Working 9-5: A woman’s place is in the office?
Celebrating Women’s History Month in March, GML Associate Minna Muhlen-Schulte delves into the proud history of women in the office.
When we think of the history of women in the office, stereotypical support roles dominate – secretaries, stenographers, telephonists, receptionists. The first typewriting manual even condemned women to a subservient role:
The typewriter is especially adapted to feminine fingers.
They seem to be made for typewriting. The typewriting
involves no hard labour and no more skill than playing
John Harrison, Manual of the Typewriter, 1888.
Yet for over a century women have exerted a powerful influence in the office despite the social and political impediments in their way.
Hidden in the euphemisms of the historical record are the clues to a proud history of women’s work. Census statistics 1860s Sydney reveal women far from just relegated to unpaid domestic labour, were engaged in a range of small businesses of their own rather than employed by others. It was women from 20 bureaus across the world who were the first “computers”, used to create an Astrographic Catalogue in 1907. Unsure what to call these women their title of “clerical assistant” belies the epic scientific work undertaken to measure the precise location of every star. In Australia, 72 women who worked on the catalogue represent the first women to work in computing, leaving a legacy of mapping roughly one fifth all of the stars in the night sky.
The struggle to escape reproductive and domestic labour for the office was emboldened partly by the evolution of the modern city. With a young male population decimated by First World War, unmarried women sought inner city homes in flats, apartments and bed sits with “access to work and the intellectual life of the city… and freedom from the watchful eyes of family and suburban neighbours.”
However, the opportunities women gained during the Second World War as they filled the seats of absent men in offices, newspapers and factories (becoming 25% of the workforce) was actively stifled by legislation and expectations they return home at the end of the war. Up until 1966 under the ‘Marriage Bar’ women were forced to give up their jobs once married. The 1942 book Public Service Recruitment in Australia starkly articulates the expectations of women’s careers:
There is some evidence that they are more adaptable to
monotonous work than men. Women are still prepared
to undertake such work at comparatively low salaries,
and their retirement upon marriage is still an important
factor ensuring rapid turnover
In reality women had to perform a daily masquerade of wife, worker and upstanding citizen. The daily commute was the beginning of this shapeshifting routine:
Julia used to travel into the city by train, wearing her
ring. She felt married and wanted to be seen as a married
woman with the added status that gave her. She also had
to be a married woman for the benefit of her landlady.
But she had to arrive at the other end of the journey as a
single woman. Central Station was the watershed where
the ring came off and was carefully hidden in her purse
before getting on the underground to Wynyard.
The cascade of legislative change during the 1970s revolutionised women’s working lives forever. Access to contraceptive pill on the National Health Scheme in 1972, allowed women to independently control the timing of childbearing with their careers; while the Arbitration Commission ruled that women and men who did similar work with similar value would be given the same pay.
Today great strides still need to be made for women in the office. In Australia, the gender pay gap remains today with women earning 87cents for every dollar men earn. While currently it has been projected that it will take another 100 years for corporate Australia to achieve gender balance of at least 40% women in CEO positions on the ASX200.
 Bishop, Catherine, Women of Pitt Street 1858, Dictionary of Sydney, 2011, http://dictionaryofsydney.org/entry/women_of_pitt_street_1858, viewed 24 Mar 2023
 Falconer, Delia, A City of One’s Own: Women’s Sydney, Dictionary of Sydney, 2014, http://dictionaryofsydney.org/entry/a_city_of_ones_own_womens_sydney, viewed 24 Mar 2023
 Sawyer, M 1996 Removal of the Commonwealth Marriage Bar: A Documentary History, Centre for Research in Public Sector Management, University of Canberra, p80.