The Employment of
Married Women
The background to the Bank's policy regarding the
employment of married women prior to the
Second World War

It was not until after the BMB had been in existence for about 40 years that the number of permanent female employees exceeded the number of permanent males. Exact data is known for January 1958 when the 337 members of staff were split 185 male, 152 female. By the date (April 1976) that the transfer to Trustee Savings Banks status was made the number of female staff (305) was greater than male, 255.


The bias in favour of employing males between 1919 and 1939 was a consequence of the 'marriage bar' that existed after the end of the First World War. After the end of that War, many returning servicemen reclaimed the available jobs, and the number of women workers, particularly in industry and commerce declined.  During the 1920s and 1930s the UK economy was plunged into a recession leading to very high levels of unemployment. Consequently, many women who tried to find work that made use of the skills they had gained during the War were vilified by the press for ‘taking up ex-servicemen’s jobs’. Although unemployment benefit had been introduced through the National Insurance Act 1911, women were not eligible for benefits if they refused to take up available jobs in domestic service. All this served to force women back towards what was considered ‘women’s work’ like laundry, dressmaking, domestic work, and work in ‘sweated industries’. During this period, the government replicated women’s unequal pay rates in the labour market by setting the unemployment benefit for women at a lower rate than that for men.


However, some job opportunities in new industries and professions did open up for women through the 1920s and 1930s. Following the Education Act of 1918 which raised the school leaving age to 14, women were better educated. The Sex Disqualification Act of 1919 made it somewhat easier for women to go to university and take up professional jobs as teachers, nurses and a few even qualified as doctors. Middle class women benefited from these increased opportunities. During this time women began to get jobs in increasing numbers in the civil service, accounting for about a quarter of all such posts by 1935, though these were mostly at clerical and administrative grades rather than the technical and professional jobs which were still dominated by men.


Some jobs in new and existing industries came to be considered ‘women’s work’ such as assembly work in the engineering, electrical, food and drink industries, as well as clerical work, typing and retail sales. However, these jobs were low paid and involved long working hours and shift work. Women workers were usually excluded from supervisory roles or work that was considered  to be “skilled”, despite women’s successful roles in such jobs during the First World War.

By the 1930s about one third of British women over 15 worked outside the home, of whom nearly a third still worked in domestic service. However, only one tenth of married women worked. Predominant social expectations at that time reinforced the view that  caring and cooking  was exclusively ‘women’s work’. Indeed without electrical appliances like washing machines, domestic labour was time-consuming and hard work. The civil service, the education sector and new professions operated the "marriage bar",
 which meant that women had to resign their posts when they got married. Even those who defied these unofficial rules found that it was impossible to continue working once they had children.


Such was the background to the domination of the BMB's workforce by men. A situation that was the subject of a letter from the City Council's Salaries, Wages & Labour Committee to the Bank Committee, dated June 2nd 1921:


You will recall that in February last a circular was sent out by the Salaries, Wages & Labour Committee asking for the general views of Committees with reference to the employment by the Corporation of married women whose husbands are in receipt of wages. The matter has been further considered in the light of the information obtained, and the Committee have decided to endorse the principle embodied in the resolution of the National Alliance of Employers and Employed, on which the matter arose, and to impress upon the several Committees the importance of observing the principle so far as their employees are concerned. For the convenience of reference, I give below a copy of the National Alliance's resolution:


"That this Committee is of the opinion that distinct hardship to some of the unemployed is caused by the fact that married women are being retained in employment while their husbands are in receipt of wages, and we strongly urge where possible that unmarried women or men should be employed."


In applying the principle in the Corporation service, the Committee recommends that the following general directions be observed:


1. Where the husband is in receipt of wages or other regular income, and the wife is employed and paid by the Corporation, her services shall be dispensed with, and the vacancy filled by the appointment of a spinster or widow. This ruling to apply to both part-time and whole-time employees, but to be subject, in the discretion of the several Committees, to the following exceptions;


(a) Married women-doctors, and women employed in connection with maternity and child welfare work, where the employment of married women is an advantage in the performance of the duties;


(b) Women separated from their husbands and not in receipt of maintenance allowance; and


(c) Married women whose husbands, owing to shortness of work, ill health or physical incapacity, are not in receipt of sufficient income properly to maintain their households.


(N.B. Committees shall review these cases at regular intervals, say after every three months, so that if and when the circumstances alter the women's services may be dispensed with.)


2. It is recognised that when changes of staff are to be made through the adoption of the general principle, such cases must, in some instances, be deferred until suitable substitutes can be obtained, and in some cases trained.


In reply to this letter the Bank's management were able to inform the Salaries, Wages & Labour Committee that there were no married women in the service of the Bank.


In October 1923, the Salaries, Wages & Labour Committee requested the observations of the Bank Committee regarding the employment of Junior Office Girls. The matter was considered by the General Purposes Sub-Committee who reported that:


there is a fear of male juniors becoming surplus, and therefore being penalised by having to leave, and that by engaging junior girls the situation would be eased. Junior office girls were engaged in the Bank in the early days, but did not prove satisfactory and had to be dispensed with.


At the present time there are only two junior girls on the staff who are 20 years of age. They have for some years acted as typists. Beyond engaging junior girls as typists your Sub-Committee could not advise their employment in the Bank.


The onset of the Second World War was the catalyst to have the "marriage bar" disbanded. Comments relating to the Bank's staffing position after many male members were called up were recorded in the Annual Reports:

the call upon the male personnel of the Bank for service with HM Forces has been heavy, and further calls are likely to be made. The position has so far been met by obtaining the services of ex-officers of the Bank and the engagement of female clerks for the duration of the war (1940)

the call-up of men for the Forces has created a staffing problem, but the burden has been cheerfully borne by those of the permanent staff still available, assisted by temporary officers. The nation's man power requirements are such that the work will have to be carried out by more and more women, but the Bank is fortunate in having secured the services of many former employees who are well acquainted with the work (1942)

the ready response to the appeal for help which was made to former members of staff who resigned on marriage, has enabled the Bank to make up the shortage with the certain knowledge that the standard of efficiency would be maintained (1943)

Following the conclusion of the War, the Bank wished to promote three ladies to the positions of permanent Branch Managers. At this date (July 1946) it was a requirement of Birmingham Corporation that the City's Salaries, Wages and Labour Committee provide confirmation 'in certain cases of promotion'. That committee had no objection to the Bank's proposal, and the following ladies were appointed Branch Managers:

Miss Elsie Bullock

Miss Dorothy I Gregory

Miss Norah K Pogson