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This article is written by a student writer from the Her Campus at KCL chapter.

In the last century, women’s employment rights have come a long way and women around the world have made huge advancements within the workplace.  Yet, the fight for work equality and opportunity is still ongoing and progress very much varies geographically. Focusing on the UK, we can locate several defining moments in the advancement of women’s position within the workplace.  

1. Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act 1919. 

This act allowed women entry into both the civil service and the legal professions, as well as giving universities the authority to award women degrees. Whilst this was a significant step in the right direction and set an important precedent regarding the state’s ability to legislate on such issues, it left much to be desired. Even once admitted into the civil service, women were kept to low responsibility jobs, often limited to employment as typists, for example. In terms of education, whilst the act allowed universities the authority to award degrees to women, many continued to choose not to, notably Cambridge who didn’t begin to do so until 1948.  

2. State-funded Childcare. 

During the Second World War, state-funded nurseries and childcare increased tenfold to allow more women to enter the workforce. While many of these reforms were reversed after the war in line with a general societal shift towards more traditional values, they demonstrated the beginnings of the state evaluating issues that barred women from employment – childcare being one of them – and enforcing tangible solutions that would lead the way to more concrete reform later in the century.  

3.Development of Contraception. 

In 1961, the first contraceptive pill was licensed for use. At this stage, the pill was only available to married women. By 1974, it had been made readily available on the NHS for all who, at the time, were categorised as women, regardless of age or marital status. This came with the rise of ‘family planning’ which, among other things, allowed women increased agency when negotiating family and careers. The pill allowed women to delay and/or plan having children in a way that could fit with their professional ambitions. This was crucial in removing yet another barrier that hindered women’s opportunities within the workforce.  

4. Equal Pay Act 1970. 

Labour politician and Secretary of State for Employment, Barbara Castle put forward and eventually passed the Equal Pay Act of 1970 which set out that employers could not pay women or men less for doing the same or similar jobs. This was the first act put in place to try and tackle the disparity in pay between men and women. Much like earlier acts, this is significant in that it recognised and enshrined women’s issues on a legal level, setting a precedent on where the state should intervene. This would later help form part of the Equality Act 2010, an important landmark in British statute law and human rights advancements.  

5. Sex Discrimination Act 1975. 

Building on the work of the Equal Pay Act, the Sex Discrimination Act prohibited the discrimination or unfavourable treatment of individuals within the workplace based on sex. Much like the Equal Pay Act, all issues of sex bias and discrimination didn’t immediately resolve following this, however, both pieces of legislation showcase a shift in attitudes towards the presence of women within the workplace. The government was no longer advocating for the traditional family structure as strongly as it did in the post-war era, but instead was moving forward in recognising that women belonged within the workforce as much as men and should be given equal opportunity to pursue careers. 

6. Increase of Women in Trade Unionism and Strike Activity.  

As women increasingly became a part of the workforce, it was crucial that they be afforded the same protection as their male counterparts. Trade unions and industrial strike activity have been significant in achieving protection for workers, and the second half of the 20th century saw this begin to include women as well. This was not a universal shift, however. The Ford Strikes in Dagenham were monumental in the inclusion of women in work rights advocacy and strike action, yet the Grunwick Dispute in the late 70s saw the continued lack of trade union support for women’s strikes. The 21st Century has seen more concrete inclusion of women in workers’ rights advocacy. In 2013, the Trade Union Congress elected its first female General Secretary, highlighting how women finally had a place within the trade union movement and the fight for the protection of workers.  

These six defining moments have all been significant in laying the foundation for more radical and concrete change. Yet, there seems to be a significant theme within these examples: not doing quite enough. Many of these legislations and attitude shifts may have been enforced with good intentions fuelled by the genuine desire for more equality in the workplace for women, yet each and every one has fallen short at one point or another. It is clear that the battle is not over. More than 50 years after the passing of the Equal Pay Act, the gender pay gap remains at 14.3% in the UK. This is only exacerbated for non-white employees as wage disparities of up to 16% can be measured between different racial groups. Such data makes clear that whilst advancements have been made within the workplace for some women, when viewed with an intersectional lens, the shortcomings of this progress become clear, particularly for women of colour.  Women are clearly in a better position than they were a hundred years ago. However, that does not mean that the work is done or the project is complete. Active attempts to redress gaps and inequalities in opportunity, pay and representation must continue if we want to create a workforce in which each and every individual has as much chance to progress and succeed as the next.

Hiya, I'm Marie and I've just started studying History and International Relations at King's. I'm not a huge fan of public speaking and so I love writing as an alternative way to communicate with an audience! I love writing about a mix of history as well as recent affairs or news. Outside of writing, I love to read and I'm also a dancer, having done ballet since I was very little :)