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‘New and Important Careers’: Salaried Women at the BBC

‘I confess that when I was first confronted by these models of modern efficiency, a large proportion of them university-trained, others who are chartered accountants or who held administrative posts during the War, I was scared.’ So claimed the effervescent Woman’s Own journalist who took her readers ‘behind the scenes’ to meet the ‘Women at the BBC’ in January 1933. Her article included brief descriptions of the work of, amongst others, Mrs Fitzgerald, the Assistant Editor of World Radio; Mrs Lines, who provided photographs and illustrations ‘demanded by journalists the world over’; Miss Milnes, the head librarian and Miss Glasby, who adapted plays for broadcasting ‘and has written some herself’.[1] The BBC’s ‘career women’ were a frequent source of fascination for the press in the 1930s, gripped by the breadth and diversity of roles.[2] Alongside the more conventional financial, administrative and supervisory jobs were a raft of less familiar positions such as drama producer, television make-up artist, Children’s Hour Organiser, accompanist, night hostess and variety auditioner. Marjorie Scott-Johnston, for example, was one of the Assistants ‘of good educational qualifications’ who worked with Richard Lambert, the Editor of The Listener, under whose direction:

...she ransacked the print shops and the print departments of the British and Victoria and Albert Museums, pestered picture agencies ... devoured the resources of the London Library, scoured the continental papers and collected files of likely pictures and photographs from all parts of the world.[3]

This chapter is about the BBC’s salaried women, women such as Scott- Johnson, who worked with passion and vigour in jobs that required independence of thought, creativity and administrative prowess. It does not encompass women at the top, who are considered in Chapter 6; rather it is about the general body of women who held responsible positions that were important for both the maintenance and development of the BBC, a number of whom are picked out for closer scrutiny. Women made up around 15 per cent of the BBC’s salaried staff in the interwar years.[4] Without comparable figures in other similar organisations it is hard to assess whether the BBC had higher numbers; however, the Civil Service, to which the BBC was often compared, had a combined proportion of female administrative, executive and higher clerical officers of around 6 per cent.[5] Because the BBC was a brand new industry it began with no set practices and few defined positions. As Elise Sprott pointed out in a 1936 London Evening News article about ‘The Women at the BBC’:

Many women who came into broadcasting in those early days made for themselves new and important careers, and helped to build up the reputation which British broadcasting holds in the world at large.[6]

The opportunity to create and shape the jobs they held is one of the reasons why so many of the BBC’s salaried women appear to have done well.

One of the perceived legacies of the First World War in the UK was an explosion in careers for women. It was not just the BBC that provided copy for newspapers and women’s magazines. As Adrian Bingham had shown, the image of the career girl and the successful professional woman became one of the signifiers of modernity.[7] The 1919 Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act had opened most professions to women and alongside nursing, teaching and the Civil Service, which were the three largest employers of middle-class women, the 1931 Census recorded 394 dentists, 195 lawyers, 107 architects and 119 accountants.[8] Although these were tiny numbers they represented the possibility of entering new areas of work, a situation mirrored at the BBC. For middle-class women, following a profession had always been about more than just remuneration; it gave them a sense of identity and a purpose.[9] The scope of careers now available to the well-educated offered heightened opportunities for challenge and stimulation.

The expectation that educated girls would have a career, and perhaps a less-conventional one, was reflected in the array of advice books and books on women’s work that flourished in the interwar years. In Women’s Work in Modern England Vera Brittain included aviation, photography and scientific work; in The Road to Success Margaret Cole offered retail buyer, commercial artistry and property management; Ray Strachey’s Careers and Openings for Women suggested chiropody, publishing and showroom demonstrating.[10] In Women and a Changing Civilisation published in 1934, Winifred Holtby included a chapter on the rights of women to work, a page of which applauded the entry of women into new occupations like oceanography, stock-broking and the BBC.[11] The BBC’s early Women’s Hour programme (see Chapter 7) also broadcast a raft of talks on less common careers such as analytical chemist, tea room manager, sports organiser, art auctioneer and house decorator.

