The film ‘Made in Dagenham’ focuses on the strike by women workers in demanding equal pay at the Ford plant in 1968. Although we have seen huge improvements for women’s equality in the UK, there is still much more to be done to lessen the divide. This is particularly relevant considering the recent government spending cuts which will hit women and ultimately families the hardest.

Why is pay still so unequal 40 years on from the Dagenham women’s victory? The excellent film Made in Dagenham focuses on the strike of the women workers seeking equal pay at the Ford plant in 1968.

A cleverly constructed film, it deals with inequality on a number of levels. So there is the basic dispute itself between the management and women workers, who insist they should not be getting half what the men are for doing the same grade of job. This leads to other frictions such as in the male dominated trade union. The senior officers end up trying to collude with Fords management against the women. Then as the dispute goes on it stops the work for the men as well, so they are laid off. This causes tensions between the men and women. This tension is reflected in the marriage between two of the central figures Rita and Eddie O’Grady. It is all resolved by the end, with the women winning a famous victory. They get substantially what they were seeking from Ford and with the intervention of then employment secretary Barbara Castle the equal pay act comes into effect two years later.

If there were a sequel film though it would have to focus on what has happened – or not happened – to bring about equal pay in the 40 years since the equal pay act became law. Women are still discriminated against in the workplace, the difference being – as with many forms of discrimination – that it has become more covert.

As a result of the Dagenham strike, the women initially got 92 per cent pay parity with men. Today, despite equalities legislation and the culture change the gap is 17 per cent in full time jobs and 38 per cent for part time. Women tend to be disproportionately represented in the lower paid and part time end of the jobs market. At the other end, things are little better with women making up just 2 per cent of Chief Executive Officers. A mere 17 per cent of directorships are held by women.

At Parliamentary level things have gone backwards in some cases. So in the Scottish Parliament, the number of women members has fallen from 39.5 per cent in 2005 to 37.4 per cent in 2010. There was similar decline in the Welsh Assembly going from 50 per cent to 46.7 per cent in the same period. By way of comparison, some 27.7 per cent members of the Afghanistan and 25.5 per cent of the Iraqi Parliament are women. At the present rate of progress it will take another 200 years before women get parity with men at Westminster.

In the trade union world things have faired a little better. While the unions have been at the forefront of the push for greater equality in the workplace, they themselves remain unrepresentative of women in the most part. Take the Communication Workers Union, the number of paid women national officers went down from 22 per cent in 2005 to 15 per cent in 2008. This is despite women making up 25 per cent of the membership. The union leadership of general secretary Billy Hayes and senior deputy general secretary Tony Kearns have both indicated their displeasure at this situation and desire to see it change. Indeed Tony has criticised the way that unions in the UK are in the main “led by 50 plus white males.”

So there is still much to be done if equality is ever to be attained in the workplace. The cuts agenda being pursued by the Coalition Government threatens to hit women disproportionately hard. Given the idealogical desire of the Coalition Government to seemingly dismantle the public sector, where 70 per cent of jobs are held by women, the effects likely to result are obvious. The discrimination against women means that they already dominate areas of low and part time pay mean that they will suffer the brunt of the cuts. Families too will be hit hardest.

The victory of the Dagenham women marked a high point in defeating sex discrimination in the workplace but the 40 years since has only seen slow progress towards true equality. The danger must be that if the cuts agenda could prove yet another step back for women’s equality. The struggle for equal pay goes on but there is still a long way to go.

Paul Donovan


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