Seminar (Greenwich University, London) – Equal Opportunities in the General Post Office

University of Greenwich History Research Seminar, Old Royal Naval
College, Maritime Campus (Cutty Sark DLR)

The next history research seminar will be on Wednesday
April 23rd, in Queen Anne 238, from 1-2.30 p.m. in Queen Anne 238.
Helen Glew , a PhD student at the Centre for Contemporary British
History, and  the Institute of Historical Research, London, who teaches
at the University of Greenwich, will speak on the following topic:

“The work is not regarded as suitable for women”: women’s work, the
“scientific frontier” and the campaign for equal opportunities in the
General Post Office, c.1914-c.1939″

As the first Civil Service department to employ women, the General Post
Office considered itself a pioneer. The conditions it established for
women’s employment in the 1870s – namely occupational segregation by
sex, the marriage bar and unequal pay with men – persisted for a number
of decades and shaped the way in which women’s employment was
considered not only in the Post Office but throughout the Civil
Service, as well as reflecting wider attitudes to women and their

This paper explores the impact of occupational segregation in the First
World War and interwar years and campaigns by women’s associations in
the Post Office to change it. Segregation entailed a separate entrance
exam and separate promotion avenues for women; in addition to this, a
large number of roles, particularly those in the higher grades, were
closed to women, creating the archetypal glass ceiling.  Crucially, the
practices involved in segregation, particularly in clerical grades,
meant that officials could argue that women and men did not do the same
work, (when in fact the differences between their duties were often
negligible). As such, the continuance of segregation inhibited further
campaigns for equal conditions, which explains both why women’s
associations were so keen to see its end and the Post Office hierarchy
fought hard to maintain what it called “tradition”. The gradual opening
of the higher grades to women at the start of the 1930s and the
termination of separate entrance and promotion conditions for women in
some grades in the late 1930s marked a significant turning point in the
battle for equality for women in the Post Office and elsewhere in the
Civil Service.

Whilst this paper constitutes a detailed case study of attitudes to
women in the workplace, it also shows that such attitudes were rooted
in society more generally as well as the extent to which feminist
organisations outside the Civil Service became involved in the cause.


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