A History of the Ministry of Information, 1939-46

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1. Introduction

In September and October 1943 the Wartime Social Survey carried out for the Office of the Minister of Reconstruction, a sample inquiry among working women to discover what proportion of them intended to carry on working after the War, and further, in what age groups and in what industries the women who intended to go on working were to be found. At the same time, an analysis was made of the structure of the female labour force and of women’s attitudes toward employment in general.

Approximately 6,600,000 women between the ages of 14 - 64 were in full-time civilian employment at the time of the inquiry, and the sample taken was designed to be representative of all women aged 18-59 within this total. In addition, a sample of part-time workers was interviewed. It has been assumed that the proportion of girls between 14 - 17 in employment will remain constant until the school leaving age has been raised. No inquiry was made among women in the Services and in the tables that follow adjustments would have to be made for these women to make them representative of all women in employment in the given age group.

The inquiry was designed to give an indication of the national situation in broad outline. Consequently, differences between industries, areas and groups, which are not major differences, might be obscured by the margin of error on the small figures: involved when the sample is divided by them. An analysis of the particular problems of a particular industry or area could only be based satisfactorily on a separate sample survey for each separate problem.

The sample taken for this inquiry was based on Ministry of Labour figures and upon estimates made by the Survey. It was stratified by Region and Industry. Two thousand, six hundred and nine women were interviewed at their place of work on the basis of a predetermined recording schedule. Details of the sample and a copy of the recording schedule are given in the appendices. So far as was possible, the women to be interviewed were taken at random within a factory, mostly from lists of employees.

The report that follows is in three sections. In the first section a detailed analysis is made of the employment of women in terms of age, status, training, and so on. Many tables and conclusions familiar to those acquainted with the present situation are included in this section as a background to those which are not so familiar. In the second section the attitudes of women toward post-war employment are analysed in detail, with some discussion of their intentions and preferences. In the last section the attitudes of women toward employment in general are detailed and some conclusions drawn from them.

To put these figures and opinions in their correct perspective, it may be worth while to give here a brief outline of the employment of women before the war. In 1931 the Census showed that 6,256,000 women were in gainful employment. Of these 4,983,910 were between the ages of 18 and 59.

The Status of employed women in four Age Groups, 1931

18-24 25-34 35-44 45-59 All ages
% % % %
Married 5 23 31 28 18
Single 95 75 59 50 76
Widowed & Divorced 2 10 21 6
All Employed 1,986,450 1,364,287 802,539 830,634 4,983,910

Three-quarters of all women in Employment in 1931 were single, therefore; and in no age group were there more married than single women.

40% of all women were between 18- 24, 27% between 25 - 34, 16% between 35 - 44, and 17% between 45 - 59.

The principal employments in which women were engaged were Personal Service, covering domestic service, laundry work, barmaids and waitresses, and charring; commercial employment, including, shop assistants, clerical employment, Professional employment and employment in a variety of manufacturing industries. Personal Service was the largest group, employing over 2,000,000 women in Great Britain.

The number of women in employment continued to increase during the thirties by 1939 there were probably 6,700,000 or more women in gainful employment. The re-armament programme has meant a considerable increase in the number of women employed in Engineering, and accentuated the tendency for the proportion of women employed to increase relatively to the proportion of men. In 1935, only 11% of the workers in metals were women, compared with a rough average of 3% in 1943. An even greater increase in the proportion of women employed has occurred in other employments. Now, the number of women employed is greater than it ever has been before, and women are a proportionately greater part of the country’s labour force than ever before.

As the first section of the report indicates, the greater part of this increase in the number of women in employment is due particularly to the entry of married women into industry, and the age groups 25 - 45 which are subject to conscription into industry. It may, therefore, be true to say of women in civilian occupation as a whole that not only are they older on the average than before the war, but the strains imposed on them by the double burden of work and household responsibilities are greater, even if the effects of the war upon living conditions are ignored.

If conditions after the war permit women to work or not as they want, it appears that while a high proportion of women who have come into industry from the home will wish to return to their homes, there will be a considerable number in the higher age groups wishing to remain in employment. With the loss of a high proportion of the younger married women, and the normal loss of single women through marriage, this may mean that after the war the average age of women in employment will be considerably higher than it was before the war; that there will be, in fact, a greater proportion of women over thirty-five looking for work, or remaining in employment, than there was previously. The tendency is for women to move away from the Engineering and Metal Industries, however, toward their peace-time industries and employments. It is possible that, when final adjustments have been made there will be no more women in employment then might have been expected if normal increases had occurred since 1931.

It is clear nevertheless, that the number of women wishing to work will depend very largely upon the economic situation of the men. If wages are good enough to enable a man to marry and support his wife at what she considers to be a reasonable standard of life, (and this has been influenced by the money she has been earning during the war) she will not, on the average, wish to work while her children are young, and in later life could only be prompted to do so by boredom and lack of company at home. Few women, even now, appear to look upon work as a career so long as all the disadvantages attaching to their sex, and to work after marriage, remain.

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