What 1940s women can teach us today

 In Gender equality

The 1940s has always held a fascination for me, there is something about the intensity of that time that is electric. How global events rippled through every day life and heralded significant societal change. The area I’m most interested in, is the implications on women’s lives. I am taken by how mind-blowing it must have been to see women as welders, radar operators, bus drivers and farmers. Not only were women getting access to male dominated industries but they did it well. It was a time of great hardship, sadness and deprivation, but many also remember it as a time of irreverence, resourcefulness, bonding and joy. Even the everyday activities of keeping the home seem to take on a greater purpose: rationing; the black out; make do and mend & dig for victory. I recently reached my 40th birthday and celebrated with a 1940s party, and as I searched for videos, music and posters to give a 1940s feel to night, it gave me a chance to pause and reflect on the experience of 1940s women and what relevance it has for us today.

Social disruption creates opportunities

The labour shortages that arose when men were called away to fight created significant opportunities for women. The need to employ married women, even those with children necessitated an advance in social structures such as organised childcare. The workplaces were not always hospitable environments and women weren’t paid or treated equally. They did however hold their own, demonstrating formidable strength, skill and resilience; making significant contributions to the war effort, their communities, their respective professions and the feminist cause as a whole.

Today the technological revolution has disrupted the way we think about our communities, the way we communicate and our relationship to authorities such as the press and the government. The internet and social media have been at the forefront of this changing dynamic. It’s an environment which is at the same time both hostile and liberating. The trolling that occurs disproportionately to women is a barrier to many women’s full participation online, choosing to self-censor or to run the gauntlet of sexist abuse when they do speak out. However, the new frontier is opening up opportunities for many women, allowing them to use their creativity, insight, life experiences and passion to build networks, communities and businesses. The accessibility of information and lower barriers to entry are opening up opportunities and enabling women to thrive in a world where we still experience structural inequality on both the work and home-front.

In small numbers we struggle to be heard

Women found access to the workplace was not accompanied by inclusion. Women were ‘being seen’ but not ‘being heard’. In the words of the solitary woman engineer at Lockheed Aircraft ‘If I say we ought to do it this way, they don’t hear me’.

Fast forward 60 years and the situation hasn’t changed that much. The Harvard Business Review report the study of women in positions of leadership who found themselves outnumbered in the workplace. The study found that when women were in teams where they made up a small number (such as one or two in a senior executive team or board room), their voices were drowned out despite their qualifications and experience. Their opinions and contributions were ignored, and when the same issues were raised by male colleagues it was the men who were recognised and congratulated. Women in small numbers get seen as primarily as female representatives, and their individuality and unique contributions become invisible. It is only when women make up 30-40% of a group, that their contributions are taken on merit and their gender becomes less of an issue than their professional experience. It’s studies like these that has led an increasing number of men and women to seriously reconsider the merit of quotas in heavily male dominated environments such as politics and senior management.

Things can go backwards

The book ‘Freedom from Fear’ by David M Kennedy includes an analysis of American Women’s experience of work during the war years. The author reflects that while behaviour changed during the war years, values didn’t. While women entered the workplace out of necessity, opportunity and patriotism, the end of the war saw most the employment trends reversed. There were strong societal expectations on married women to return to the home, they held their own beliefs that that was where they were best placed and the less than hospitable working environments meant that workplace participation dropped substantially post war, from 36% down to 28%. ‘Rosie the Riveter’ became ‘Mrs Harris the Homemaker’. While some industries reverted back to their original gender profile some industries were irrevocably changed. Female employment went from one in four autoworkers during the war down to one in twelve after the war. By contrast, pre-war banking was the sole remit of men, by 1950 women outnumbered men, including the vast majority of tellers and 15% of middle managers.

Growth we saw during the 1980s and 1990s in female participation in industries such as Science, Engineering and IT has declined. I’m left to wonder what structural support has disappeared that drove the original gains? Or whether it is a reflection of the reality of the workplace experience in these male-dominated environments?

Today we see evidence of the glacial pace in change in attitudes, compared with change in behaviour. While we allow women into male dominated environments and senior positions (albeit in rather low numbers), when they get there they face a double bind, being perceived either as too soft or as aggressive. Our values and emotional acceptance of women as politicians, business and industry leaders has yet to catch up with our espoused values.

Change happens, but it is not always linear, gains we make are not set in stone. The forces of the status quo are subtle yet powerful and it takes a variety of factors to change to support sustained change in cultural norms.

Annabelle Crabb’s book ‘The Wife Drought’ catalogues the additional burden that working mother typically experience (compared to their male colleagues with children) and the impact that this has on them before they even step into the workplace. Through observation, research and careful argument she outlines practical changes that need to occur to create equality of opportunity and how changes on the homefront and in the structure and culture of the workplace will benefit not just working mothers, but men and women as a whole.

Where to from here?

It can feel frustrating at times to still be fighting these battles. The belief in the 80s and 90s that change was rapid and unstoppable fees somewhat naïve. Access does not guarantee equity of opportunity and the attainment of office by the visible view does not necessarily open access to other. However there is cause for hope. While ‘Rosie the Riveter’ statistically probably went on to become ‘Mrs Harris the Housewife’ her cultural relevance endured. “It helped inspire a later generation of women to challenge sexual stereotypes and to demand what Rosie never had: economic freedom as well as family security, a child and a paycheck, a place of work and a place to call home, too, not one or the other” (Freedom From Fear, p781)

Just as cultural change and evolution cannot change overnight, neither can it be withheld. It rushes like a river, slows to a glacial pace, then overflows like the breach of a dam wall. Women are strong patient and resourceful, the spirit, tenacity and joie de vivre of those grand dames of the 1940s lives on in us, so get out your wrench and your lippy its time to get this party started.

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