Sunday PeopleThe Equal Pay Act (EPA) was passed in Britain on May 29th 1970, 50 years ago this week. For those who had long campaigned for equal pay, it was a relief to finally see it on the statute books (although in a fight with its origins in the late 19th century, by no means all of those who had done so were still alive) and, as a measure that improved at least some women’s pay, it seems right to commemorate it. However, – and this is a VERY LARGE however indeed –this legislation was severely limited in its scope and it never ensured that all women were paid the same as men. In addition, it was launched into a world that was awash with unchallenged and normalized sexism. This happened to be the world in which I was becoming a young woman. This is my take on the EPA, what it meant, and how it was publicly received in 1970s Britain.

In my research on women and work in the early 20th century, I was always struck by the lengths that employers went to to try to get round changes in the law that would mean that they had to raise wage rates. In 1909 the Liberal Government’s Trades Board Act introduced minimum wages into four of the country’s worst paid industries. The first Trade Board rates to be agreed were in the chain making industry of the Black Country and for women homeworkers, the increase was set to substantially raise their pay. There was, however, a three-month period before the agreement became enforceable in 1910, followed by a six-month period in which workers were encouraged to sign an agreement to work at the old rates, with bosses warning that this was the only way that future work could be guaranteed. It was a blatant attempt to bypass the law and the women, led by the National Federation of Women Workers struck, much to the employers’ surprise. The public was incensed that the women were being so shabbily treated, the bosses were shamed into doing the right thing and after a ten-week dispute, the rate was achieved.

This evasion, as outrageous as it was, nevertheless seems fairly mild in comparison to what happened nearly 60 years later, when the EPA was passed (don’t get me wrong. There was no shortage of injustices between 1909 and 1970!). For starters, it was not implemented until 29 December 1975, giving employers a splendidly long time (although not the 7 years the CBI had requested) to work out how to get around pay rise issues, for example by altering job descriptions so that men continued to receive higher pay than women. Spare Rib, the feminist magazine, kept its readers in touch with what was going on. In an excellent article in 1973, entitled ‘Equal Pay: Make It Work for You’, Sarah Boston reported that the company Shoefayre, had renamed its male shop assistants ‘Trainee Managers’ and paid them £3 more than the women whose job titles went unaltered. The terms of the Act were deliberately vague and extremely limited; equal pay was only to be conceded when men and women’s work was deemed to be the same or broadly similar. This was so easy for employers to circumvent, especially as the job evaluations that were needed to determine equal pay were not even compulsory so that many firms did not even bother to carry them out. There were endless ways to get around equal pay, such as implementing grading structures which put heavy work (done by men) at the top and light work (done by women) at the bottom, often with scant regard to the skill and training required. Despite no longer being able to advertise a job as a man’s or a woman’s, firms found ways to ensure that certain jobs would remain exclusively female so that they could be paid less. A good ruse used by at least one firm was to ‘grant’ women a pay rise that brought them up to the male minimum rate. The only problem, as Sarah Boston showed, was that none of the men at the firm were actually on the basic rate and were all paid more than the women.

Even before the Act was implemented, a great many women knew that they would still have a fight on their hands for wage rises. As for women who did work that had long been deemed traditionally female and was notoriously low paid, the EPA changed little or nothing. At the end of the EPA’s first year, Spare Rib noted that ‘it’s been hard for women to take the EPA seriously. Even in cases where it applies, industrial tribunals have been ruling against us for the most trivial reasons’.  Of the 130 cases heard by tribunals (most commonly chaired by men) in the first six months of 1976, 94 were dismissed. Spare Rib drew readers attention to the appeals tribunals which could either reverse the verdicts of the industrial tribunals or get the case referred back for a second hearing. The first three appeals hearings ruled in favour of women workers.

First came the Kraft Food factory in Kirby which had denied women equal pay because they were not permitted to do night work. The appeals tribunal told the firm that ‘the mere time at which the work is performed should be disregarded when considering the differences between the things which the woman does and things which a man does.

This was followed by a case involving Fortes, who had promoted one male waiter to ‘Banqueting Supervisor’ just days after the EPA was passed. A tribunal had ruled that the women waitresses were entitled to equal pay only until the man’s promotion came into effect but this was rejected by an appeals tribunal which ruled for a permanent rise for the women.

