Women and Work

Women going to college
Women have always worked, whether in paid jobs or at home, and often in both. Today women comprise nearly half of the UK's workforce. While there have been many important changes in recent decades there are also many continuities in the issues women face in the workplace.

19th and early 20th century

Most working class women in Victorian England had no choice but to undertake paid work in order to help support their families. Women worked in factories, in domestic service, in family businesses and carried out home-based work such as finishing garments and shoes for factories and laundry. During this period women were paid less than men.

World War I: 1914-1918

During WWI (1914-18), large numbers of women were recruited into jobs vacated by men who had gone to fight in the war. New jobs were also created as part of the war effort, for example in ammunitions factories. Women were paid less than the men who they replaced, which led to the first successful campaigns for equal pay.

The inter-war years: 1918-1939

As servicemen returned from the war and reclaimed the available jobs, the numbers of women workers in industry and trade declined. Women were forced to take up jobs in domestic service or face benefits being cut by the government. Some new 'women's jobs' were created in emerging industries - mostly low paid, repetitive, shift work.

World War II: 1939-1945

In many ways, the story of women’s employment during WWI was repeated during WWII. Women successfully undertook what had earlier been considered 'men's work' in wartime industries, and as auxiliaries to the Armed Forces and in Civil Defence. During this period the issue of unequal pay began to be raised again by women workers and to a limited extent, by the trade unions.

Post World War II: 1946-1970

After WWII, the establishment of the welfare state created new employment opportunities for women. Women workers, including migrant workers, faced discrimination at work. During this period, women workers fought successfully to gain new rights, such as the right to equal pay.

From the 1970s to the present

Women’s participation in the UK labour market steadily increased during this period. However it was restricted to certain low paid sectors. During this period women workers agitated through their trade unions to gain new rights. Migrant women workers also came together to challenge workplace discrimination and to make trade unions more inclusive.