Researching women and work can be really puzzling. There is a series of things I genuinely don’t understand: how it feels to earn your living in a workplace where you are the only woman or in a small minority; what it’s like frequently finding yourself the only person of your sex in workplace contexts; the emotions generated by spending lots of time in ‘between men’ cultures, where conversations tend to focus on masculine activities or are conducted according to masculine norms. In doing academic work I’ve tried to gain a better understanding of women and work, by making sex, gender, sexuality, and gendered inequality part of students’ lives and understandings through my teaching, along with doing some research into why women leave prestigious professions like law to go into more satisfying work. More recently, whenever possible, I’ve been making small changes and differences in my own workplace and working practice (but not through positive discrimination, dear me no, that would be illegal in the UK). But it doesn’t seem to make much difference, academic work… imagine that… or anything I do in my own working context, business schools… wonder why…
I think I started to understand women and work a little better when in 2004 I went to visit the Women’s Library in east London with my partner – it’s in a lovely building in Old Castle St, E1 (a converted wash-house, I’ve just found out) in a backstreet within sight and sound of the City, but definitely not on the main drag. A location that seems unpleasantly appropriate, given the cultural hostility to women in the UK financial industries – reading Linda McDowell’s Capital Culture is one of the most disturbing introductions to gendered discrimination or inequality in that milieu. All business school students should read it… anyway, I like that the library is within reach of everyone working in the Gherkin and the other various glass and steel phallic symbols around there.
Being in the library is a lovely sensory experience – quiet, calm, pleasant. (I’m thinking here ‘the way libraries used to be’ but that makes me sound old and grumpy.) In any event, a very nice place for thinking. The impression from reading pieces on this website is that academics interested in the experience of work never switch off their brains — Dawn Lyon in a B&B quizzing an innocent hotel inspector about his work, Lynne Pettinger getting lost and starting to think about work and sound,Tim Strangleman walking around galleries thinking about organizational death. The experience I had in the library that day was similar.
The exhibition was a corker — called Office Politics: Women in the Workplace 1860–2004, it was a brilliantly put together mixture of furniture (with desks designed specifically to ensure women’s modesty and protect men’s marriages – as an antidote, this is good fun: http://www.linux.otherspace.co.uk/officepolitics/), antique office machinery, clothes, self-help books, all sorts of stuff to position women in relation to work, organization, men. So much stuff I didn’t know about. And also, a little paper timeline with key events marked over the 150 year period. One event and date stood out for me – 1961, Barclays removes the marriage bar.
You’ve probably heard of the marriage bar, but I hadn’t. Turns out there used to be a formal rule in lots of organizations that women had to leave on getting married. No question, no debate, no exceptions — marry and you have to go. And the year when the board of Barclays decided this wasn’t really a good idea — 1961 – just 2 years before my mum got married, not long before I was born. Well within living memory. In some organizations you could come back as a temporary employee without any benefits or security (‘Thank you sir!’), but for most the bar was a barrier that couldn’t be jumped or worked around. The Foreign Office was especially reluctant to remove it, waiting until the Sex Discrimination Act in the early 1970s sort of outlawed its implementation. Hmm.
So, marry and go do some domestic and reproductive labour, or stay single and you can stay in your job. With a colleague from Exeter, Emma Jeanes, I started to do some digging in the Mass Observation Archive at the University of Sussex, an archive that’s been called a ‘structure of feeling’ rather than a systematic dataset. One diary lodged there, written between 1938 and 1944, tells a wonderful story of a woman working in the civil service. She fell in love with a married man, became pregnant, and told her boss – who promptly asked for her resignation under the marriage bar rules. This woman, who must have been very sparky, refused, on the reasonable basis that she wasn’t married but pregnant, and there was no rule about pregnant women having to leave. Rational argument for a bureaucratic setting! She kept her job, gave birth to twins, and continued to work for the Civil Service, by all accounts doing a very good job (in both spheres of life, work and family – her children are currently editing her diaries for publication, when they can find time — they’re both senior academics, at Imperial College and Oxford). Another diarist, who stayed single and therefore kept her job, was brave enough to call herself a ‘Feminist’ (with a capital F) in her workplace in 1940s Glasgow. (Weirdly, this diarist lived at the top of the hill my mother was born at the bottom of – strange feeling to read her diary, as she describes sitting on the bus going past my granny’s house.) I really like this woman, from reading her diary, because she prods her colleagues all the time about their views on women and work – making trouble, causing conflict, challenging, then writing it all up. She would have made a good academic or researcher. Her brother did, from what she says – he worked at Glasgow University, first in the engineering faculty, then as an industrial psychologist of all things. Whereas his sister seems to have spent her working life as a clerk, writing wonderful diaries and being a Feminist.
We’re not entirely sure where this research is heading, but it does feel like it’s taking us into interesting areas empirically and theoretically. We’re finding that women writing about their experience of work responded to the marriage bar in very different ways. Some argued for it, telling workmates that it was unethical for a woman to ‘take a man’s job’ when she didn’t need to earn independently; others were strongly opposed, wanting to maintain financial and social independence from husbands. The women report very different responses from their male colleagues, from extremely conservative to relatively radical. Above all, reading the diaries has given us a healthy respect for the variety of human experience and response to regulation. In short, as ever, we’re finding that a societal and organizational desire to impose a norm, to create a divide according to biological sex, was continually contested, circumvented, and undermined.
We’re on the lookout now for people who actually had to leave work because they got married. So if you know of any friends or relatives with this experience who would be willing to tell their stories, please contact either me or Emma Jeanes.
 Taylor, S. (2010) ‘Gendering in the holistic milieu: A critical realist analysis of homeopathic work’, Gender, Work & Organization, 17(4).