Belfast Telegraph

Friday 29 August 2014

Stroppy machinists led the way, but it’s still a man’s world

The cheery new film Made in Dagenham, which opens next week, tells the true story of 187 female machinists who went on strike at the giant Ford motor factory in 1968 and how their actions led to a ground-breaking piece of legislation.

The trigger was management's decision to re-grade the women as unskilled workers, in order to save money.

After an initial 24-hour walkout, the women went on strike, causing enormous resentment among their male co-workers. Production ground to a halt |as the supply of finished car seats ran out and thousands were laid off.

Barbara Castle, newly installed as Labour's secretary of state for employment, was sympathetic to their cause and, after meeting the women, she persuaded Ford to offer them 92% of the men's rate. All over the country, women demanded better treatment and, by 1970, the Equal Pay Act became law.

Of course, the film will be criticised for making modern history sassy and entertaining.

Who cares? If it can show a new generation of young women just how hard it has been to achieve parity at work, then it's worth it.

I found watching Sally Hawkins (as the women's leader) unbelievably moving, having started full-time work in 1967, in an environment that was predominately male.

Forty-two years on, you might think equality in the workplace is a no-brainer, but recent evidence shows that women still get a pretty rough deal.

We still have plenty of battles to fight. Labour — who always claims to be the party that represents working women — recently voted not to have gender parity in the shadow cabinet. Instead, Labour MPs decided to dilute Harriet Harman's proposals so that now the proportion will be just a third.

Nominations open on Sunday, but this election isn't worth a fig. Yvette Cooper described the decision as “disappointing”.

Labour introduced the Equality Act 2010, which requires employers to reveal the pay gap between men and women, but it is not yet in force.

And will it make any difference? In a recession, female workers are likely to be unfairly affected by redundancies.

Last week, researchers from Manchester University revealed that, although men and women start work with more or less the same opportunities and pay, by the time a decade has elapsed, women on average will be earning up to 25% less.

Don't expect the coalition to place women first either — this is a government of straight, white, privately educated men.

In Europe, Viviane Reding, the Commissioner for Fundamental Rights, is giving business leaders a year to implement better gender balances |on their executive boards, threatening legislation if there isn't progress.

Across the EU, 89% of members of the boards of the biggest companies are male, and only 3% of boards have a female chief executive. This in spite of a study in Finland which reveals companies with gender-balanced boards are, on average, 10% more profitable.

In Spain, a 2007 law requires companies with more than 250 employees to have boards made up of at least 40% women.

Theresa May, the minster for women and equalities, says she wants to improve things — and is encouraging the Government to force all public sector boards to be 50% female by 2015.

Not much of a revolution since those pioneering women walked out at Dagenham.

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