Equal Pay for Women

Equal pay for women is an issue that, rightly, every now and again raises its head in the news. Most recently it made the headlines when it was revealed that two-thirds of the BBC’s highest-paid employees are male. If trends continue as they currently are it could be another 50 years before equal pay is achieved.

equal pay demand

But during the First World War the shale industry was, it can perhaps be argued, a trailblazer in this respect.

Many men had left the industry to fight and, in many cases, lay down their lives. This left a shortage in the shale industry workforce, despite many being recalled from duty in late 1917, due to the national demand for oil exceeding output.

James Boyle
Sapper James Boyle of Philpstoun, one of the many employees in the shale industry who signed up to fight. He was killed in April 1917, just months before all shale miners were recalled from the front.

From an earlier date in the war, women were employed to fill the gaps, but the Scottish Shale Miners’ Association (SSMA), the trades union of the shale miners and oil workers, demanded ‘equal wages for an equal amount of work’. In July 1917 a conference was held with the industry body – the Scottish Mineral Oil Miners’ Association (SMOMA) – to determine whether women should be paid the same as their male counterparts. Robert Simpson of the SSMA summed up the background:

The war has been responsible for bringing many changes into various industries. Our own industry, for instance, has seen the introduction of female labour on nearly all the mine-tops in the shale field.’

Female shale workers
R14-00034.002 Mistresses of the Lamp. The women employed by Young’s at Uphall during the First World War to fill and paint the oil barrels used to power the lighthouse lamps around Britain’s coasts.

At the conference, trades unions and employers thrashed out a deal whereby women over 18 years of age would be paid a weekly wage of 20 shillings. The SMOMA agreed to this proposal and women quickly saw their wages raised to the same level as their male colleagues.

Robert Small
BP Archive: 215305 Robert Small was one of the union leaders who would have fought for equal pay for women during the First World War

Whilst praise must be given to the shale oil industry for raising female wages to the same level as their male counterparts, it must be asked what other option they had. The demand to produce vast quantities of shale and oil to aid the war effort was coming from the British Government. The SSMA were aware that women were a necessary cog in the production wheel. Should they withdraw, or go on strike, the required levels of shale and oil would not be met. It is likely that the SSMA went in to the meeting and used this threat, either subtly or overtly, to further the case for equal pay.

After the end of the hostilities many of the jobs were once again filled by men, and the women returned to what many saw as their rightful place in the home. But even as they returned to their home they were invigorated by a new sense of their place in society. This found a voice in the post-war suffrage movement. In later years some women even found more senior roles in the industry.

Pumpherston chemists
LVSAV2013.073.001 Male and female chemists in the laboratory at Pumpherston Oil Refinery, c1970