What factors have brought the changing role of women in the economy since 1945? Essay

The factors that have caused the changing role of women in the economy since 1945 can be divided into two groups; economic factors and social factors. What is interesting is the causal link between these two groups. Was the change economically driven or socially driven, and are these factors prevalent in the workplace? If so how do they affect equality within the workplace? The Second World War was both a social and economic disaster. During the war, work for women had become compulsory and by June 1943, a total of 7. 75 million women were in paid employment.

Different structures of work had become more common; bi-modal work (allowing women to take a break to have children) and part-time work both increased greatly and were particularly accommodating for women. Not only were more women in work after the war, but they had shown during it that they were fully capable of working full or part-time jobs, jobs that had been typically occupied by men. Economically the war had created a huge labour shortage. As the economy began to rebuild, changes to the structure of the labour force were necessary to fill the jobs previously filled by those killed in the war.

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Another social factor was the increase in militancy of women in employment. The Women’s Movement definitely had an effect on the role of women in the economy. Johnson1 argues that ‘winning the vote gave women’s activism greater vigour than is generally recognized’. After the Conservative government of the 1960s gave way to female white collar workers on the issue of equal pay, female pressure increased. Throughout the 1960’s many groups2 argued for equal opportunities, equal pay, equal taxation and improved treatment of single mothers.

They encouraged militant action and trade union membership. In the 1970s more radical movements were initiated. They helped to raise a wide range of issues and a widespread awareness of gender inequalities. There were positive results in the public sector which can be attributed to the Women’s Movement. In contrast, the private sector, where women were less vocal and less organized, saw fewer changes in the inequality gap (women’s wages remained at 50% of men’s). Two other social factors were demographic changes and the increase in the availability of birth control.

The UK had experienced a fall in the birth rate which was leading to smaller family sizes further exacerbating the labour shortage problem. The increase in birth control meant that women could choose to have fewer children. This provided them with more spare time and gave them a greater opportunity to start working if they chose to do so. The war was an unpredictable cataclysmic event that helped change the remainder of the 20th Century with regards to women’s roles. However, even without the war it is highly likely that women’s roles would be different today than they were in 1945.

The reason for this is the economic advancement that has occurred in the late 20th Century. The major social factor, female activism, is closely connected with economics. The opportunity for women to take a more assertive stance was made possible through the increase in female employment in the first place. One example of this occurred in 1968 where female sewing-machinists at Ford’s Dagenham plant went on strike for a re-grading of their jobs, and for equal pay. In the following months women workers elsewhere initiated equal pay strikes while trade unionists tried to encourage more women to demand equal pay. Because women were increasingly entering the workforce they now had opportunity to organise themselves and join or form trade unions.

Only when people are placed in large groups are they given the opportunity to form pressure groups. The single most significant economic factor was the shortage of labour following the war, this forced the government into a change of attitude. When two million women left work at the end of the war it was the government who led a campaign to get them to return. This was a major u-turn for a government which had for so long emphasized the domestic role of women.

Under pressure from women protestors the government introduced the Equal Pay Act in 1970 and the Sex Discrimination Act in 1975. This new legislation helped change the role of women in society as it made working a more attractive option (previously the cost of childcare was too expensive and was not covered by the poor wages on offer to women). This resulted in a huge increase in the amount of part-time work. Bruley says ‘the increase in married women’s employment was almost entirely accounted for by the growth of part-time work’. The Equal Pay Act did not produce equal pay but it did mean that women received better pay which resulted in many returning or starting some form of work.

The shortage of labour also posed a major problem for employers who were not as quick to change their attitudes as the government but in the end were resigned to accepting the ‘new way’ of things. In fact ‘some employers were very happy with part-time female workers as they tended to be more productive than full-timers, more reliable in terms of attendance and cost less in terms of bonuses and benefits such as holiday pay’.

The economic benefits of employing women soon became evident to employers. A period of prosperity in the 1950s/60s further emphasized the need of extra labour in the economy. Demand for domestic goods and consumer durables increased dramatically during this period and magazines and advertising continued to generate this demand. As more women started working, demand for goods increased creating a ‘demand culture’, leading to more women wanting to work. So economic desires on behalf of women have resulted in social and cultural change and further changed the roles of women within society.

This new demand culture has seen the development of the metropolitan woman, a more powerful, independent and more ambitious woman. In terms of legislation then, women in the workplace are fully equal with men. In practice they are not. On average today women working full time earn i??559 less per month than men do. 6 Despite the rules in place employers still have ways of discriminating against women. By giving men promotions, bonuses and giving them different job descriptions employers can still favour men in the workplace.

From the 1950s to the mid-1960s women’s pay in relation to men’s fell to 59% of full time men’s hourly wage. This improved in the 1970s with the average rising to 74%. Married women (mostly in part-time work) suffered twice the disadvantage over pay as single women in relation to men. The Equal Pay Act showed some progress towards equality but until 1983, it was still fair to offer pay differentials in relation to differences in productivity. Hours worked, training, work experience and education were all valid factors. 7 We must ask why and how does this inequality still exist?

There are a number of theories that attempt to explain inequality in the workplace. One is the Rational Choice Theory, which argues that husbands seek wives as child-bearers/rearers, or as housekeepers, whilst women seek husbands as breadwinners. Therefore men are favoured by employers because they are seen as the main source of income to a household. This theory may have been applicable ten or twenty years ago but women’s positions within the household have changed distinctively and this theory does not explain the inequality that exists in the workplace.

The allowance of maternity/paternity leave now means that work does not have to be sacrificed in order to bring up children. Modern technology, full time cleaners and babysitters, and nurseries have also helped to reduce the time that the parents need to spend at home during their children’s early years. The amount of people that work at home is also increasing dramatically, one reason for which may be their desire to be at home with their children whilst working. The male exclusion theory gives a more likely explanation.

Exponents of the theory, such as Davis and Rosser (1986), argue that women face a ‘glass ceiling’ preventing them from advancing in management and other jobs. They typically argue that women are excluded from ‘old boys networks’ and other social groups (which are predominantly male), which decreases their chances of advancement in jobs. This is a somewhat old fashioned idea as it talks of ‘old-boys networks’ but the general thrust of the argument is still applicable. Women do not occupy the very top jobs and in particular jobs on the boards of companies.

If they could reach these jobs more frequently they would have a much greater say in the running of the company and other women would undoubtedly benefit from their position of authority. The male exclusion theorists would argue that women are prevented from obtaining these jobs by a patriarchal system, but another possibility is that they lack the drive and ambition to do so. Steven Goldberg certainly thinks that women do not naturally have the aspirations to reach the top.

He says that ‘men are not better able just more motivated to seek top positions’. It is a biological fact that typically men are more competitive than women and this is the underlying cause as to why women cannot and will not achieve equality in the workplace. An example of this can be seen in America where many of the most successful women actually have to take courses in ‘being feminine’ because in being successful they have adopted male characteristics. In summary, the majority of factors that have led to the changing role of women, since 1945, have been based upon an economic necessity.

There have been social factors that have assisted the change, in particular collective bargaining, but even these are closely connected with economics. We go on to conclude that it is the economic environment that prevents women from gaining equality in the workplace. This is because they are not as naturally suited to the fiercely competitive nature of a male dominated workplace. They are possibly restricted in some ways by the men that occupy the top jobs but they are also restricted by their own lack of ambition.


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