100 years of promoting Good Work

By Rebecca Florisson, Policy Advisor

The Work Foundation’s centenary celebration this year gave us cause to look back at 100 years of promoting good work. The organisation, and society at large, have come a long way since then. Today, children receive compulsory education, instead of routinely having to earn a wage, in often dangerous working environments. Progress. Now, when women marry, they are no longer expected to forego their careers to make way for male workers. Again, progress. Some changes may happen gradually, but others see very decisive landmark moments that serve to move things along. The Work Foundation has been at the very heart of some of this change.

For instance, in 1952, Elizabeth Pepperell became Assistant Director of the then Industrial Welfare Society. As a young woman, Elizabeth escaped factory life (which involved fixing lids on jars of fish paste), when she earned herself a scholarship at the London School of Economics. Consequently, she became a tireless, lifelong advocate of good work for men and women. Early on, she developed courses for women looking to make the most out of themselves and their careers. Initially hoping for about twenty participants, instead Elizabeth’s courses were always sold out. She personally taught a, mindboggling, 16,000 female workers. She also encouraged women to negotiate for higher pay and to step into, and excel, in management roles.

Elizabeth Pepperell’s advocacy efforts played a role in Parliament’s adoption of the Equal Pay Act (1970) and the Sex Discrimination Act (1975). The first Act ensured individuals would receive equal pay for equal work and the second protected men and women from discrimination based on their sex or marital status. In 2010, these Acts were overhauled in a much-needed update and consolidated again in the Equality Act, now also prohibiting discrimination on the basis of age, disability, gender reassignment, race, religion and sexual orientation.

With 2020 just around the corner, we are half a century on from the adoption of the Equal Pay Act. So how much have things changed since then? Looking at the 1970 February issue of the Industrial Society’s Journal, it is not the differences that strike you, but the similarities . One article in the issue is titled “Employing minority groups: Married women”. While we have progressed significantly from the position where married women are a ‘minority’ in the workplace, there are underlying issues and assumptions that still resonate.

The 1970 article considers married women as a hitherto overlooked source of work power that employers need to tap into, as these women should bring stability and level-headedness into the office. Further, it states, “British women are extremely capable. They can organise themselves into running a home and holding down a good job so that no one and nothing is neglected. Leading a double life suits them.” Although this may seem a little bold, this attitude has not changed much between then and now. In 2019, British women are often expected to competently and cheerfully lead ‘double lives’. They remain the primary care takers of children; take on many more hours of housework than their male counterparts and accept lower-paid, progression-poor jobs closer to home in order to juggle work and the family. Women in 2019 are still caught in a double bind between societal expectations of traditional gender roles and the pressure to succeed in a career.

Last year, the World Economic Forum predicted it would take over 200 years to see global gender equality. From Elizabeth Pepperell’s work until today, there is no doubt that a massive shift has taken place. However, still more, and still deeper change will be required to quicken the pace of change and achieve true equality in the workplace.