Unequal pay in Victorian Britain

by Chris Minns (LSE) and Emma Griffin (UEA)

 

Thames_embankment,_London,_England-LCCN2002696941
Thames embankment, London, England. Available at Wikimedia Commons.

Women made a vital contribution to the labour force in Victorian Britain. Census evidence suggests that close to 40% of women in Britain were employed in the second half of the nineteenth century, which is roughly twice the rate found for the United States at the same time. This implies that the labour market earnings of women made a substantial contribution to the fortunes of many working-class households. 

But how did the industrial economy of mid-Victorian Britain treat women who sought work? It is well-known that women experienced large-scale occupational segregation with women excluded entirely from many professions and industries. Less well known, however, is how the pay of women evolved after 1850, particularly in relation to their male counterparts.  

In a new study, to be presented at the Economic History Society’s 2019 annual conference, we draw on the reports of wages and salaries paid between the 1850 and 1890 prepared by the Board of Trade. In total these sources contain over 9,000 wage quotations for male workers in industry, and well over 1,000 similar quotations for female workers. 

We use this information to compute the gender pay gap in Britain between 1850 and 1800, and to examine the structure of the disadvantages experienced by women at this time.  

Overall, we find that between 1850 and 1890, women in British industry had earnings a little more that 40% of male earnings in industry. The gender pay gap closes by only a few percentage points over the period we study, and it would appear that it is at least as large in the second half of the nineteenth century as what others have found for the first part of the Industrial Revolution between 1780 and 1850. 

While part of the explanation for the large pay gap is the exclusion of women from the best paid industries and trades, our preliminary work suggests that differences in the composition of employment between men and women can only account for a small fraction of the gender gap. 

When comparing matched wage quotations for men and women in the same location, industry, occupation and year, the gender pay gap is only modestly smaller, at 51%. Consistent with this finding, we do not find evidence of substantial gender pay gap differences between regions or industries that were major employers of women. 

What are the main implications of these findings? 

First, it appears that the dynamics of gender pay in late nineteenth century Britain were strikingly different than in the United States. The gender pay gap in UK industry at the end of the nineteenth century was about 15 percentage points larger than in American manufacturing, which saw a more noticeable narrowing over the century. These transatlantic differences in the relative price of women’s labour may have implications for the patterns of industrial development seen in Britain versus the United States. 

Second, the fairly uniform gender pay gap across British industry, despite notable differences in skill and strength requirements between occupations speaks to a pattern of broad-based labour market segmentation that worked to suppress women’s wages well before the spread of internal labour markets that and long-term contracts thought to formalise different pay structures for men and women.

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