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Ladies Can’t Climb Ladders by Jane Robinson — women at work

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Via Financial Times

As late as the 1970s, when the social historian Jane Robinson was at school, British girls were offered just four paths to fill up the time between leaving education and getting married: “secretary, nurse, teacher — and hairdresser”. Robinson wanted to go to university, despite a discouraging careers adviser: “a degree was no guarantee of job satisfaction, or even a job. Why bother?”

The riposte to “why bother?” is Ladies Can’t Climb Ladders. Robinson’s book explores the lives and struggles of female pioneers in the British professions in the early 20th century. Her sketches of women in six traditional professions — doctors, clergy, academics, architects, engineers and lawyers — makes an excellent companion work to Robinson’s Bluestockings (2009).

That book covered the story of the fight for women’s admission to higher education, along with the stories of students who got this chance to shine — leading to the then-undesirable consequences of self-determination, economic independence and ambition.

A new cohort of educated women brought with it inevitable demands to be allowed into the male professions. Robinson’s new book moves into those workplaces, unpicking the history of the explicit discrimination and implicit cultural norms that blocked women’s progress at every turn. Some of these were laughable: lack of suitable lavatory provision was a favourite. Robinson writes with an often witty touch, which only serves to throw into furious relief the seriousness of the resistance women faced.

In 1913, Gwyneth Bebb Thomson sued the Law Society for refusing to admit women to train for the legal professions. Bebb Thomson had studied jurisprudence at St Hugh’s Hall, Oxford. “Had she been a man, Gwyneth’s exam results would have pocketed her a first-class degree and, more than that, she would have been acknowledged the highest achiever of her year,” writes Robinson. As women weren’t allowed to receive degrees, however, Bebb Thomson had no letters after her name.

She lost her case against the Law Society, as well as an appeal, on the grounds that “as a woman had never been admitted before, there was no precedent, and without a precedent they could not be admitted.” Far from being an “Alice-in-Wonderland” argument, this was accepted reasoning.

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The gates only opened — slightly — after the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act of 1919. It came after the first world war, when women had tasted independence as they took up the work of men away at the front, and after the passing of partial suffrage. The act sought to remove the bar from women joining the professional workforce. Bebb Thomson and others did gain entry to the Inns of Court, while medical schools and other training grounds such as the top ranks of the civil service also opened up — although the latter stated that “women should not be paid the same as men, even if occupying a similar position or grade”.

In the most shocking quote of the book, the civil service commissioner wrote in 1918: “Do you think that merely because a woman is equal to a man in competitive exams, therefore she is his equal or vice versa? . . . It is like comparing Chinamen with Englishmen or Hindus with Englishmen, or Hindus with Chinamen.”

The doors may have been open, but the culture inside was still hostile. Robinson records the many humiliations that women endured as male colleagues sought to isolate them. Margaret Murray, an archaeologist, was made a fellow of University College London in 1922, where female academics were segregated in a common room so small that it was “later promoted to become a cloakroom”. After having the smart idea of inviting the provost to tea, they were upgraded to a larger space — a former lab full of broken equipment, “where the coffee was brewed in the stink-cupboard”.

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Bebb Thomson was not able to reach her potential — she died after complications during childbirth. Robinson makes her a particularly lively presence, but overall there are snapshots of too many women to keep track of them all. Reappearances can become confusing, although there is a handy “Dramatis Personae” at the back of the book.

Robinson is careful to note that being a pioneer is not synonymous with being a fighter, or fierce. Women of all sorts of temperaments and economic backgrounds fought for professional recognition and personal fulfilment. And that work is unfinished.

Ladies Can’t Climb Ladders: The Pioneering Adventures of the First Professional Women, by Jane Robinson, Doubleday, RRP£20, 368 pages

Isabel Berwick is the FT’s work and careers editor

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