The third case concerned a firm on Humberside which had appealed against a tribunal that had decided that a woman cook should receive the same wage as two male assistant chefs. To prove the difference between the jobs, the firm had pointed out that the work was carried out at different times, in different locations and that catering was for different numbers. The appeals judge considered these to be ‘trivial differences’.

Whilst the appeals’ tribunals helped many women workers, it is clear that the process of challenging your employer, was made as difficult as possible – and would not even have been needed if the spirit of the Act had genuinely intended equality. After a long strike for equal pay at the Trico Factory in Brentford (where women were paid £6.50 less than the men on broadly similar work) , supported by the Amalgamated Union of Engineering Workers, one woman’s assessment of the ‘victory’ neatly summed up the real state of affairs; ‘We didn’t get [the settlement] through the Equal Pay Act – you could say we got it despite the Equal Pay Act’.

In the same month that saw the introduction of the EPA, the Sex Discrimination Act (SDA) became law. This set up the Equal Opportunities Commission (EOC) to promote equality and to tackle and remove discrimination in the areas of housing, education and training, as well as in employment. Whilst both these Acts (today covered by the Equality Act) disappointed a lot of women who hoped for much more, the existence of the legislation did at least provide the chance to challenge prejudice and to raise awareness of inequality.

I was 14 in 1976 and completely unaware of the enormity of the scale of the work that lay ahead fo rthe EOC. What I did hear were endless jibes about women ‘wanting it both ways’ – demanding equality in the workplace but still expecting men to open doors for them or pick up the bill on dates. About women being reluctant to do ‘masculine’ (ie heavy or dirty) work. About there being no point to married women having equal pay when it was clear that they were only working for pin money. I heard women deemed to be too loud or expressing opinions being accused of ‘going all women’s lib on us’ and I read about mothers who went out to work wanting it all but neglecting their duties. Sometimes it seemed as if the media delighted in deliberately missing the point; a 1976 Daily Mirror piece entitled ‘Adrienne doesn’t want to be a man’, quoted Adrienne, aged 28, declaring that she wanted to be neither independent nor equal and that women’s lib was in fact pointless (October 5 1976) . Here was the age-old argument about separate spheres – that difference did not equate to inequality. Adrienne ‘gave up a hectic social life and a successful career’ (in that order!) to have a family and had never looked back. And look what happened when mothers went out to work; the Mirror (April 24 1976) reported that,

Fleas and cockroaches are on the increase in Belgium … and it’s all thanks to Women’s Lib, says a health ministry official. He claims that children are turning up to school “like fleabags” because working mothers are too tired to clean their homes.

Regarding equal pay, the legislation existed but there seemed to be a question over whether it was nice or feminine to use it. One of the first women to challenge her employer was ‘blonde Ann Hunt’ (Daily Mirror January 1 1976) who ‘slapped in her claim’… on the day the [EPA] came into force. Another woman who asked for equal pay was awarded compensation for unfair dismissal ‘even though she [had] stormed out and resigned’ (Coventry Evening Telegraph, March 3 1976)

When Joan Bakewell wrote in the Mirror (October 15 1976) that the spirit of the EPA was being ignored and evaded, declaring her support for the women strikers at the Trico factory, readers had things to say,

Blaming the lawmakers for the position in which some women find themselves is, at best, misguided. Women shouted hard and long, telling us how they were undoubtedly equal to men. Now that they have a bigger slice of the cake some are choking on it. if the blame is to be placed anywhere, why not at their own door?

Of course the {SDA and the EPA] will never work. Joan Bakewell must realise there are many jobs which women are quite incapable of doing, even though they may be very competent at their own particular line. They will always be asking a male to help them do something or other (October 21 1976).

I have just finished reading Motherwell, Deborah Orr’s brilliant account of growing up in the 1960s and 70s. Like the Orrs, my family watched Miss World and The Benny Hill Show – everybody did. I heard endless jokes about women, at which you were obliged to laugh if you didn’t want to appear humourless or (God forbid) too serious because, let’s face it and as Orr wrote, ‘women were a joke, after all’. All I knew about women’s liberation and women’s rights were that they were the subject of some hilarious jokes and that women who ‘demanded’ equality’ shaved their heads but not their legs, burned their bras, were not as they should be and were above all figures of fun.

