Industrial action

Ladies, what would make you take industrial action?

I recently watched “Made in Dagenham” , a movie made about the women machinists at Ford’s Dagenham factory who downed tools in 1968, in protest that they were classed as unskilled workers, while male colleagues doing the same job were thought to be skilled and therefore paid much more for their efforts.

The three-week strike brought production at the factory,  which was the centre of the UK car industry at the time, to a halt. The dispute was finally resolved only when Barbara Castle, the  Minister for Employment was brought in to negotiate a settlement.

The Ford machinist ladies returned to work after agreeing to be paid not parity with their male colleagues, but 92 per cent of male machinists’ wages. This strike accelerated the introduction of the Equal Pay Act of 1970, which made it illegal to have different pay scales for men and women.

Who is complacent? Women or organisations?

Are women dissatisfied enough?

This prompted me think of Vineet Nayar’s slightly contentious HBR article, “Are women dissatisfied enough?”    He suggests that perhaps we women are a tad too complacent and not dissatisfied enough to “force” the changes we want to see in our lives today.  Referencing the US Civil Rights Movement, the Egyptian Revolution and Indian Independence, he suggests that “The difference between a change and a revolution is a function of the extent of dissatisfaction.”

Historical Perspective

In a historical perspective post World War II economic models were created specifically to accommodate men returning from the traumas of a global war and to increase the birth rate. This model was therefore based on a nuclear family containing an economic provider and a child raiser, with women therefore discouraged from entering the workforce. After heroic war efforts on the home front, the seeds of dissatisfaction with this way of life were sown by women in the 60s and 70s, resulting in certain amount of bra burning, shortening of skirts, free love and general cultural unrest. Economies were relatively buoyant at the time and these demands were met, as we saw in Dagenham. The long-term result of these movements was that more women entered education and thereafter embarked on career routes.

Generally,  those male centric business models in many cases prevail today. In some areas, limited meaningful changes have actually been made to organizational structures to marry the inevitable outcome of the increased number of educated women in our societies and the resulting demands made by a two career family.

What sort of protests?

However, I’m not sure what Vineet had in mind, but the point is that women shouldn’t have to occupy the cafeteria to get a promotion,  or pitch tents in the car park to lead high visibility projects. As Gene Marks astutely points out in Why Most Women Won’t be CEOs   they would certainly need a babysitter or a more actively involved partner before they could even think about chaining themselves to the revolving doors of their corporate headquarters to make a point.

For many women the strongest form of protest is via a silent revolution, of voting with their feet. They simply leave.  Why? Because unlike both the men and women in India, Egypt and Louisiana  what’s on offer doesn’t interest them enough and isn’t attractive enough to channel their energies. They choose to do other things. And this is where organisational complacency kicks in, as generally male leaders sit back and simply watch a brain drain. Truthfully many men would also leave, but they are equally tied by the same limiting model in their stereotyped allocated role as the “ provider”.

Silent revolution

So I asked 3 women what would need to happen to make them take some form of decisive and extreme industrial action, petitioning the board or walking out on strike.

  • Suzanna, London  solicitor Nothing probably – a crime against humanity
  • Fabienne, advertising executive, Belgium  “Perhaps some sort of physical abuse which had been tolerated by senior management – but if I’m honest only if there was a group”
  • Martha, Pharmaceutical Researcher, Italy  “Closure of the offices perhaps and as  part of a general protest

We know that organisations tend only to adapt to demands made by men to the men for change in the workplace, when their bottom lines are impacted.  Whether these changes will follow the retirement of  baby boomers raised by post war “stay at home”  Mums,  or the discrediting of  “crony capitalism”  with  yet another financial crisis, ( I never thought I would hear myself quote Sarah Palin  ..heaven help me).

But it will happen eventually. Men have counted for too long on women being placid. Fear of reprisals is a great barrier, but the mood of the women’s room has changed.  When sleeping women wake – mountains move as the Chinese proverb says.

Watch this space.

So what would prompt you to take industrial action?


Don’t leave it until you vote with your feet. Get in touch now! 

4 thoughts on “Ladies, what would make you take industrial action?

  1. The Intentional Workplace

    Hi Dorothy – what a great post! Wonderful to see something with such depth.
    Loved the film – Made in Dagenham, great story of the solidarity and courage of women coming together for a cause that served others. It should remind us that very few of the social advances we now take for granted were given without a fight. If these brave souls and others had not taken huge risks, I wonder where we’d be today. Tepid reforms aren’t getting us very far.
    It also reminds me (looking at your poll) that perhaps we’ve become too scared, complacent, attached – I don’t know, that we can’t even imagine putting ourselves on the line for our values. Maybe we have to lose more to realize what we have – and what we want to change.
    I love the quote by Michael Beckwith “The pain pushes until the vision pulls.” Maybe we need to grow a bigger vision.
    Thx for this well done piece!

    1. Dorothy Dalton

      Louise – thank you for your kind words. Yes it would be interesting to find out what would make women today ” down tools” in our knowledge based economies. A research topic maybe – but just a straw poll amongst friends ( I only posted 3 responses) suggests that it would have to be crime against humanity or some other form of extreme abuse and then only as part of a group, with a preference for negotiation. Interesting isn’t it? Maybe a collaborative project for us?

  2. Wendy Mason

    Great stuff Dorothy as usual and provocative.

    I am a babyboomer born to a “career” mum. My mother had been a ward sister (senior nurse) before I was born. She did stay at home for some years to look after me but then she was just desperate to get back.

    I’m not sure the position of women right now results from a dereliction of duty by babyboomers and their mums. Without them, I suspect the position would be worse.

    No I have never taken part in group action on behalf the rights of women at work. But I have twice resigned very publicly on issues of principle even though i was the main “bread winner” in my household. So please don’t accuse us of complacency.

    1. Dorothy Dalton

      Hi Wendy – I’m not being critical of Baby Boomer mothers – they were products of their time as we all are. There are a number of points – women do step up for the issues that they believe in and campaign vigorously as we have seen both today and historically. I think the message is that the current corporate business model doesn’t seem to be attractive enough or offer enough benefits to motivate them to any extreme action. So they leave. If it was attractive to them – personally I think they would do it! Suzanna the lawyer I quoted also mentioned that the lifestyle and health choices made by the mainly male partners in her firm to chase down massive salaries wasn’t worth it. As we teeter on the brink of another economic downturn and ” occupy” movements are going on all over the world about macro issues, involving many women of course, it’s evident that what we’re doing currently isn’t working. But on an everyday micro level – nothing much is changing.


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