Despite the abundance of new opportunities, the traditional professions of teaching, nursing and the Civil Service were by far the most popular career choices for aspiring working-class and middle-class young women, largely because they were established and ‘safe’. Writing about business opportunities in Careers for Girls, Lady Rhondda showed frustration at the tendency of parents, unless very well-off or modern-minded, ‘to shy at sending girls into the newer professions’. 1 2 Yet it was the traditional professions that were constantly berated for their discriminatory practices be it unequal pay, low pay, poor promotional opportunities or marriage bars.[12] [13] Unquestionably, many women in these professions gained immense job satisfaction and felt pride in the work they performed and many had long and happy careers (and happy short careers, as most would have left on marriage) but the BBC offered the possibility of a job that could not only be satisfying in the long term but was also ostensibly on equal terms with men. The Control Board minutes for 16 November 1926 are unambiguous; in a discussion on the ‘Position of Women’ it was agreed that ‘the principle of eligibility of women for any posts must be maintained’.[14] Hilda Matheson also professed her belief that ‘equal pay for equal work’ was on the whole respected.[15] This notion of equality was replicated in other ‘modern’ professions where women worked alongside men. For example, at the John Lewis Partnership, trainee managers received the same pay for the job and there was a minimum National Union of Journalists (NUJ) rate for all newspaper reporters, regardless of sex.[16]

Mary Agnes Hamilton’s claim that in broadcasting, ‘men and women work on a genuine basis of equal and common concern’ was widely held to be true, although, as this chapter will show, in reality ‘hidden’ inequalities in recruitment, pay and promotion were widespread.[17] However, there was a very real outward sense that, within the salaried grades at least, women and men at the BBC worked equally, side by side.

  • [1] Woman’s Own, 21 January 1933.
  • [2] For example, ‘Important Women of the BBC’s Big House’, The Evening News., 30November 1934, ‘The Women at Broadcasting House’, Good Housekeeping, August 1935,‘The Women Who Rule the Air Waves’, Radio Times, 12 November 1937.
  • [3] Richard Lambert (1940) Ariel and All his Quality (London: Gollanz) pp. 136-7.
  • [4] BBC/WAC:R62/100/1-3: Salary Information (staff) 1923-39.
  • [5] Guy Routh (1965) Occupation and Pay in Great Britain, 1906—1960 (Cambridge:Cambridge University Press) p. 24.
  • [6] Evening News, 30 June 1936.
  • [7] Adrian Bingham (2004) Gender, Modernity, and the Popular Press in Inter-War Britain(Oxford: Clarendon Press) pp. 64-8.
  • [8] Ray Strachey (1935) Careers and Openings for Women: A Survey of Women’s Employmentand a Guide for Those Seeking Work (London: Faber and Faber) p. 45.
  • [9] Martha Vicinus (1985) Independent Women: Work and Community for Single Women(London: Virago) pp. 171-7.
  • [10] Vera Brittain (1928) Women’s Work in Modern England (London: Noel Douglas);Margaret Cole, ed. (1936) The Road to Success: 20 Essays on the Choice of Career for Women(London: Methuen); Ray Strachey, Careers and Openings.
  • [11] Winifred Holtby (1934) Women and a Changing Civilisation (London: Lane andBodley Head) p. 83. Holtby erroneously referred to Mary Agnes Hamilton as a Director ofthe BBC, she was in fact a BBC Governor.
  • [12] J.A.R. Cairns (1928) Careers for Girls (London: Hutchinson) p. 54. See also AngelaV. John (2013) Turning the Tide: The Life of Lady Rhondda (Cardigan: Parthian) pp. 276-8.
  • [13] See Helen Glew (2009) ‘Women’s Employment in the General Post Office, 1914-1939’(Unpublished doctoral dissertation: University of London); Alison Oram (1996) WomenTeachers and Feminist Politics 1900-1939 (Manchester: Manchester University Press).
  • [14] BBC/WAC:R3/3/2: Control Board Minutes, 1926, 16 November 1926. This was reiterated by Goldsmith in 1928, ‘The principle of women working with equal status is accepted’,27 November 1928.
  • [15] Women’s Leader and Common Cause, 2 January 1931.
  • [16] At John Lewis these female employees still faced indirect discrimination. Judy Faraday(2009) ‘A Kind of Superior Hobby: Women Managers in the John Lewis Partnership 19181950’ (Unpublished MPhil dissertation: University of Wolverhampton) p. 38.
  • [17] Radio Times, 16 November 1934, ‘Women’s Broadcasting Number’.
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