So, if I had read an article in the Sunday People (a British tabloid newspaper) in the autumn of 1976 – 9 months after the introduction of the EPA and the SDA) , about how women should behave at job interviews, I probably wouldn’t have noticed much, if anything, wrong with it. It merely showed me the world that I knew and with no idea yet of what the world of work would look like for me, I suppose I assumed that I would work at something and that whatever it was, it would be what was expected of a young woman in the late 1970s.

Stead & Simpson
My first experience of the world of work: Saturday job, Stead & Simpsons, Exeter 1978

The People article, called ‘Don’t Try to Be Sexy, Ms Smith’ (October 3 1976), appeared on what looks like a woman’s page that included fashion, an advice column, a pattern and a ‘what’s new in the shops’ column. The employment piece was written by Maggie Morro, who stated that despite the SDA and women’s lib, ‘the fact remains … some men just don’t like employing women’. What then, can [a woman] do about this to ensure that she proves to a boss that ‘she’s just as good as the fellows?’.


What followed was a list of tips for women wanting to be taken seriously at interview and in the workplace. Was it a joke or a response to an editor’s straight request for something light-hearted on the modern challenges facing women office workers? Who knew? Let’s laugh anyway because it’s funny, right? (In December 1976 Spare Rib reproduced the People article on a page devoted to examples of sexism sent in by readers. Trouble was, I’d never heard of Spare Rib and I don’t remember seeing it in my local newsagent’s).

Spare Rib
My collection of Spare Rib. But in 1976 my advice on being a teenager came from Jackie

The journalist consulted the Alfred Marks Employment Bureau. Mr Bernard Marks urged girls not to play on their sex appeal at interview but instead to ‘realise it’s their brains not their bosoms a firm is interested in’. He went on, ‘girls who compete with men for jobs have to be careful to keep their femininity on a low key’.

The interview advice that followed included the avoidance of dresses plunging below the navel, to go easy with the false lashes and nails and to make sure there was no ‘careful’ revealing of knees when sitting down. Oh, and don’t wear trousers as ‘some men, believe it or not, still reckon that women just aren’t women unless they’re wearing skirts or a dress’ (so no knees, but do show your legs. Excellent).

Then come some great tips on interview behaviour, reproduced here in full:

If you’re single, don’t make a big play about what time you knock-off. And don’t mention that your boyfriend’s a 6 ft. amateur boxing champion with a terrible jealous streak.

Married women should avoid muttering about getting off early to collect the kids from school. That’s your problem, not his.

So make arrangements for the kids before you get to the interview and tell your prospective boss what plans you’ve made.

Never ask where the nearest supermarket is or which day is early closing. Men are just not concerned that you’ve got to get something for dinner.

Don’t chatter about your personal problems. Don’t giggle. Don’t bite your fingernails or pick your teeth. Or fiddle with your bra-strap.

Don’t smoke without asking permission and never pull your last boss to shreds, or suggest he was always lusting after you.

It doesn’t help if you demand your holidays the next month. It does help if you show an interest in the firm’s products and know a bit about them.

Be honest, of course. But not silly. Don’t dwell on the fact that you missed getting your O levels by half a mile and haven’t worked since the kids were born.

Show our future boss you are happy to have a go at anything – including making the tea – and that you are ambitious.

Above all don’t come on strong as a women’s libber, just in case he happens to be a male chauvinist.

Naturally, everyone assumed that the boss was a man. I am pretty sure that me and many of my classmates would have seen this as offering straightforward rather than ironic advice. In amongst the jokes about boxing boyfriends or the spilling the beans of pervert ex bosses, the sub message was loud and clear – despite the EPA and the SDA, equality of opportunity was nowhere close. It was still a man’s world and in order to be part of it, you played by men’s rules. Blend in and please. If you got it right and didn’t exploit your femininity (but didn’t obscure it either), you might just be taken seriously. Too much woman and you were probably a bit dumb. Too little woman and you confused people. Too single and you were a threat or a tease. Too much of a mother and you couldn’t possibly care enough about your job. Too much ambition and you would need to be put in your place. In other words, women, just do what you were told. Be quietly but unthreateningly indispensable, a safe pair of hands, as unobtrusive as possible.

As long as you weren’t silly of course.

My sources:

Motherwell by Deborah Orr, published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson in 2020

British Newspaper Archive

Spare Rib Archive, British Library

This was my take on the issue of 1970s equal pay. Here are some links relating to the persistence of unequal pay in Britain:











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