Did the Dagenham women's equal pay fight make a difference?

Made in Dagenham scene of Ford women

A new film portrays women's battle for equal pay at Ford's Essex plant in the 1960s. But as the pay gap between working men and women endures, how much difference did they make?

The spotlight falls on the women of the Ford car plant in Dagenham, Essex, this week, just as it did when they got up from their sewing machines and walked out on strike in 1968.

Their story is the subject of a new British film, Made in Dagenham.

It tells how 187 car-seat cover machinists challenged the accepted norm and took industrial action in the battle to get their work recognised as skilled and equal to their male colleagues.

It follows the women as they brought car production at the bedrock of UK car manufacture to a halt, prompted the lay-off of thousands of workers and was only solved with the intervention of then secretary of state, Barbara Castle.

It was action that fanned out across the UK and led ultimately to the introduction of the Equal Pay Act in 1970, which outlawed discrimination on pay and conditions between men and women.

For those who did not live through the social shifts of the 1960s, the period after the post-war settlement, but before the UK slid into the economic abyss of the 1970s, a look through the newspaper cuttings of the time is a window on to a different world.

It lets in breath of a febrile atmosphere of strong unions operating in a country based in manufacturing.

Whole sections of newspapers headlined "Labour News" describe strikes and planned absenteeism, not only at factories in industrial cities, but right down to the tranquil High Street stores of John Lewis or Selfridges.

'No bra-burning'

But while the men were on the picket lines, as Jacqueline Scott, Professor of Sociology at the University of Cambridge, says: "It was a time when people still thought a woman's primary job was the home and looking after the kids, and work was something secondary, largely pin money."

Until the feisty Essex women of Dagenham walked out, that is.

The women sitting together in the offices of a London PR agency giggle and gossip as old friends. These days, they inhabit a demeanour far from the dispute-weary striker.

Start Quote

They moved the mountain but the tectonic plates were already shifting”

End Quote Sarah Veale TUC

But Gwen Davis, Sheila Douglass, Eileen Pullan and Vera Sime, now aged in their 70s and 80s, were at the centre of the Ford dispute.

They say they never felt like trailblazers, at the forefront of the second wave of feminism

"We didn't burn our bras on the way," says Eileen.

The film conjures up a time of miniskirts and mopeds, but for them, there was no stripping off on the factory floor - one of the more "Carry On" aspects of the film.

Instead they were motivated by a sense of injustice, that their skilled work and therefore their pay, should be graded the same as male colleagues, not at the 87% of it they were paid.

"We were fighting for ourselves," says Sheila. "For what we thought was our due."

"It was because we were women and we were just paid less," adds Gwen.

Their action surprised their colleagues who were often their fathers, brothers and male friends and relatives.

Barbara Castle (right) meets the Dagenham women strikers The women found a sympathetic ear in Barbara Castle

They surprised their bosses, the country, and in Barbara Castle they found a politician who shared their feeling for fairness, culminating in the 1970 Act.

But the striking women voted to go back to work before they were granted equal pay, on a deal for 92% of male wages. So if the settlement fell short, how important were their actions in the equality fight?

"It was the catalyst, rather than the cause," says Sarah Veale, head of equality and employment rights at the TUC. "They moved the mountain, but the tectonic plates were already shifting".

As the 60s swung, she says, women working in factories were still lagging behind the middle class feminist movement. But as the female workforce grew and women became generally liberated in education and reproductive rights, there was a "growing feeling this was wrong".

"What made it rush forward was these women doing something about it," says Ms Veale. "To challenge the heterodoxy was massive."

Persistent gap

Critics point out the women were led by a male union representative, but those there at the time say the impetus came from the women themselves. And, initially, they had to fight entrenched union sexism, out to protect male jobs and pay.

Today, while official discrimination based on sex is illegal, a gender pay gap persists.

The Office for National Statistics latest Annual Survey of Hours and Earnings puts it at 20.2%.

Made in Dagenham is about life at a Ford car plant in 1968

The tasks of the Women and Work Commission, set up by Prime Minister Tony Blair in 2004, to examine how to narrow the pay gap, are ongoing. And despite the Equality Act of 2010, women are still waiting on a government decision on whether to make private companies reveal their pay gap.

And the film is released in a week where a woman as high profile as TV host Tess Daly tells the Observer Magazine: "This is a business that favours men as hosts without a doubt and they're often paid more for the same job, so I guess you could call that sexism."

"I've no idea [why], it's just a fact."

Commentators see a rainbow of reasons.

While women today find it easier to make a start in the labour market, Dr Leen Vandercasteele, a post-doctoral research fellow University of Manchester, has found the drop off comes in career progression.

Others point to a lack of affordable childcare, the uneven divide of domestic work, that women more commonly work in "ghettoised areas, the Five Cs - caring, catering, cleaning, cooking, and childcare".

Ford's four women feel some women are still "used" by employers today, but they acknowledge the improvements. And, looking back, they are proud of their place in that process.

"It has definitely made history," says Gwen. "It was a good fight. It was worth everything."

