Degrees of Separation

In the UK, more girls now enter higher education than boys but so far it hasn’t translated into greater earning power: a report published by the House of Commons in 2021 showed that despite being more likely to complete their studies and to leave with a first or upper second-class degree, women are slightly less likely than men to be in ‘highly skilled’ employment or further study just after graduation. Within one year of graduation, male graduate average earnings are around 8% higher than female earnings. Ten years into their working careers, the gap has widened to 32%. What is going on? And are historical factors still playing a part today?

The early days of higher education
The first higher education establishment in Britain to open for women was Bedford College, founded in 1849 by Elizabeth Jesser Reid and named for its original home, 47 Bedford Square in London. It was another twenty years before women could sit exams to join institutions that up until then were men-only. Nine women were allowed to sit the University of London’s new General Examination for Women in 1868. Helen Lenoir was one of the the University of London’s earliest students, matriculating in 1871. In 1869, seven women managed to enrol as matriculated students at the University of Edinburgh to study medicine. None of them graduated or qualified as doctors but the publicity they attracted resulted in the Medical Act of 1876, which allowed all British medical authorities to license all qualified applicants regardless of gender.

1869 was also the year that Girton College, Cambridge opened, making it the first residential higher education college for women. Two years after that in 1871 came Newnham College. Lady Margaret Hall opened in Oxford in 1878 and Somerville College was founded the following year. However, although a small number of women could now study at the universities of Oxford and Cambridge, they faced a long battle to graduate with the full degrees awarded to the male students. Oxford University finally gave in in 1920 but it is Cambridge University that gets a starred First for stubbornness.

The Cambridge uprising
On 21st May 1897 a vote was scheduled by the Senate, the all-male governing body of the University, to decide whether to grant women students full degrees when they passed the same exams as men. ‘The interest taken is great’, said the Woman’s Signal in its edition published the day before. ‘It is felt on both sides that if this vote fails, women will not admitted to the degrees of the older Universities during this generation, if ever.’ Many professors were in favour of this change but the debate was heated and it was reported that ‘the undergraduates and bachelors are exceedingly hostile.’ So hostile, in fact, that they mixed up huge bags of flour and confetti and let them loose over the crowds surrounding the Senate House. Graffiti was daubed across college walls, Scarlet slogans were scrawled across college walls: “No Gowns for the Girton-ites!!!”, “Frustrate the Feminist Fanatics!!!”

The violence quickly ramped up as fireworks were stuck in the top of bottles and hurled through the Senate windows. A remarkable photograph survives of an effigy of a bicycling woman strung up on a lamp-post. As evening fell the young men staged a pitched battle in Market Square and ‘in the grey of dusk, the crimson fires shot out’ as a huge bonfire was built. There was barely a house around Market Square that escaped damage. Needless to say not a single arrest was made during the ‘hilarious’ night of any of the undergraduates involved in the jolly japes.

Unsurprisingly, too, the vote was lost with 662 in favour and 1773 against granting women their degrees.  The worst of the fears expressed by women in 1897 were not borne out – women were eventually granted full degrees – but they were right about the generational wait: it took another fifty years, with the concession finally made in 1948 (yes, let’s repeat that, 1948).

Degrees of usefulness
What career opportunities opened up to the women that made it into and through the further education system before 1939? Medicine was one, clearly and there were over 1,000 women doctors in England by 1914 and the First World War gave many of them the opportunity to branch out from treating women and children and venture into the ‘men’s areas’ of surgery. Some hoped that the evidence of their capabilities, best showcased in the women-run Endell Street Hospital, would lead to an end to discriminatory practices but life actually got harder again between the wars. The medical schools of many hospitals slammed their doors shut to women and others put strict limits on the numbers they would take.

After the passing of the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act 1919, careers in law, architecture, engineering and accountancy all became viable options for women graduates even if many barriers remained to progression. However, the vast majority of women with degrees ended up going into teaching, despite widespread marriage bars.

For women who were more interested in a business career, a degree was not necessarily a benefit. In the years before the First World War, university graduates like Isabel Cooper-Oakley or Gladys Burlton who went into commerce were seen as somewhat strange; when Alice Head told her headmistress she wanted to be a journalist she was told that going to university was a waste of time. These attitudes persisted between the wars. ‘As things stand at present it is beginning to be said that a degree is rather a handicap than otherwise to a woman who seeks a career outside of teaching’ was the comment made in one paper in 1926.

Employers made a number of arguments against hiring university-educated women into business roles. As with non-graduates, employers anticipated that women would get married, which in many cases would mean an end to her career and as graduates inevitably started their career later than non-graduates, this might happen relatively quickly. An obvious solution to that particular problem would have been to remove any official or unofficial marriage bars rather than not employing women in the first place but other forces kept these policies in place.

Female graduates also had a reputation for expecting special treatment, wanting commercial jobs with shorter hours and higher pay than non-graduates despite their lack of business training or experience. They thought too much of themselves. It is not clear whether male graduates had the same reputation but it seems unlikely. The result of these policies and prejudices was that after years of study, many women graduates found themselves scrabbling around for jobs that barely paid a living wage.

The Business & University Committee
This reluctance of businesses to take on women with degrees led Lady Rhondda to establish (yet another) organisation to further the cause of women at work in late 1925.

