WWI engineering workshop


This week marks 100 years since (some) women got the vote in this country.

It is also 100 years since a woman first presented a paper at the Institution. Olive Monkhouse talked about The Employment of Women in Munitions Factories.

World War I brought with it a huge increase in demand for munitions, at the same time the workforce was reduced by men signing up and going to fight. 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 had been employed in these areas. A government policy was introduced to ensure their training, known as ‘Dilution’.

Olive Monkhouse, Chief Woman Dilution Officer, Ministry of Munitions gave a paper on this at the Institution of Mechanical Engineers, a debate followed.

Women workers at the national shell filling factory, Chilwell
Women workers at the national shell filling factory, Chilwell

It was accepted that when properly trained the women were in fact as good as, if not better, than the men! Men were in part credited with the programme’s success:

The successful employment …in an almost equal degree to the skilled man, and the employer.

The employer in selecting tasks and the men in using all their brains and skill to train, and socialise (one assumes they mean sanitize!) the work environment. Concerns for the women’s capabilities were very real, they had to be properly trained as soldiers lives could literally depend on it – if shells etc failed the results could be catastrophic. Concerns about the reaction of the existing workforce and management were also paramount – some managers refused to believe women were capable of being fitters, tool-turners etc.

WWI engineering workshop

Monkhouse also notes that the women:

face[d] obstacles both necessary and  unnecessary

Some male staff members would tease, or even sexually harass, the women and thus their safety was a real issue – welfare affected production and a Health of Munition Workers’ Committee was formed. Practical problems such as a lack of facilities also had to be overcome, as was the fact that most of the women were not used to factory work, organization or associated environments.

Some of the notions and ideas expressed might seem very old fashioned to us but we have to remember that in lots of the world these views are held to this day. In some cases the concerns remain, although the language and method of expression has often changed.

Archive, Institution of Mechanical Engineers



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