8 March is International Women’s Day. In this post Louise Trewavas gives her personal reasons for celebrating IWD.
I remember my first proper job interview very clearly. I had just finished my A level exams in Maths and Sciences, the news was all about unemployment reaching the 2 million mark, and Margaret Thatcher was prime minister.
I applied for an entry level position with a computer firm based in a small industrial estate near Bracknell. I went along knowing that I was more than qualified for the job – full of confidence and hope. I was met by two men in suits.
After looking at my application, the interview took an unexpected turn. “You’re a young woman, and we don’t have any young women working here – how would you handle your male colleagues?” I was asked. “And there’s shift work – you’d be here late at night. What would you do if someone made an advance?” “How would you get home after your shift? Do you have a boyfriend?”
I left that interview feeling as if someone had poured a bucket of cold sick over me. I knew that what had happened was wrong but I was too young and inexperienced to know what I could possibly do about it. I’m sure those 2 men considered that they were doing the right thing and ‘protecting my interests’ by rejecting me for that job. I’m sure they found a nice lad who would fit right in.
I picked myself up and managed to find a job in a local factory making printed circuit boards for computers as a ‘process control’ technician, analysing all the chemical solutions for the plating process and keeping them within the acceptable range. I spent a lot of time roaming the factory floor, got on well with everyone in the company and made many friends.
After a couple of months, they took on an assistant for the lab, and I trained him in all the processes. We became good friends, and when he mentioned in conversation that he was actually paid more than me, I was completely stunned. I knew that I was a good worker, I was on favourable terms with all the managers, but clearly the company felt that they could pay women less. It wasn’t personal – that’s just how it was.
This time, I knew more about my rights, and I went to the Equal Opportunities Commission – they got me a young lawyer called Harriet Harman. I needed to carefully gather evidence to build my case for equal pay, and I would have struggled to do this without the help and cooperation of the man that I was claiming parity with.
When I looked around the factory I realised that most of the women there were working in different jobs than men – so they were being ‘legitimately’ paid less. The Equal Pay Act of that time wouldn’t help them. I could only advise them that they should join a union to try to get some justice – what other chance did they have?
I won my claim for equal pay, but at a price. I was escorted off the factory premises like a criminal and told to stay away while they continued to pay my wages. I was still a teenager. It was the fastest growing up experience of my life. But it wasn’t personal. That’s just how employers can behave if they’re allowed to get away with it.