Women and Work

After the end of the Second World War rationing in the United Kingdom did not stop in 1945 but continued until 1954. However, the end of these restrictions heralded a post-war boom, causing important changes to employment as demand for consumer goods expanded. It was mainly women, often working part time to fit their jobs around their domestic commitments, who were engaged in light assembly work in the new factories. By 1971 women comprised over 50% of the work UK force, but their work was mostly low paid, low status and offered very few opportunities for progression.

The Portsmouth region experienced this boom in factory production with many new factories opening.

Johnson & Johnson, Smiths Crisps and Ultra (later Ferguson) factories
in the Gosport/Portsmouth area

Women became increasingly discontent with this form of employment, particularly the fact that women were paid on average about half what men were paid, but also because of the casual sexism in all areas of employment. 

PAT SMITH was born in Portsmouth in 1959. She worked for the Civil Service, and then for Colt International, a family-run manufacturer in Havant.

Pat Smith

Pat continued her studies and education beyond school by taking opportunities for day-release and training offered to her in the workplace. She undertook some pioneering courses in Human Resources, then called Manpower Studies, and was an unusually well-qualified woman at work, dealing with both trade unions and directors in a male-dominated work environment.

However, Pat gave up work to become a full-time mother because, despite the introduction of equal opportunities, this was not really the case for all women:

“Even through, yes, there were about equal opportunities, and we are talking about twenty-seven years ago, there wasn’t the opportunity to go back part-time. That wasn’t on offer, it wasn’t something that existed and childcare facilities where I was, I couldn’t really look to do that. It was different times.”

“Women in the 1980s had to fight a lot harder for their recognition. I think that the glass ceiling absolutely existed in the 1980s and there were not the career paths, were not the opportunities for women… In the whole of the Havant area in which I was working, which was manufacturing at the time, I can’t think of one female director.”

Years later Pat became involved with the Business in the Community scheme, encouraging corporations to act and invest with social responsibility in mind. Pat was really pleased to see how things had moved on for women in the workplace, with employment law, childcare, flexible working patterns and further opportunities, allowing women to become entrepreneurs and to take career opportunities.

“Technology has played a big part, allowing women to work from home and still being able to feel part of an organisation, not necessarily having to attend every day at the place of work, but can attend to get the important social interaction. Things have moved on tremendously from when I started working.

Going back to 1977 when there were no computers and there was this mad idea that I studied at business studies that one day some of us might be working from home. No-one believed it!”

SYLVIA HORTON was born in Portsmouth in 1939 and left grammar school aged 16. She was married at 18 and had her first child at nineteen. This was not unusual in the 1960s, but Sylvia was bored with being at home and therefore decided to attend college in Portsmouth to study for A levels. She then went on to do an external London degree and after graduating she was offered a post of Assistant Lecturer back in Portsmouth, becoming the first woman lecturer in the Department of Business Studies at Portsmouth Polytechnic.

She remained in employment at Portsmouth Polytechnic (and then the University of Portsmouth) for over 50 years, eventually becoming a Principal Lecturer.

Sylvia was an outstanding teacher and considered herself a liberal feminist but she did not want to join feminist groups as she did not feel that she was discriminated against at work. However there were some ways in which Sylvia was treated differently from her male colleagues.

Sylvia in the 1960s
Sylvia now
Sylvia describes her fashion and office constraints

Maternity leave did not exist in the 1960s and Sylvia knew that ordinarily women at work were expected to leave if they became pregnant. Therefore, apart from her immediate line manager, no one in management was told officially that Sylvia was expecting a child. She delivered her baby and returned to work after only ten days.

MURIEL ALLEN was born in London in 1931 and joined the Land Army during the Second World War. At the end of the war she joined the Civil Service and having served in various junior administrative roles, found herself drawn to the Prison Service but did not want to transfer there while Capital Punishment was still in force.

Upon the abolition of the Death Penalty in 1965 Muriel successfully applied for a post and rose up through the ranks to become an Assistant Prison Governor. She served six years at Holloway women’s prison in London and therefore when she came up before a promotion board her record was very impressive.

It was expected that she would become a Governor of a women’s prison, but Muriel decided to test the 1975 Sex Discrimination Act and requested to be appointed Governor of a men’s prison. Very conscious that she was pushing gender boundaries she achieved her goal in 1984 and became Governor of HM Kingston prison in Milton – which was for lifers.  She was the first woman to be appointed prison governor of a men’s prison in the UK.