Below is a selection of your comments

Yes Equal pay essential for like work. Such a shame though that the Ford production workers allowed their manipulative union masters to price them out of their jobs later by consistently agitating for unnecessary and unrealistic demands which halted production and costing. This allowed Japan and Korea to compete successfully with lower priced popular vehicles, no production hold ups which ultimately cost Ford workers their jobs and fewer work prospects for their sons and daughters.

Jean Westley, Dagenham

I agree that there are still pay gaps between men and women especially in small and medium sized companies where most of the women are employed in a clerical position and are there to supposedly support the men on the paperwork side. I have not found this problem with large companies and find they treat both men and women the same.

Avril, Colchester

Any nation that wastes 50% of its brain power by feminal discrimination deserves to go under. During 30 years as a Company Secretary I followed one rule: merit trumps. I promoted on the basis of competence and capability and paid all employees equally according to appointment. Anything less is not merely bad business-sense but a total lack of common-sense.

David Skene-Melvin, Toronto

If it wasn't for the Equal Pay Act, I wonder if I would be in the situation my husband and I are in today; I work full time and act as the 'bread-winner' and he is a full time stay at home dad for our daughter.

Kirsty, Wilstead

I am inspired by the Dagenham Ladies. I claimed equal pay in April 2007. I was harassed for 9 months following my claim by the owner of the company and I had to resign for the sake of my health. Today, three and a half years later I am still without a job and my Tribunal case is still ongoing - I have received nothing by way of compensation. However - I will continue to the bitter end because, like these ladies, I hate injustice. Has it been worth it - I am still undecided.

Julia, Yorkshire

I work in the civil service and there is still a very large inconsistency with grading. Whilst receiving equal pay as someone with the same grade, comparable positions and job titles held by men and women are very differently graded. The problem with this sort of under-grading is that it can be more easily hidden and it is more difficult to stand your corner. This is especially the case where there is a male dominated senior management who are more likely to just label you as a bra burner if you speak up. The Dagenham girls were very brave to stand their corner but I fear that unions are not what they were and do not have the guts to back up workers on these issues.

Beccy, Southampton

Equal pay between the sexes is something I 100% support but the figures for 'pay differences' between men and women don't tell the whole story. I was earning the same as a female colleague five years ago but she's had two maternity leaves and now works part time so I earn significantly more than her. That's not unfair if I work five days and she works three, especially as I now cover part of the work she was doing on the two days she no longer works!

Peter, Nottingham

Peter's comments show complete ignorance of the situation for most part-timers. The company firstly reduces your pay pro-rata to the hours you are working. That bit is fair. But it then refuses to reward you with the same inceases that the full-timers get. Often because the output is measured against a full-time base. The level of your responsibility is then reduced in a completely irrational way, just because you do not work as many hours. This is then use to justify paying you less than full timers. Women are paid less because company performance management systems discriminate against part-timers and those who cannot work late.

Helen, Chichester

I've never heard of any job where a woman and a man are doing exactly the same job, same hours, shift pattern, grade, responsibility, in other words, same everything, where the man is paid a higher rate than the woman.

Graham Triming, Chelmsford

In a former job, I had a male colleague in exactly the same role, with similar qualifications (MSc and BSc, although I believe I had better A-level and GCSE grades) and less experience. Our working hours, responsibilities etc were all the same but due to his inexperience I often helped him - he was paid 10% more than me.

Catriona, Stockport, UK

In 1971, in Australia, I had to give evidence to an equal pay tribunal. One member told me "... but, of course, your male colleague carries the heavy boxes of books". We looked at each other and burst out laughing. As my colleague pointed out, we were often a 100 or more miles apart, so I had to carry my own boxes! We got the equal pay, but I don't remember much conversation about qualifications or professionalism.

Gina, Lancaster

They won their battle, and lost the war. Ford no longer makes cars at Dagenham. Now all 'our' Fords come from Germany, Belgium and Spain, so these women's sons and daughters no longer have jobs. Very sad.

Julian R, Sheffield, England

It is a brave employer who takes on female staff of childbearing age. The costs of reorganising work schedules around her child care arrangements and engaging temporary or agency replacements to cover maternity leave etc should be taken into account when calculating equal pay.

Dave, Cesme

All the discussions I have seen of this film seem to lack any historical perspective. Up until the First World War, it was regarded as shameful if a married woman engaged in paid work. Men were designated as the bread-winner whether they wanted that role or not. A married woman's job was to wash, clean, cook and raise the children. Although things got shaken up by the First World War, this attitude persisted. My grandmother had to resign her job as a teacher when she got married; ever wonder why female teachers are always referred to as "Miss"? The Second World War had an even greater impact and, although married women were allowed to work, it was still considered that men - the family bread winners - should be paid more that women who were working to supplement the family income - "pin money". From our perspective of "equality mindedness", convenience food, labour saving devices and the welfare state, this may all seem odd, but it was practical and widely accepted at the time.

Robert Lee, Bracknell, UK

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