Janet Street-Porter: Stroppy machinists led the way, but it's still a man's world

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The Independent Online

The cheery British film Made in Dagenham (opening 1 October) tells the true story of 187 female machinists who went on strike at the giant Ford motor factory in Dagenham in 1968, and how their brave action led to a ground-breaking piece of legislation. The trigger was management's decision to re-grade the women (who stitched upholstery in an unheated, poorly ventilated old factory) as unskilled workers, in order to save money.

After an initial 24-hour walkout, the women went on strike, causing enormous resentment among their male co-workers. Production ground to a halt as the supply of finished car seats ran out, and thousands were laid off, many of whom were partners or family of the machinists. Barbara Castle, newly installed as Labour's secretary of state for employment, was sympathetic to their cause and, after meeting the women, she persuaded Ford to offer them 92 per cent of the men's rate. All over the country, women demanded better treatment, and by 1970 the Equal Pay Act became law.

Of course, the film will be criticised for making modern history sassy and entertaining – there have already been rumblings from old-timers that the movie "sexes" up their memories. Who cares? If it can show a new generation of young women just how hard it has been to achieve any degree of parity at work, then it's worth it. I found watching Sally Hawkins (as the women's leader) unbelievably moving, having started full-time work in 1967, in an environment that was predominately male. Memories came flooding back. Forty-two years on, you might think equality in the workplace is a no-brainer, but recent evidence shows that governments might come and go, but women still get a pretty rough deal. Like ending child poverty, equal pay represents a goal rather than a reality, in spite of endless legislation.

We still have plenty of battles to fight. Labour – who always claims to be the party that represents working women – recently voted not to have gender parity in the shadow cabinet. Labour MPs decided to dilute Harriet Harman's proposals so that now the proportion will be just a third. Shocking! Nominations open on 26 September, but this election isn't worth a fig. Yvette Cooper described the decision as "disappointing". You can say that again. Labour introduced the Equality Act 2010, which requires employers to reveal the pay gap between men and women, but it is not yet in force. And will it make any difference? In a recession, female workers are likely to be unfairly affected by redundancies.

Last week, researchers from Manchester University revealed that although men and women start work with more or less the same opportunities and pay, by the time a decade has elapsed, women on average will be earning up to 25 per cent less. One in four women aged over 40 and still in work will be relying on their partner's pension to fund their retirement, according to a new survey by the Prudential. A further fifth of women said they would be relying on the state pension and benefits.

Don't expect the coalition to place women first either – as Sean O'Grady revealed in our sister paper in August, this is a government of straight, white, privately educated men. His analysis of government ministers and whips showed that 86 per cent were male, and 53 per cent had been privately educated. In Europe, Viviane Reding, the Commissioner for Fundamental Rights, is giving business leaders a year to implement better gender balances on their executive boards, threatening legislation if there isn't progress.

Across the EU, 89 per cent of members of the boards of the biggest companies are male, and only 3 per cent of boards have a female chief executive. This, in spite of a study in Finland which reveals companies with gender-balanced boards are, on average, 10 per cent more profitable. In Spain, a 2007 law requires companies with more than 250 employees to have boards made up of at least 40 per cent women. Theresa May, the minster for women and equalities, says she wants to improve things – and is encouraging the government to force all public sector boards to be 50 per cent female by 2015. Not much of a revolution since those pioneering women walked out at Dagenham.

Hunter fills its boots, thanks to China move

London Fashion week is in full swing and a report commissioned by the British Fashion Council spells out just how important the business is to our economy, accounting for more jobs than car manufacturing, telecommunications and publishing put together. The handful of top designers who have been showing this weekend represent a small (but highly photogenic) part of the industry. Internet businesses such as Boden are the real success story. Last week Hunter, manufacturers of rubber boots, announced a 41 per cent increase in turnover and a 16 per cent rise in profits, thanks to being the festival footwear of choice for Kate Moss and Pixie Lott. Basic Hunter boots cost £65, but a limited edition version designed by Jimmy Choo at a whopping £255 has been a hit. But, although Hunter claims to be British, it has moved production from Edinburgh to China. How much British fashion is made in the UK? Most of what we buy in our big shops is made in the developing world.

Rape inquiry dropped to save cash

Further evidence of the male agenda in government: the Home Secretary Theresa May, right, has decided to dump an inquiry, initiated last year, into police failings in the treatment of rape victims. Former London taxi driver John Worboys managed to sexually assault hundreds of women before he was arrested because police officers refused to believe the victims. Also last year, Kirk Reid was finally convicted for 26 attacks on women, after being questioned by the police on more than 12 occasions. Britain's rape conviction rate is the worst in Europe, and scrapping this audit of how victims have been treated by police saves just £440,000.

Yum: mouse and bacteria

How dirty are our restaurants? The Health Protection Agency tested dishcloths from 120 takeaways and eating establishments in the North-east and found that half contained bacteria levels which could make you ill. Only a third of establishments mopped up with disposable cloths and many used the same cloth for both raw and cooked food preparation areas. The day I read this, I went to dinner at St John, a fashionable restaurant in Smithfield, London. As I tucked in to my beef pie (excellent) a mouse ran along the skirting board behind my chair. The waiter flapped about with a dustpan and brush, hardly the most efficient rodent-trap, but it made a comical floorshow. The mouse returned, and ran past us both towards the kitchen. Perhaps I should have pelted it with a dishcloth.

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