The Business & University Committee aimed to connect the employer and the ‘highly educated employable woman’, by helping employers fill vacancies and understanding and addressing concerns they had about employing women. In 1926 it issued a pamphlet asking the rhetorical question ‘Is the University Trained Woman Worth Employing?’ where it made the case that a woman fresh out of university might not have practical knowledge but she had a well-trained mind, could think fast, grasp ideas quickly and join the dots, enabling her to deal with clients ‘with intelligence and alertness.’

List of original members of the Business and University Committee (1926)

There were initially 29 women on the Committee. Seventeen worked for or had recently retired from educational establishments (Miss Whitelaw MA was the former headmistress of Wycombe Abbey, who had resigned two years earlier). Mrs Oppenheim was a journalist. Edith Pratt, Honorary Secretary of the British Federation of University Women, was a Cambridge graduate who had worked as a welfare officer during the First World War and became a deputy commander in the WRAF.

Ten women worked in business and many of them were members of the Women’s Provisional Club (WPC), another Rhondda-supported initiative. Only three of them had been to university themselves. Minnie Emily Moore (1871-1961) graduated from Girton College, Cambridge in 1895 with a degree in Mathematics. Lucy (Nancy) Nettlefold (1891-1966) read Law at Newnham College, Cambridge and along with Gwyneth Bebb, Karin Costello and Maud Ingram brought an unsuccessful legal case against the Law Society in 1913, challenging their ban on women being able to take their preliminary exams. In 1919 Nancy left the legal profession to join the family ironmongers and manufacturing business that was later folded into GKN. Helen Archdale, editor of Time and Tide, (which was owned by Lady Rhondda) was the daughter of one of the Edinburgh Seven, Helen Evans, and studied at St Andrews University.

Of the non-university graduates, the secretary of the B&UC, Caroline Haslett, had been working on initiatives with Lady Rhondda since 1921 and was a WPC member, as was Gladys Bompas, who had set up a laundry business and wrote about it in the June 1927 issue of Good Housekeeping. The remaining four were all members, and at some stage President, of the Women’s Advertising Club of London (WACL): Jean Lyon (1923-4), Florence Sangster (1926-7), Ellen Dougall (1928-9) and Ella Mary Ward (1934-5). Viscountess Rhondda had spoken at a lunch for over 400 women attending the International Advertising Convention in London in July 1924 and the founding secretary of the WPC was Ethel Wood, also a founder member of WACL and President 1925-6. A few months after the Business and University Committee was set up Jean Lyon joined the board of Lady Rhondda’s magazine, Time and Tide.

By the end of 1926, three more business women had joined the Committee: Ellen Pigott, Chair of her family’s shoe and boot-making business, Manfields; Evelyn Hope Glen, a manager at Peter Jones; and Dorothy Pilkington, a director of her family business, the Clifton and Kersley Coal Company.

The launch of the Committee was ill-timed, coinciding with the start of the depression and there is little evidence that the Committee had any real longevity or very much impact on the experience of women graduates in the world of work. What it does show is that the issue was deemed to be a real one and it demonstrates working women were prepared to come together to try to address the problem, whether or not they themselves were university graduates. The composition of the group also provides another example of how business women made and leveraged connections in the inter-war period.

What can we learn from this today?
On the surface, the issue of access seems to have been addressed but look a bit deeper and one can see that it was only in 2017 that women made up 50% of the Oxford student intake. In the academic year 2019-20 Cambridge women did still not make up 50% of the university composition at any level: undergraduate, postgraduate or research postgraduate. Research repeatedly confirms that a degree from any Russell Group university boosts earning power, but one from Oxford or Cambridge has the greatest financial return. It seems hard to dismiss the conclusion that women today are still paying a financial price for the obstinacy of men a hundred years ago.

A report by the Institute of Fiscal Studies published in 2021 highlighted that one significant factor in the graduate gender pay gap was that women were over-represented in degree subjects with low financial returns. While women now make up at least 50% of the students on medicine and law degree courses, they remain hugely under-represented in economics, maths, engineering and technology, whose graduates all have high earnings potential. In terms of post-graduate study, participation in MBA courses correlates with high wages is an MBA and again while the picture is improving, this is another area where women are still under-represented.

Money isn’t everything but anyone who starts down a career path that has poorer financial outcomes should do it knowingly. Only by examining every step in the decision-making pathway of boys and girls, men and women, from their GSCSE choices onwards, can we start to understand how informed theses choices are as well as the roles played by natural preference and systemic biases in the pay gap and, specifically, in the low representation of women in high-paying business leadership roles.


Sources include: Woman’s Signal 20/5/1897; Dublin Evening Telegraph 21/5/1897; Pall Mall Gazette 22/5/1897; The Vote 26/12/1924; Yorkshire Post and Leeds Intelligence 7/9/1925; Yorkshire Evening Post 5/7/1926; Common Cause 31/12/1926; Good Housekeeping May 1927;

‘No Distinction of Sex?: Women In British Universities 1870-1939’ by Carol Dyhouse (1995); ‘Driving ambitions: women in pursuit of a medical education, 1890-1939’ by Carol Dyhouse (1998) Women’s History Review, Vol. 7, No. 3

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s