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The webmaster, Pat Cryer, as an older child

Gender equality, inequality & sexism
in mid 20th century Britain

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Woman power and the swinging 60s

balance of genders

The Swinging 60s was a time that is associated with the arrival of the birth control pill and 'free love' - which of course meant worry-free sex. Sex no longer had to carry the fear of pregnancy, so it could be a 'free-for-all' among those women who wanted it and those men who expected it. The older methods of birth control which were notoriously unreliable and unpleasant in a range of ways had largely had their day. Women could control their own bodies, irrespective of what demands men made of them.

The UK's ranking in sexual equality

The UK now ranks below countries including Rwanda and the Philippines in a global index of gender equality.

Britain is in 20th place on the World Economic Forum's (WEF) index of nations based on the gender gap in key areas including economy, politics, education and health. On the WEF's first index in 2006, the UK ranked ninth.

The WEF, a not-for-profit body based in Switzerland analysed data from 144 countries and said the gender gap was at its widest since 2008. The UK's ranking reflects fewer women in senior and technical positions, as well as a drop in the estimated income women earn compared with men.

The Daily Telegraph 26th October 2016

By the time of the Swinging 60s, I was happily married and 'free love' passed me by. However there was another side of the emerging 'woman power', and that did not pass me by. In order to understand it, you first have to understand how men and women implicitly interacted before the 1960s.

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Implicit sexism before the 1960s

It is only now, looking back to the 1950s and 1960s, that I see so many of the then accepted norms of behaviour as sexism. It did not seem so to me at the time. My generation had been brought up to these norms and with few exceptions simply accepted them without question. Yes there were notable exceptions, but relatively speaking they were few.

Girls were brought up to consider themselves as the servants of men and inferior to them. For example, when I asked my mother how she was going to vote, her answer was always, "Whatever your father tells me to". In fact this was understandable as she grew up on a time when British women did not have the vote. British women did get the vote in 1918 but only once they reached the age of 30.

Men always 'knew best' and women did not argue with them. Again perhaps this was understandable because most people at that time were church-goers and the Bible says "wives must accept the authority of [their] husbands" (1 Peter 3:1, New Living Translation). Even the Church of England marriage ceremony required women to promise to obey their husbands. I am not saying that all women accepted this; I am saying that it was the expected norm, at least as far as a public front was concerned. I too promised to obey my husband when I married him, but both he and I considered it as no more than a ritual. I am sure that this was the case for the vast majority of my generation, although there would have been exceptions.

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Pat Cryer, webmaster

Women were widely referred to as 'girls' long after they ceased to be children; eventually they became 'ladies' not 'women'.

It was almost unknown for a woman not to take her husband's surname on marriage. Then her Mrs title indicated that she was married and no longer a single Miss. Men, however, were designated as Mr irrespective of whether or not they were married.

As any book from the time will show, whereas a female would be referred to as 'she' and a man as 'he', someone whose gender was unknown or immaterial like the proverbial 'person in the street' was also referred to as 'he'.

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Sexism and gender inequality in the workplace, early 1960s

Because of how I had been conditioned in my early years, when I started work, I unquestioningly accepted sexism in the workplace - although it was only later that I saw it as having that name. The same was true for the majority of women of my generation, and of course for older women too.

We younger women learnt to deal with our bottoms being smacked by passing males along with their lewd comments. We never, never complained! In fact it annoys me greatly when women of today try to sue for treatment that was commonplace in my day. When we did not welcome the attention, we learnt to smile patronisingly and walk away. The men soon got the message and there was no bad feeling.

I started recognising the sexism for what it was in meetings. Men dominated. They shouted over one another and interrupted one another; they always seemed to get preferential treatment from the chairman while we women always seemed to have our comments and suggestions ignored or dismissed as unworkable or irrelevant. Later if a man made the same intervention, it was treated seriously.

Then I began to notice how few women were in senior management. This fact became known as 'the glass ceiling' because the 'ceiling' for promotion was certainly there but it was undocumented, so couldn't be seen to be verified.

It also struck me that women were paid less than men for the same jobs.

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Towards the end of sexism and gender inequality in the workplace

Of course I was not the only woman to notice such things. Pockets of action sprang up widely:

All these were helpful, but we women still needed tools to counter the sexism that we were regularly experiencing as individuals. Consequently local groups  of professional, like-minded women sprang up. I belonged to one which served me well for my later career. We met regularly to share our recent personal experiences of workplace sexism; to develop counters to it and to counsel and support one another.

Probably we all took away different things from these groups. Let me give an example of tactics which I learnt for having one's say in mixed gender meetings in the workplace.

The problem was that in such meetings, women couldn't get a word in edgeways without joining in the free-for-all. The tactic we developed was to raise our hand when one wanted to speak. The arm needed to be slightly bent so that it was different from putting up one's hand in a school classroom. The arm raising was accompanied by staring at the chairman to catch his eye. (Yes it was always a 'he'.) He could hardly ignore this and would invariable clear space for an intervention. It was then essential to look round and wait for silence before starting to speak and then to speak slowly and confidently and to project one's voice.

Where one was interrupted while saying one's piece, as invariably happened when a man declared that he knew better, the tactic was to turn to him and if necessary then to the chair and say slowly and confidently, "I should like to finish my sentence". When I first tried this, I was met with shocked faces, but it worked.

The group which I attended disbanded in the 1970s. It had served its purpose well; its members were well-armed, and it was no longer needed

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The continuing battle against sexism and gender inequality

If you are younger than me, as you probably are, you may think that I have been exaggerating. I assure you that I have not - although I suppose that I must stress again that I have been talking of norms, of which there are always exceptions.

In the developed world a lot has changed since the days when I was a young professional. Normally, but not always, men and women can now interact as equals. The exception that I notice is with certain retired men of my own generation who have worked all their lives in male-dominated jobs. They know that they should treat women as equals, but prefer to act sheepishly and move away from them. As we realised in our women's group, such men have been used to treating women as wives, mothers, sisters, secretaries and tea ladies, but not to dealing with them in the role of fellow professionals. Secretaries and wives - perhaps better phrased as 'housewives' - were definitely in the servant role. Remember that indoctrination after the Second World War was that a (married) woman's place was in the home, in order to free up jobs for the thousands of men returning from serving in the forces.

Getting recognised as men's equals has not been quick or easy because it has required a cultural revolution. It took time and dedication to change attitudes, and women in today's workplace probably don't appreciate how much they owe to women of my generation. There were parallels between us and the suffragette movement of the late 19th and early 20th century, although of course we did not attempt to raise our profile unlawfully and we did not suffer physically.

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