Work Histories

Author(s): Janet Trewsdale and Ann Toman
Commissioned by: Book chapter
Document Type: 1993
Year: Women's Working Lives
Publisher: HMSO
Place of Publication: Belfast
ISBN: 1 337 09379 2
Subject Area(s): Employment, Gender
Client Group(s) : Women

Background to the Research

  • Women's Working Lives Survey was commissioned by the Equal Opportunities Commission for Northern Ireland in 1990. The survey was designed to: (1) identify factors which determine whether or not women participate in paid work and how the unpaid work undertaken by women in the home influences their involvement in the labour market; (2) to record the type of paid work women have done and do, as well as their attitudes and experiences of employment

Research Approach

  • 1000 women were interviewed who lived in private households and were aged between 18 and 65. The sample was drawn from the 1990 Register of Electors using a 2 stage proportionate random sample. The interview took a semi-structured approach, including some prompt items.
  • The study examined changes in the female labour market over time, and the reasons why women changed jobs, left or returned to work, using retrospective longitudinal data. This is subject to the inherent problems of data collection techniques which rely on memory. Work history information is recorded in time spans referred to as Periods, each delimited by a change in employment status.

Main Findings

Industry and Occupation Change: 1940-1990

  • 46% of women were not in employment. However, 82% of women were economically active in the first Period after leaving secondary education. 75% worked full time, and 13% were in education.
  • The main industrial sectors were Other Manufacturing 31% (especially leather, clothing and footwear), Distribution 24% and Other Services 33%.
  • Changes in occupational structure reflect the changing industrial structure in Northern Ireland: 44% of women who started work pre-1949 worked in Other Manufacturing. This fell to 34% for those starting in the 1960s, and 21% in 1980s. This was mirrored by an increase in the significance of Other Services, which accounted for 22% of those starting work pre-1949, and 40% of those starting post-1980.
  • Movement within the occupational hierarchy reflected 2 extremes, which depended on qualifications and status of occupation - 58% of Professionals stayed in their occupational groups, as did 34% caterers and cleaners (although perhaps not out of choice); in contrast semi-skilled workers were more likely to move.
  • Analysis within the industrial base showed that women tended to move from Other Manufacturing and Distribution into Other Services, while those who started work in Other Services did not tend to move. Only 23% of women who began work in Retail stayed in retail. Workers within the public sector were relatively static, e.g. 68% of those in public administration and 51% in education stayed within their industrial class.
  • This shift from traditional manufacturing to services (and from Distribution to Other Services) reflects the general trends within Northern Ireland since 1950.

Employment Record

  • Analysis of work histories refutes the assumption that women are transient workers: only 29% of women who had ever worked had worked for more than 3 employers; the average number of years worked per employer was 3. These figures were related to the age of respondent.
  • 27% of women had worked for more than 20 years.
  • 92% of women who had taken a break from work only took 1 or 2 breaks. o Approximately 40% of women left an employment period to get a better position, around 20% left involuntarily, 15% left because of pregnancy and about 8% left voluntarily (e.g. personal reasons or unhappy with work).
  • Analysis of reasons for leaving Period 1 over time shows that 17% of those starting work pre-1949 left involuntarily and 26% left because of marriage, compared to 26% and 3% respectively for those starting work post-1980. This reflects the changing economic and social climate. 31% of those starting work pre-1949 left for a better position, compared to 47% of those starting post-1980.


  • 64% of respondents to this section would have like to be considered for promotion, although this varied by occupation - 91% of professionals compared to 45% in catering and cleaning.
  • 73% of professionals, 45% in clerical and related jobs and only 3% of caterers and cleaners had previously been promoted. 60% of professionals and 27% of those in catering and cleaning had the possibility of further promotion.
  • There were also variations between those working full-time and part-time - 48% of women working full-time and 15% of those working part-time had been previously promoted.

Age profile

  • Over all decades, two thirds of women aged 15-24 were working.
  • 47% of women aged 25-29 were working in 1959, compared to 60% in 1989. Figures for women aged 30-34 were 39% in 1959 and 57% in 1989.
  • The 'M' profile of women's economic activity rates (fall in proportion of women aged 25-30 working, followed by slight increase with age and then retirement) has flattened out due to shifting attitudes and increased opportunities for part-time employment, as well as the impact of economic recession.


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