Gender equality at Ford: 50 years since the Dagenham strikes

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Fifty years on from the historic strike in Dagenham, Ford shares how it's since led the way in championing gender balance in the workplace

This month marks the 50th anniversary since 187 female sewing-machinists walked out from Ford’s east London factory, triggering the 1970 Equal Pay Act. Ford’s diversity and inclusion manager Lara Nicoll, told HR magazine it's important that the company never loses sight of this historic event, and has used it to motivate ongoing gender equality improvements at Ford.

“Obviously a lot has changed since the strikes in 1968. We have grown from a workforce of 55,000 employees. A lot of the discrimination stemmed from the socioeconomic structure at the time that people used to justify paying women less. Women very rarely went on strike, so it was quite shocking,” Nicoll said.

“We really appreciate the contribution those women have made to improving women’s rights, so for us it’s about showing how much we value the women in our organisation and making sure we’ve got the policies in place that prove that.”

Unequal gender pay continues to be an issue within all industries in the UK, with April's gender pay gap reporting figures showing an average gap of 17% in favour of men. Nicoll said that Ford was proud to publish a pay gap of just 1.7%.

Part of the secret behind Ford's success is down to forging connections with schools and educators to build a strong pipeline of female talent, Nicoll said.

“We know that there are still challenges ahead. Motoring is still a male-dominated industry, with women accounting for less than 12% of people in engineering. We have to get more women in to the sector, but you can’t wait until university to do that – you need to start developing that talent at a much earlier age.”

Partnering with other organisations has been key to Ford's success, Nicoll added. Ford has been working with the government to boost the number of women and girls studying STEM subjects. It has supported initiatives such The Greenpower Trust, which works to promote sustainable engineering among young people, and the First Lego League events.

Nicoll said that she hopes the schemes will help to change perceptions of working in engineering: “There’s some misconceptions about what it’s like to work in engineering. We bring people on site to show them that our workplaces are actually extremely light, varied and modern.”

The company has worked on tackling unconscious bias through setting up events that it encourages both men and women to attend.

“We realise that women can be less confident in the workplace, and have set up a range of developing and networking opportunities to support women," said Nicoll. "We encourage men to attend them too though, to really understand some of the obstacles women experience.”

Nicoll added that creating opportunities for women, particularly through engaging girls at an early stage, was the most important factor in improving gender equality.

“For us the key to driving gender balance is about increasing opportunities for women. If we can do that we won’t just improve our industry, we'll reduce the gender pay gap across the UK.”

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