The third annual International Women in Engineering Day takes place on June 23, 2017. The day was established by the Women’s Engineering Society in 1919 to promote opportunities for women in the sector and encourage girls to take on engineering as a career.

The General Post Office, the forebear to British Telecom, was one of the first institutions in Britain to employ women on a large scale. However, it was a long, arduous journey from underpaid telegraphists, to emergency war service to fully recognised engineers.

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Early female pioneers

In February of 1853, Miss M Craig became the first female telegraphist in the UK. By 1868, more than 200 women worked as telegraphists for the then-privately owned Electric Telegraph Company. The company had claimed this was “an innovation of considerable importance in a social view”, but it was also able to pay them much less than their male counterparts.

The female telegraphists were renowned for their dexterity, so much so that well-trained operators could recognise a colleague simply by touch. So successful were they, in 1859, the London District Telegraph Company had decided that their 45 telegraphist positions would be exclusively female. This led to a rush of applications from “highly respectable and well educated young women”.

However, at the time, a fully trained male colleague earned three times as much as a woman, for whom the maximum pay was 10 shillings a week compared to 30 shillings for men. Women, unlike men, also received no pay during their training.

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When the country’s telegraph service became nationalised under the General Post Office in 1870, the employment of women was boosted further still. By 1880, there were more than 2,300 women. By this time men and women were allowed to work together, but females were still required to retire when they married.

Following an experiment in 1870, the General Postmaster concluded that an integrated workplace was beneficial rather than a distraction. “It raises the tone of the male staff by confining them… to a decent level of conversation and demeanour which is not always to be found when men are employed alone,” he said.

Following their success as telegraphists, women were a natural fit as telephone operators. Mrs R Hayward Claxton was the UK’s first female operator and, after pioneering the trade in Liverpool in the 1880s, travelled to London to train the first female operators in the capital.

WW1 women working as telephonists - BT Archvies

World War I and World War II: Demand for female engineers

During World War I, female labour was used to help with the construction of telegraph lines. Although it’s shocking to read now, an account of the ‘experiment’ simply pointed out the list of damages to equipment.

“Although the work is hard and means exposure to all weathers,” it read, “the experiment has been a success in the circumstances; before our militant suffragist friends can claim the occupation as an industry suitable for an extension of female labour, however, a more prolonged test with stricter attention to costs would have to be undertaken.

“We are not prepared to recommend the job as a pleasing alternative to any operators who may be displaced, by the gradual introduction of machine-switching.”

Because large swathes of the GPO’s male engineers were called on for military service in World War II, thousands of engineering positions were left unfilled. As such, an agreement was reached with the engineers’ union which saw women ably fill the void.

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An Engineering Dept Staff circular dated March 1941 made clear the employment of the first female engineers by the GPO was strictly a temporary measure. It read: “Employment of female labour is an emergency war time measure which will be discontinued at the conclusion of hostilities, and that the temporary character of their employment will be made clear to the women when they are recruited.”

WW2 advert for female engineers

These employees were classed as Temporary Female Assistants, or TFAs. However, while the position was intended to assist with the more menial technical tasks, the TFA’s were soon undertaking the same skilled labour tasks as their male counterparts. By early 1943, there were 4,604 women essentially working as engineers – a huge increase from 615 in April 1941.

One of these engineers was Mary Morley, a veteran of the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force and a wireless operator for Bomber Command HQ. Following her service, she joined the GPO at Stanford. Her personal account reads: “Yes, as a Female Assistant, I went to Birmingham on an all-female engineers’ course and when I passed I went back to Stanford where I was given a little green van to carry out servicing telephones and fault finding in private houses.”

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Post war fights for women’s jobs

Mary would leave the GPO voluntarily to marry in 1945. At the end of the war the engineers’ union held a reluctant GPO to its end of the bargain and many women were redeployed as operators once again, while others were allowed to stay on until March 1948 while alternative work was found.

In 1964 the Conservative MP for Hornsey, Lady Muriel Gammans, raised the issue in the House of Commons. She asked the Postmaster General to reconsider the ruling which ‘restricts the award of university scholarships offered in electronic, electrical and mechanical engineering’ to females.

Post Office engineering positions were finally opened up to women in 1965. In the January 27 edition of the Post Office Courier, it was announced: “It has been decided that the grade of Assistant Executive Engineer and higher engineering grades previously restricted to men should henceforth be open to men and women.”

[Read more: How the UK’s railways shaped the telegraph]

The 1960s: A decade of firsts for women

Newspaper clip of Jackie Hunter

Despite this ruling, the first female engineer was not appointed at the Post Office until 1966: 25-year-old Jackie Hunter (right) was the only female student in her class of 300 at the Post Office Training School at Bletchley.

The firsts would then begin to flow. In the same year, 24-year-old Sissel Risterbraten, a Norwegian on an exchange visit, was employed as the first female Chief Technical Officer. The former telephone operator began training for the role after her exchange became automatic. According to the article in the Courier, she had ‘dared to enter a previously all-male preserve’.

“Have you ever seen an attractive girl digging a trench, climbing a telegraph pole or going down a manhole,” asked the Courier in 1967. It spoke of Paula Godsmark, the Post Office’s first apprentice for a Science Officer job.

By 1969 the total number of female engineers had risen to four when 21-year old mum Mrs Lesley Carmody joined the ranks. An article in the ever-artful Courier pointed out that “the changeover from wrestling with nappy pins to the intricacies of underground cable work” had been a doddle.

The present….

Thankfully, times have changed significantly for women – both in engineering and the workplace, and in 2017 BT was voted one of the Times Top 50 employers for Women.

The drive is on now to encourage women to consider STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) careers. In 2017 Openreach introduced a ‘Step into STEM’ programme to encourage women like O’Donnell sisters Laura, Nicola and Katrina, who are all engineers at Openreach.

Let’s celebrate those ground-breaking women and look forward to future generations of women telecommunications pioneers.

Credit: BT Archives, Jane Osmond, Women at the Post Office

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