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[1]. 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:, 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.

[1] Tay­lor, S. (2010) ‘Gen­der­ing in the holis­tic milieu: A crit­i­cal real­ist analy­sis of home­o­pathic work’, Gen­der, Work & Orga­ni­za­tion, 17(4).