At first the prison staff were over protective, escorting her everywhere every time she left her office. Muriel had to demonstrate that she was not afraid to walk around the prison as a woman. She told them that as the previous Prison Governor had walked round the prison on their own, then she would too.  Muriel’s professionalism, humanity and innovative approach were soon appreciated by all. It was very hard for staff to get inmates to literacy classes but when Muriel managed to get IBM to donate some computers the lessons were renamed computer classes. They proved so popular that the officers lobbied Muriel as they wanted computer classes too. Muriel arranged for inmates to have access to Open University courses.

MADELEINE HAYDON (right) was born in 1990 – making her one of the project’s youngest interviewees.

She attended a mixed secondary school until GCSE level and also learned to play several musical instruments. Maddie is unusual because she works in a traditionally male-dominated occupation profession as a car mechanic in White’s Garage, Southsea.

Although Maddie herself did not experience discrimination at home, college or night-school, she did note that no other women from the training courses actually followed through the course profession to a mechanic’s job. Now, rather than see herself as a feminist, Maddie sees herself as part of a team. She is ‘one of the lads’ with an amount of ‘banter’.

Maddie’s experiences of discrimination, however, have come in later contact with the real world. She found it more difficult to gain a necessary apprenticeship as many garages were ‘old school’ about having a female apprentice and even now some customers express surprise at the prospect of a fully-qualified female mechanic about to work on their car and ask questions they wouldn’t ask a male mechanic, such as:

‘Are you working on my car? Are you qualified?’

Other customers reveal their gendered expectations of a repair garage as, when Maddie has asked ‘Can I help you?’, the customer has responded in this way:

“They start talking to you and then they see the apprentice who, no offence but he doesn’t know a lot at the time, and then they blank you and start talking to him…!”

AMY DOYLE runs the Female Entrepreneurs Network in Portsmouth. More and more micro businesses are starting up as women look for new ways of earning a salary whilst still providing care for children and other dependents.

The Female Entrepreneurs Network allows women running all types of businesses to meet together and exchange ideas, contacts and information. Women can gain support from other like-minded entrepreneurs.

“It’s much more acceptable, much more usual for a woman to start a business now. I think women are still hitting a lot of prejudice when they do start up, something like one pence in every pound of investment goes to women – the other ninety-nine is going to men.

So women start up but then they don’t have access to the same advantages that men do once they’re going – and I think sometimes there are different motivations for starting up for women as well. Often it is around things like caring responsibilities and what fits with their lifestyle and all the other demands, rather than perhaps coming from a corporate route where they’ve done something in big business…

… I think women tend to start businesses a lot of the time where a lot of it is giving back or filling a gap.

They go ‘I’ve been through this and I bet you lots of other women are going through it.’

… so I think there are lots of opportunities for women, but I think then how they go about that is quite restrictive.”

SHELAGH SIMMONS was born in Portsmouth in 1954. She had a French father and was brought up to be conscious of social issues and public service. She attended Catholic and convent schools but didn’t particularly enjoy school and left with few qualifications.

There were few career opportunities from education at a secondary modern school and Shelagh took clerical jobs.

She campaigned against the continual use of the death penalty in former UK colonies. She worked for the Probation Service and was also involved in providing support for refugees.

Shelagh remembered the blatant sexism of the workplace, such as at Marconi Space and Defence Systems, where the women would dread walking through some of the engineering offices because of the wolf whistles and other harassment.

“There would be comments shouted at you as you walked through the Drawing Office.

There would be calendars with naked women on them hanging up on the wall and it was just a very uncomfortable atmosphere to be in. It was just considered to be the norm.”

Shelagh is now the Solent area group co-ordinator for the national WASPI [Women Against State Pension Inequality] campaign. WASPI argues against the unfair and poorly administered move towards equal pensionable age for men and women.

The organisation supports women who have suffered hardship because of this legislation.

“There are some women who have had to sell their homes to make ends meet because they haven’t got any other income. Some are having to take physically demanding jobs when they are in poor health because they need to make ends meet. We feel there is a lot of injustice.”

This lack of notice and information about the changes in pension structures meant that some women have had no time to make adequate preparation for this change to their state pension, leaving some women with only two years’ notice for the changes imposed.

