x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

The Instant Expert: A history of women in the workforce

Float through any social event with M's fast facts. This week Elizabeth Pearson delves into the historical progress of women entering and making gains to level the playing field in the workforce.

THE BASICS Since the dawn of time, women have always been productive, but mostly behind the scenes at the heart of a family. Then as societies industrialised, women were often dealt the more menial and repetitive jobs. Over the past century there has been a seismic shift, as a result of increased educational opportunities and the rights movement. Women have poured into the global workforce, in some countries making up more than half. This quiet revolution has changed the world.

EENY, MEENY, MINEY, MO Traditionally women hardly had much choice in a career. If a middle-class female managed a certain level of education - it wasn't until 1947 that Cambridge University fully validated degrees for women - basically all that was available to her was nursing, writing or being a governess. Women lower down the social order could go into domestic service or maybe an awful and unsafe job in a factory sweatshop. It could also be in vain as, in the UK for example, a woman didn't have the right to keep her own wages until 1870. Blimey.

LET THERE BE LIGHT Plenty of unscrupulous bosses took advantage of women's lower status. In 1928, 70 women sued the owners of a radium paint factory in the United States. They had been employed to decorate watches with illuminating paint, fashioning the tips of the paintbrushes with their lips and also using the paint as nail varnish. The owners and the scientists knew the radioactive danger of the paint but failed to tell the women, who became seriously ill. Their case was one of the first successful workplace lawsuits in US history and helped establish occupational disease labour law, making for safer workplaces around the globe.

RIVETING STUFF Once the domain of strong men, munitions factories needed to replace their male workers during the Second World War. Rosie the Riveter, the American icon, galvanised women and brought them marching into factories. Propaganda gave them the confidence to work in what was previously a man's world - and also convinced their husbands that it was a good idea. The Canary Girl was Rosie's counterpart in Britain, and Ronnie the Bren Gun Girl was her Canadian equivalent.

POWER TO THE PEOPLE During the first half of the 20th century, attitudes began to change around the world and women gradually gained the right to vote and own property. Also, newly invented white goods meant that the traditional task of cleaning the home didn't take quite so long. Women grabbed the opportunity and entered all spheres of the job market. Which is all for the better - have you seen global property prices? It's a lucky single-salary family that can afford a mortgage.

THINK ON THIS Female politicians and others, making the case that women in many instances are better than men and not just their equal, seize upon a 1982 line from the American comic strip artist Bob Thaves about the famous film dancer Fred Astaire: "Sure he was great, but don't forget that Ginger Rogers did everything he did, backwards ... and in high heels."

CRACKING JOKE So we're all equal now, then? Well, no. Despite women outnumbering men at degree-level education, there seems to be an invisible limit that keeps them from ascending to the most senior roles in their professions. The US department of labor, in a 1995 report, minced no words, citing "the unseen, yet unbreachable barrier that keeps minorities and women from rising to the upper rungs of the corporate ladder, regardless of their qualifications or achievements". Hillary Clinton, in her bid to be the first female US president, quipped that the votes she received in the primaries were "18 million cracks in the glass ceiling".


Five female job firsts

PRESIDENT Sühbaataryn Yanjmaa (1893-1962). Between September 23, 1953, and July 7, 1954, this widow of a national hero held Mongolia's highest office. Though mainly a figurehead, she was the first female political ruler in contemporary times (besides royalty).

PRIME MINISTER Sirimavo Bandaranaike (1916-2000). She was prime minister of Sri Lanka three times, the first in July 1960. The first woman in the world to be an elected head of government, she governed for 18 years in total.

DOCTOR Merit Ptah (2700BC). An ancient Egyptian, she was described as "chief physician" in an inscription and is believed to be the first woman to have acted in such a capacity in recorded science.

READER IN LAW AT OXFORD UNIVERSITY Cornelia Sorabji (1866-1954). The first female barrister in India. A writer and social reformer, she was also the first female graduate from Bombay University and the first to study law at Oxford.

ASTRONAUT Valentina Tereshkova (1937-). The first woman to go into space, the Russian was 26 when she launched in 1963, orbiting the Earth 48 times over three days.