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Home arrow History arrow Behind the Wireless: A History of Early Women at the BBC


When Dorothy Singer joined the BBC as a shorthand typist in 1936 she was thrilled to start work on ?2.10s a week which she declared was ‘rather large and a lot more than most people’.[1] Clare Lawson Dick was similarly ‘delighted’ to be offered ?2.15s when she came to the Corporation in 1935.[2] Misses Singer and Lawson Dick were bright, educated young women keen to earn a decent wage and experience independent living in London. For waged women such as these, work at the BBC was a largely positive experience. It was an attractive and prestigious place to work, rates of pay and conditions of service were good, female staff were largely respected and, for those in secretarial and clerical roles with ambition, promotion was a possibility.

Yet although forward-looking and modern in many aspects, so far as waged-women’s work was concerned the BBC still conformed to the predominant employment stereotypes of the period and most roles were gender specific. The role of the WSA, with her remit to oversee the female secretarial and clerical staff, echoed many other British interwar workplaces and reveals a continued belief that women workers had separate needs that necessitated a separate line of control. First Miss Banks and then Miss Freeman recruited, inducted and placed weekly paid women staff. They dealt with personal problems, they discussed irritations with line-managers (and the reverse), they established conformity in the way letters were addressed and postage stamps were used. Their domain, the General Office, was the starting place for most new secretarial recruits ensuring their smooth inculcation into the workings of the BBC.

Copy typists, shorthand typists and secretaries were crucial to the BBC with typists performing a fundamental job. The position of personal secretary was also pivotal. In a role that would now be termed a ‘PA’, these women managed their managers; organising them, caring for them and often advising on and assisting with the work. Clerks also performed the vital role of ensuring that all BBC paperwork was in order. The rapid expansion of the BBC and the constant need for initiative and ideas provided opportunities for bright and ambitious shorthand typists, secretaries and clerks to extend the scope of their employment; many gained salaried status and a small number rose to senior posts. For telephonists and duplicating operators the pinnacle of ambition was a supervisory role. Nevertheless, both were essential services, communications were at the heart of the BBC. By the standards of the day, the BBC’s female charwomen, cooks and waitresses were also well treated. However, here too promotion was limited to the confines of the house staff hierarchy.

For a significant number of waged women, work at the BBC was a temporary affair. Clare Lawson Dick recalled how, in the early days, she never expected to stay for long. She simply collected her weekly wage and reserved her energy for going out in the evenings.[2] For many women, a comfortable few years, earning a good wage in a congenial environment was more than satisfactory, promotion to a more challenging job was not something they desired. As Radio Pictorial reported, only a few of the hundreds of girls at Broadcasting House had the ambition to become a ‘woman who matters’ at the BBC, the vast majority were ‘content to remain efficient secretaries until they leave to marry’.[4] No records have been kept of the numbers of female secretarial and clerical staff recruited by the BBC, neither are there any comprehensive figures on length of service or resignations. However, marriage appears to be the key reason why women left the BBC. In the early years weekly paid women could choose to remain on the staff but, from 1932, they were the main casualties of the BBC marriage bar, as the next chapter will show.

  • [1] Dorothy Torry interview.
  • [2] Clare Lawson Dick interview.
  • [3] Clare Lawson Dick interview.
  • [4] Radio Pictorial, 4 January 1935.
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