By 1918 almost a million women were employed in munitions and engineering works, with 80% of shells being made by women by 1917: in the decade before only 212,000 on average had been, as mostly women worked in textiles or domestic spheres. ‘Dilution’, a government policy to place women in male jobs as demand soared and labour diminished, saw women were trained.
The effect of all this was debated at IMechE in 1918, in the meeting proceedings we can read the male reaction to this, it was accepted that when properly trained the women were in fact as good as, if not better, than the men. The man is credited in part with the programme’s success ‘The successful employment …in an almost equal degree on the skilled man, and the employer’: the employer in selecting tasks and the man ‘using all their brains and skill’ to train, and socialise the work environment. This may all seem outrageous, even funny to our modern minds but we have to remember it was revolutionary and true: women did need training and help in overcoming barriers (as the author delicately puts it ‘face obstacles both necessary and unnecessary).
Although the language may seem archaic, even derisory, the concerns were real and practical: this was a new realm for most of the women and the concern for their welfare was of uppermost. The deliverer of the paper was none other than Miss Monkhouse [Chief Woman Dilution Officer, Ministry of Munitions]. Discussion followed on whether these women might remain in engineering after the war and what the effects on the ‘comfort and happiness’ of their homes might be. Michael Longridge, the President, acknowledges Monkhouse got top billing as she was something of a sensation in coming to speak to them and summed up the situation of women in factories as ‘ a sign of the times’. We are told several women were in the audience and Longridge was keen for them to speak, when they would not he called on Charles Wicksteed.