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The ‘ambiguity’ of equal pay for equal work : Ethel Watts, ICAEW and the 1944 Royal Commission on Equal Pay

Following the passing of the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act 1919, the Institute of Chartered Accountants in England and Wales (ICAEW) admitted its first female member. To mark the centenary of the Act, I researched and wrote a booklet published by ICAEW on the first 100 years of female membership. As part of this I reviewed the papers of Ethel Watts, held in the Women’s Library.

In 1924 Ethel Watts was the second female to be admitted but crucially she was the first to be admitted by the same process as men ( i.e. examinations and articles). From the 1920s until her death in 1963 Watts was a member of the Fawcett Society, its sometime treasurer, and a member of various societies that sought to further the cause of female equality, such as the London and National Society of Women’s Service and the British Federation of Business and Professional Women,She clearly was a committed feminist and determined to use her professional expertise in the fight for female equality. In fact, her anger, her sense of outrage pours out of the papers she kept and that are preserved in the archive Her papers reveal the opposition to female membership of ICAEW and the many subtle ways that women were held back even after they had qualified.In many articles she stresses that female accountants should ensure that they visit clients as was the norm for their male contemporaries, rather than stay in the officeThey were quite simply not valued or treated in the same way as a similarly qualified man. As ever equality of membership did not (and still does not) equate to equality of opportunity.

Watts was an active participant in a number of feminist campaigns such as the right to equal pay, removing the marriage bar, taxation of married women and pension rights. Different issues but all linked by the assumption that the employme and remuneration of women for such employment were to be treated differently to that of men. I was particularly struck by the number of papers written by Watts that highlighted that the notion of ‘equal pay for equal work’ was a contested notion rather than a self-evident truth. Why was this so and does it perhaps explain why even after the Equality Act 2010, the gender pay gap still stubbornly persists in the accountancy profession.

My starting point was Watts’ request that ICAEW put in a formal response to the 1944 Royal Commission on Equal Pay. The ICAEW president allowed her to prepare a draft report for consideration by ICAEW’s governing council although he admitted that he considered the concept of equal pay ‘ambiguous’. ICAEW’s council however were unhappy with her conclusions and only allowed her report to be submitted to the Commission if it included the caveat that it did not represent the views of the majority of its members. Watts’ report was based on her survey of female members but rather than simply list female grievances (of which there were many) it was a carefully constructed demolition of the oft quoted arguments against equal pay. These included the belief that it would put men out of work, men had dependents to support (although it was accepted that bachelors could be paid more than single women), it was inflationary and women’s rates of sickness meant it was uneconomic for a business to pay them the same as a man employed in the same job. Watts argued quite simply that not paying women equally was just as unfair to men as it meant wages could be kept as low as possible. Everybody suffered as a result.

Watts also gave evidence to the Royal Commission on behalf of the London and National Society of Women’s Service. This again highlighted the obstacles faced by women and the lack of opportunity. Watts pointed out that a recruitment advertisement for account clerks was restricted to male applicants because it was felt that females would be unable to lift the heavy accounting ledgers; their accounting skills were not in doubt just their physical aptitude for the job.

Like Watts, rather than concentrate on a depressing account of the obstacles encountered by women , I wish to develop why the notion of ‘equal pay for equal work’ was so contested and how this has fed through to other remuneration issues, such as the taxation of married women, pension contributions and career progression. This is quite personal to me as like Watts I am a chartered accountant – I am part of the cohort of women being interviewed by the WHN fellow Emma Barnett – but as an historian I recognize the need for objectivity. By concentrating on the arguments as Watts did and looking at all aspects of remuneration and career progression in the accountancy profession I hope to go beyond the personal. It seems to me that unpicking why the meaning of ‘equal pay for equal work’ was considered ambiguous or even ‘ open to interpretation’ (in the words of Hugh Dalton, the UK Chancellor of the Exchequer in 1947) is a good starting point.

I am grateful to Abi Exelby and Nicola Buckley, the convenors of ‘Women encountering emancipation and adversity in the 20th century’ at the University of Chichester for including my paper and helping in the first stage of this research project I am also grateful to the West of England & South Wales History Network for selecting my paper for their 29th cConference ‘Women and Money:A historical perspective ‘ where I shall be discussing why many felt and possibly still do that accountancy is an unsuitable profession for women.