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50 Years on from Dagenham, Has Progress Been Made?


50 years ago, female sewing machinists in the Dagenham Ford car plant walked out after discovering they were being paid 15% less than their male counterparts.

The action sparked a three week strike which was quelled only when Barbara Castle, Harold Wilson’s Secretary of State for Employment and Productivity, stepped in and negotiated a settlement which resulted in the women returning to work for 8% less than the men, with a vision that the following year would see a 0% difference in pay.

Today it is widely considered that the strikes in Dagenham and later, Halewood, followed by a march in 1969 which saw demonstrators led by the National Joint Action Campaign Committee for Women’s Equal Rights amass in Trafalgar Square to protest for equal pay, paved the way for the 1970 Equal Pay Act.

The 1970 Equal Pay Act was subsequently integrated into the Equality Act of 2010, which also includes legislation from the Sex Discrimination Act of 1975, and the equality provisions in the Pensions Act of 1995.

Many argue however that despite this legislation, there still exists a gender pay-gap and that gender-based inequality is clear in the composition of workplaces.

This is true for both women and men. Women make up over 90% of the workforce for nursing, dental hygienists, childcare workers, and speech-language pathologists, among others. Equally, men make up 90% of the workforce when it comes to brick masonry, crane operators, mining machine operators and roofers, to name but a few.

In fashion, women make up around 70% of the workforce but hold just 25% of leadership positions, according to findings published by Business of Fashion in 2015. However, the findings do not consider the appointment by Dior of Maria Grazia Chiuri as its first creative director in 2016; nor do they include the appointment of Clare Waight Keller to the same position for Gievinchy in 2017; or the appointment of Revlon’s first female CEO, Debora Perelman, in 2018.

Despite the conversation that women are disadvantaged in society, last year young women in England were 36% more likely than young men to apply to higher education. This could be down to a number of reasons, including but not limited to whether there is more focus for men to pursue a trade over university, or that jobs in nursing and dental hygiene in many instances require university-based training.

As a counter to this, commentators state that women in America are paid eighty cents to every dollar a man makes. Others state that the gender pay-gap is a myth, brought about by manipulating statistics in a way to convince women that they are the victims of systematic societal discrimination.

Fashion Capital CEO, Jennifer Holloway, gave her comments on the subject.

“Am I just getting cantankerous with age? I find the current gender pay-gap that is much discussed difficult for lots of reasons. I have never accepted that woman can’t achieve what they want. My view, simplistically, is we have one life only. We may be on this earth a good 75-85 years with functioning parts, so use them! Get your gritty determination going.”

“Aim for the stars. Do not fear failure – we all fail at some point and it’s good for the soul! Just make your life happen and remember respect is earnt- it’s not given just because you may have a fancy job title!”

(Jenny appeared on BBC Breakfast this week – 6th June 2018 – to discuss women in manufacturing today. Here she is with reporter Steph McGovern at the Dagenham site.)

What is resoundingly clear, in and amongst the mix of conflicting opinions on the matter, is that employers are placing an increasing significance on diversity in the workplace. Contemporary job-application forms ask applicants to fill out “equal-opportunities questionnaires” to ensure that they have a mixed and varied composition of workers in their companies.

It is without question that there is growing momentum for empowerment in the work place, not just for women but for everyone, and this is thanks in no small part to the action taken by the women of Dagenham and Halewood all those years ago.

By Callum Cliffe

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