Taking the Floor at Ford: women in a man's world

Taking the Floor at Ford: In Conversation with Debbie Bacon and Lolly Gresty, former employees at Ford Transit Assembly Plant, Southampton, 23 October 2017. [This event was part of the SO: To Speak Festival]

I feel I’ve been very fortunate to have been brought up in a time when girls were allowed to do whatever they wanted basically.  Just tap on the right door and make sure they let you in. And not give up.” [Debbie]

And she didn’t give up – not when she and her friends at school had to fight to be allowed to study technical drawing usually only offered to boys; not when Factories Act rules placed restrictions during her apprenticeship at Ford Dagenham; nor when she was faced with resentful male colleagues on becoming their supervisor. It was this resilience and determination that helped Debbie and other women like her to succeed in male-dominated workplaces in manufacturing and engineering.

These stories were the focus of our discussion at the packed-out event at Mettricks Old Town CafĂ© recently during which Debbie and Lolly shared and compared their very different experiences, while other women’s perspectives were added through audio clips from previously recorded oral history interviews.  

When Debbie started as an apprentice in the late 1970s she was the only female manufacturing technician apprentice in her batch, later becoming the first woman supervisor and Superintendent at the Dagenham assembly plant. Some of her early experiences were echoed in the audio extracts: starting in the 1980s, Nicola found the older men were reluctant to train her as they “thought that the women should be at home at the kitchen sink”. She found “it was a bit scary to start with but you have got to be a little bit mouthy as well”.

Lolly who joined Ford in 2004, reflected on how different her time working on the production line had been. The atmosphere was relaxed and friendly, the camaraderie and banter made her feel welcomed and totally accepted by her male colleagues. Sexism and racism were considered unacceptable and could result in someone losing their job. Lolly was struck by how much she and her generation of women took these equalities and working conditions for granted as she paid tribute to the women like the sewing machinists at Dagenham who had gone on strike to get equal pay and a recognition of their skilled work. She also recognised the role that women like Debbie had played as role models for others, some of whom, like Claire went on to do apprenticeships and felt encouraged to become supervisors.

Over the past 30 years, changes in labour laws, hard-won rights from women’s campaigns, and a major shift in social attitudes have paved the way for more women to enter and succeed in technical and manufacturing roles. By the time the Ford Transit plant in Southampton closed down in 2013, there were more women working on the shop floor, and as supervisors and senior managers, and who took equal pay, career progression and professional recognition for granted. 

Written by Padmini Broomfield

Some Tweets reporting on the discussions:

As a woman supervisor said, 


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