conditions and pay, with the latter being widely interpreted to also include pension rights, perks and bonuses where women are doing equal work to men. The delay from passage to implementation was meant to offer a grace period for employers to get their houses in order to better absorb the additional costs.
Unfortunately, many companies undermined the spirit of the law by re-grading jobs, changing job titles or merely raising women’s wages to the lowest male rate, irrespective of the higher demands of their role. Nevertheless, the average earnings for women compared to men rose from 72% to 77% over a 5 year period. Though this was a positive effect, a stark pay gap remained. 40 years later further progress has been slow: in 2019 the average was still only 83%. With equal pay claims a regular feature in the news over the past few years, it is clear that more than 100 years after the female bus conductors’ strike, the value of women’s work is still not being recognised.
Sources Halifax, Stuart “London buses at war 1914-1918”, Great War London: London and Londoners in the First World War, 7 May 2020 https://greatwarlondon.wordpress.com/2014/12/30/london-buses-at-war-1914-1918/ Goodley, Simon “Dagenham sewing machinists recall strike that changed women’s lives”, The Guardian https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2013/jun/06/dagenham-sewing-machinists-strike “Equal Pay and the Equal Pay Act 1970”, National Education Union, 7 May 2020 https://neu.org.uk/advice/equal-pay-and-equal-pay-act-1970 Miscellaneous articles from the Union History Archives http://www.unionhistory.info/britainatwork/emuweb/objects/nofdigi/tuc/imagedisplay.php?irn=1132