Working Lives: Gender, Migration and Employment in Britain, 1945- 2007: Books

By Thane, Pat | The Times Higher Education Supplement : THE, October 10, 2013 | Go to article overview

Working Lives: Gender, Migration and Employment in Britain, 1945- 2007: Books


Thane, Pat, The Times Higher Education Supplement : THE


Working Lives: Gender, Migration and Employment in Britain, 1945- 2007. By Linda McDowell. Wiley-Blackwell. 294pp, Pounds 60.00 and Pounds 24.99. ISBN 9781444339192, 39185 and 9781118349243 (e-book). Published 19 July 2013

There are plenty of studies of immigrants but, overwhelmingly, they focus on men. Yet women have been a high proportion of migrants to Britain since at least 1945, coming alone or with families in search of work or experience, or as refugees. Most have needed to work, and, more often than British-born women, work full-time.

So this is an unusual study, looking as it does at how the lives of women migrants, and especially their working lives, have been shaped by their gender as much as, and sometimes more than, by their cultural backgrounds.

Linda McDowell, an economic geographer at the University of Oxford, draws on 100 interviews she conducted with women who migrated to the UK throughout this period of profound changes in both the immigrant population and in British society as a whole.

It began with the influx of "displaced persons" after 1945. They were uprooted by the war, unable or unwilling to return home, in many cases because of the Russian occupation of Eastern Europe. Brought to Britain, often reluctantly, to fill jobs amid the post-war labour shortage, they were strictly controlled: allocated jobs and housing, required to stay for three years and to report regularly to the police. Most were men. They were often well educated but could only get low-skilled, low-paid work; for women, this often meant jobs in textile factories or domestic work in the less favoured parts of the NHS such as mental hospitals and tuberculosis sanatoriums. Interviewed in later life, the women described how the biggest barrier between them and British workers had been less ethnicity than class and education, which hampered communication. Some escaped through promotion, gaining a reputation for hard work and reliability, or they trained as nurses.

Their experience set a pattern for later migrants. By 1950 the supply of Europeans dried up and the government looked to the Caribbean to fill vacancies, especially in the expanding health service and public transport. Again, ambitious young nurses from Jamaica found themselves shunted into less skilled sectors, overlooked for promotion and disparaged by patients, sharing wider discrimination with immigrant men and unequal pay and low-status employment with British women, only more so. …

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