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One hundred years on from the start of The Great War equality in the workplace continues to be a challenge. Yet the progress made during the course of these hundred years is significant.

Prior to the outbreak of war, women’s employment rights were restricted by a combination of law and tradition but with thousands of jobs vacated as men went off to war, it was left to women to keep the wheels of industry turning. Thanks to these spirited women, who continued to fight for their rights after the war, one of the principal legacies of both The Great War and World War II for British banks became the shift from a male dominated workforce to one in which women gained a permanent place.

Male Barclays staff

The world of banking was almost entirely restricted to men before 1914

While there was initial resistance to hiring women, countries that introduced conscription found they had little choice if they were to prevent the collapse of their economies and infrastructures. By 1917 munitions factories, which primarily employed female workers, produced 80% of the weapons and shells used by the British Army. By 1918 almost 50 percent of British women were employed in these factories.

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At the Barclays AGM in 1917, Chairman Frederick Goodenough, referring to the 1,415 men absent on military or naval service, commented that:

...the gap had principally been filled by women clerks, and we cannot speak too highly of the way in which they have done their work.

By 1920 the bank employed 4,000 women to 6,000 men – a significant step forward for female representation and diversity in banking.

Employment records indicate that not a single female was employed by Barclays in 1914.

Employment records indicate that not a single female was employed by Barclays in 1914.

The Bank of England was a pioneer in female employment, having employed its first woman in 1894. Commercial banks soon began to follow suit, employing women to carry out roles previously occupied by 15 – 18 year old boys. The recruitment of women escalated after war broke out in 1914 and by the time the war ended in 1918, at least one million women had been formally added to the workforce in Britain. Some 3,700 of these were employed by the Barclays group of banks – who at the start of the war had employed only three female staff.

Female colleagues outside London and South Western Bank’s head office in Fenchurch Street, London, in 1916.

Female colleagues outside London and South Western Bank’s head office in Fenchurch Street, London, in 1916.

No going back

Despite the obvious economic and societal contribution of women during the war effort many women found themselves surplus to requirements when soldiers returned from the frontline. In the UK, the 1919 Restoration of Pre-War Practices Act forced most women to leave their wartime roles as men came home and factories switched to peacetime production. People reverted to pre-war practices and women, who in many cases were not yet eligible to vote and therefore influence policy, found it harder to maintain their new-found independence.

But the contributions and sacrifices made by women during the war were recognised. In 1918, the Suffragette movement secured a partial win when women over the age of 30 were given the vote. In the same year female workers on London’s buses and trams undertook the first ever equal pay strike – and won.

While it took another ten years, women’s contribution to the war effort eventually led to full enfranchisement in 1928. Female representation in increasingly senior roles in banking rose steadily and thirty years later Barclays appointed the UK’s first ever female branch manager, Hilda Harding, at the Hanover Street branch in London. 

Hilda Harding, the UK’s first ever female bank manager
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Vibrant and inclusive economies

Wind forward another 50 years to the present day and female representation in the workforce continues to be an important issue. Indeed, from this year, a new binding European Union Directive requires that most large financial firms will have to set and meet targets for female representation on their board of directors. They will also have to outline their plans for getting there.

We achieved 20% female representation at board level in 2013, and turnover of all female employees across the bank was 14%, lower than the 15% average of all our employees. We have seen year-on-year growth of women in senior leadership positions.
Antony Jenkins, Group Chief Executive

The Governor of the Bank of England, Mark Carney, is leading the drive to see more women in senior positions, stating that “the Bank has a responsibility to foster top female economists all the way through the ranks”. In August 2014 Dr Nemat Shafik of the International Monetary Fund will become the Bank of England’s first female deputy governor since 2008, and only the fifth woman out of 36 current or former members of the Monetary Policy Committee.

At the March launch of the Barclays-sponsored 2014 Female FTSE Board Report, CEO Antony Jenkins reaffirmed Barclays’ commitment to diversity and inclusion across the bank saying: "We achieved 20% female representation at board level in 2013, and turnover of all female employees across the bank was 14%, lower than the 15% average of all our employees. We have seen year-on-year growth of women in senior leadership positions."

Female representation at senior levels is one of the eight metrics on Barclays’ new Balanced Scorecard, and the bank has committed to having 26% female representation in its senior leadership population by 2018.

Outside the corporate board room, an IMF staff discussion note on macroeconomic gains from gender equity published in 2013 confirms that gender stereotyping means that women account for most unpaid work, and when women are employed in paid work, they are overrepresented in the informal sector and among the poor. This is particularly evident in developing nations in Africa and Asia. 

Securing the future

Since 2008, Barclays and UNICEF have been working together on the Building Young Futures programme. In India the programme has served to empower young women in the slums of Mumbai and isolated rural villages in Maharashtra by teaching them the skills they need to build co-operative businesses, manage their money and share their learning with other young women in their communities.

Avni Sharma, a resident of the Mumbai slums, has been involved in Building Young Futures for several years. The programme has helped her to develop the confidence and skills required to apply and successfully secure a job in a local shopping centre.

Building Young Futures has given me wings. I was not allowed to go out when I was growing up. I was limited to housework. I studied to grade 10 at school, to the age of 16. Then no more.
Avni Sharma
Read more about the Building Young Futures programmeRead more about the Building Young Futures programme

In summary

The Great War did not solve gender inequality, but it did represent a significant moment in history for equal opportunity. For the first time, women around the world were given the confidence and opportunity to fight for their rights as equal citizens. Research consistently demonstrates that the most vibrant economies are those that draw on the skills of a diverse range of people, skills most representative of the whole of society. It is in everyone’s interest to continue to make progress.

Find out more about Barclays' history with our interactive timelineFind out more about our history (new window)
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Timeline of events

1894

Bank of England employs its first female member of staff

1894  Bank of England employs its first female member of staff

1914

Barclays group employs just 3 women at the beginning of WWI

1920

Two years after the end of WWI, Barclays employs some 4,000 women

1928

Women's contribution to the war effort leads to full enfranchisement

1958

Hilda Harding becomes UK's first ever female bank manager at Barclays in Hanover Street, London

2008

Barclays partners with UNICEF on the Building Young Futures programme; empowering young women in India

2008  Barclays partners with UNICEF on the Building Young Futures programme; empowering young women in India
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Barclays history

Barclays timeline: 300 years and counting

Explore the last 300 years of Barclays history with our interactive timeline

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