Shelagh argues that women have fulfilled their part of the working bargain with the state, and the government has a moral contract with those women.

“We would like a bridging pension and we would like compensation to be backdated for people who’ve already got to their State Pension age, because we feel they deserve it.”

WASPI is a professional national campaign, but has its sting too, and is not afraid to lobby the government.

“…in a way this campaign has been quite empowering, because there are women who have never campaigned about anything in their lives or never been, never been politically aware even, who have been galvanised by this campaign. 

So, although I wouldn’t have wanted it to happen, when I see how empowering it’s been for some women and the solidarity that there is among them, you know, I think that’s quite touching actually.” 

CAROLYNE JACOBS never expected to have a career, but after she had had her children, she retrained in computing through the 1990s Government scheme to promote women re-entering work, and then went on to achieve an MA and a PhD.

In 2004, Carolyne realised she would not be receiving her state pension at the age of 60 as she expected. In order to address this shortfall, she carried on working for additional years.

Carolyne is an active member of WASPI as she understands it is not always possible for women to do a high-pressure job in their sixties:

“I’ve been very involved with it because not only am I aggrieved from my own perspective and how it has affected me, but I know that it has affected a lot of other women and sometimes it has affected them a lot more than it has affected me.

We have people in our group who have had to sell their houses, who are struggling, who are trying to find work when they are over sixty and just can’t do it. So I think it’s wrong and I think it is an injustice.

So what we have done as a group is try to raise awareness.”

was born in 1954 and came to the South Coast when her husband was posted to the area. Amanda realised that a career was difficult:

“Like a lot of women born in the early 1950s, there wasn’t an expectation of a full working life. The idea was that you got married, you had children and you might do a little bit of part-time work. But really the emphasis was still with people helping their children to grow up and being in the family home.

I married early as many people did, so I was only nineteen and I married someone who worked for the Ministry of Defence, they were a mobile grade. So there really wasn’t a possibility of me having a career or anything like that because I would need to move every two or three years.

Despite this, Amanda went on to train, qualify and then work as a teacher and is now studying for a PhD.

Through family circumstances and health reasons, Amanda needed to retire early, but was only made aware very late on that she would not receive her State Pension in 2014 but would have to wait until 2020.

This has caused considerable hardship, and Amanda had to sell her home. She now actively supports WASPI.

CHRISTINE NEAL left her initial education path without a degree and started a family – with the demands of childcare meaning that she had to take part-time and evening work with her husband working during the day.

She decided to start evening classes and gradually gained further qualifications until she graduated with a degree and began to teach in her early forties.

When she reached fifty-eight she expected to have her teaching pension and her State pension pay out together at sixty to enable her to retire with her husband and move house, but she received notification that, although her teaching pension would pay out, her State Pension had been deferred until she was sixty-six, meaning that all her retirement plans had to be changed – as she did not feel that she could continue with her teaching career.

“I knew, deep down, that between the age of sixty and sixty-six I would not be performing my job as well as I could be because of the fact that I was older, I was far more tired, and I just wasn’t up to doing the job. And I didn’t feel that the children in my care would be receiving the best education that I could give them.”

Christine is now involved with the WASPI campaign.

SALLY ROBINSON moved to the Portsmouth area in the 1970s. She worked for the Civil Service for a number of years, returning to work after having her children and achieving promotion whilst also working at the branch office of the trade union.

However, Sally felt she was part of the ‘sandwich’ generation where she needed to care for elderly relatives as well as children. Sally left her career to care for her disabled husband, elderly mother and her grandchildren.

Despite the fact she worked for the Department of Work and Pensions, Sally was one of the women not informed of the State Pension changes. She only learnt about this when a friend brought it to her attention in 2011.

This really surprised Sally.

“I was really good at reading guidance and materials as I thought it was my role to make sure that I implemented things properly.

And I felt that I was really well informed. Because I was a Trade Union member, and an active Trade Union member, I read the things that came out from those publications as well.

Sally became involved with WASPI after noticing an advertisement in the local paper and has been campaigning and distributing information ever since. She remains surprised at how few women know anything about the changes to their pension.  

Sally herself has done many things with WASPI that she wouldn’t have done otherwise, such as public speaking to a large number of people in the Guildhall and lobbying in the House of Commons.