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Sex and the City: Gender and the City of London – Emma Barrett

While discussing her career trajectory, an oral history participant disclosed her cancer diagnosis. Thrown, I said I was sorry. Her reply was shocking: ‘Don’t be, in many ways it was a good thing…it made me get off the hamster’s wheel’.

‘Sex and the City: Gender and the City of London’, is a project about women’s experiences of working in Britain’s male dominated financial sector in the later twentieth century.

Despite extensive scholarship on women’s paid work, which often focuses on how women are marginalised at work, we know surprisingly little about women who worked in this sector, and particularly those who reached relatively high positions.[1]

Through oral histories and detailed scrutiny of archival materials, I am exploring the experiences of professional women and seeking to enrich our understanding of women and work in this under-researched period.

The increase in the size and influence of financial institutions and markets was a major development from the 1980s. Women were active participants in financialisation, the process which saw the size and importance of the country’s financial sector increase relative to the overall economy.[2]

Fore-grounding women’s experiences grants us a fuller understanding of how Britain’s financial revolution in the late twentieth century transformed major aspects of social and economic life.

Noting the diversity of firms and their disparate interests, Geoffrey Ingham famously conceptualised the City of London as ‘primarily a centre of commercial capital’. Essentially, firms performed an intermediary role, whatever their specific function, and derived profits mainly from fees and commissions.[3]

Similarly, the financial sector is shorthand for the myriad of firms and service sectors that engage in forms of financial mediation. This is well understood by practitioners, as calls for oral history participants who had worked in the financial sector, broadly defined, has yielded a good number of lawyers as well as brokers, bankers and accountants.

Taking as a starting point how the lives of professional women working in Britain’s finance industry changed between 1970 and 2008, I began oral histories by tracing women’s social, educational and professional pathways into the industry.

Subsequently, we together explored the ways in which they had experienced wider societal and technological change, from changing patterns of work and family life to the introduction of information technology to the workplace.

Concomitantly, I explored with them their gender specific workplace experiences. This included barriers to progression within firms and the many strategies that women adopted to advance their careers, and sometimes even simply to survive professionally.

We need to hear these voices and to acknowledge women’s individual experiences and trajectories. Although some were successful, success was often qualified and progress halting and uneven. What sort of pressures existed for a cancer diagnosis to ever be regarded as ‘in many ways…a good thing’?

The larger task of the project is to locate these experiences within the wider political economy of women’s participation in financialisation.

I hope to report my initial findings by submitting a journal article on ‘The trajectories of professional women into the financial sector’ to Women’s History Review.

I am indebted to the generosity of over 30 oral history participants so far, who worked at any level within financial services, broadly defined, and shared with me their experiences.

If you have a story to share, please do get in touch. I would be delighted to hear from you.

Dr Emma Barrett is an Honorary Research Fellow in History and an Arts and Law Teaching Fellow at the University of Birmingham, a WHN Early Career Fellow, and a Visiting Research Fellow at the Mile End Institute. Her article ‘King Caz: Cazenove, Thatcherism and the 1980s financial revolution’ appears in Twentieth Century British History, Vol. 30, No. 1, 2019, pp. 108-131. Her first book on the 1980s financial revolution is forthcoming with Manchester University Press.


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[1] Linda McDowell, Capital Culture: Gender at work in the City (Oxford, 1997) is a notable exception. Finance itself has been regarded as complicated and an uninviting terrain for categories of feminist analysis, see Saskia Sassen, Review of Melissa Fisher, Wall Street Women, (Durham NC, 2012). For impressive scholarship on gender history and histories of working women in the period see Helen McCarthy, Women of the World: The Rise of the Female Diplomat (Bloomsbury, 2014); McCarthy, Double Lives: A History of Working Motherhood (London, 2020); Helen Glew, Gender, Rhetoric and Regulation: Women’s Work in the Civil Service and the London County Council, 1900-55 (Manchester, 2016).

[2] (accessed 1 February 2022).

[3] G. Ingham, Capital Divided? The City and Industry in British Social Development (Basingstoke, 1984).

[4] For some relevant social histories see Peter Mandler, The Crisis of the Meritocracy: Britain’s Transition to Mass Education Since the Second World War, (Oxford, 2020); P. Joyce, The State of Freedom: A Social History of the British State since 1800 (Cambridge, 2013); H. Perkin, The Rise of Professional Society: England since 1880 (London, 1990). For oral history methodologies see P. Summerfield, ‘Oral History as an Autobiographical Practice’, Miranda, 2016; D. K. Dunaway and W. K. Baum (eds.), Oral History: An Interdisciplinary Anthology (Plymouth, 1996); J. Scott, ‘The Evidence of Experience’, in Critical Inquiry, 17:4 (1991), pp. 773-797; R. Perks and A. Thomson (eds.), The Oral History Reader (London, 1998);  P. Thompson, Voices of the Past (Oxford, 1978); P. Thompson, ‘The Pyrrhic Victory of Gentlemanly Capitalism: The Financial Elite of the City of London, 1945-90’, Part 1, Journal of Contemporary History, 32:3 (Jul., 1997), pp. 283-304; P. Thompson, ‘The Pyrrhic Victory of Gentlemanly Capitalism: The Financial Elite of the City of London, 1945-90’, Part 2, Journal of Contemporary History, 32:4 (Oct., 1997), pp. 427-440; P. Thompson, ‘Oral History and the Historian’, History Today, 33:6 (June 1983).