When was a postal worker not a postman? Gender and occupation in the Post Office

1966 Post Office recruitment poster, courtesy of the Postal Museum.

The ONS Longitudinal Study (LS) contains linked census and life events data for a 1% sample of the population of England and Wales. It contains records on over 500,000 people usually resident in England and Wales at each point in time and it is largely representative of the whole population. The LS is the largest longitudinal data resource in England and Wales.

I’ve been working on exploring the outcomes of postal workers from 1971. Bringing our focus towards the late twentieth-century Post Office raises interesting questions with regard to gender, as the 1970s witnessed important legislation designed to create a more equitable workplace for women. The Sex Discrimination Act 1975 rendered “unlawful certain kinds of sex discrimination and discrimination on the ground of marriage, and establish a Commission with the function of working towards the elimination of such discrimination and promoting equality of opportunity between men and women generally; and for related purposes”. Yet how successful was this in diversifying employment opportunities for women in the Post Office, which historically had been hostile to employing married women?

The census can help us answer this question, which has important ramifications for how we think about the different kinds of historic health outcomes experienced by men and women. During the England and Wales censuses people are asked their occupation, but also the industry in which they have worked. Historically many occupational classifications were gendered regardless of the gender of the member of staff that carried out the role. In nineteenth century censuses there were gendered roles such as postgirl, postboy, postman, postwoman, postmaster, and postmistress as well as wife, daughter and son of these roles. There was even a lone female postman though this may be a transcription error.

To ascertain occupation and industry in the 1971 Census anyone aged 15 and over was asked if they had a job in the previous week.  Even if they were not currently in work, everyone 15 and over was also asked the name and business (nature) of their employer from their current or most recent job. This was used to determine the industry they currently or last worked in. Adults were also asked their occupation and the description of their work. The 1971 Census used the 1970 Classification of Occupations to group jobs according to the kind of work done and the nature of the operation performed.

Only three different types of postal occupation were recorded in 1971: postman, mail sorter; telephone operators; and telegraph and radio operators capturing together just 45% of those working in the Postal services and telecommunications industry. In the 1971 LS data over 30% of workers in the industry were classified as postman/mail sorter regardless of gender (7% were of these were women). A further 12% were telephone operators (76% of these were women) and 2% telegraph and radio operators (37% of these were women), reflecting the feminised workforce of the late twentieth-century telecommunications industry. However, there were and are many other sorts of jobs in the Postal services and telecommunications industry in 1971. 21% were installers and repairmen, telephone (0% of these were women); 16% were clerks or cashiers (50% of these were women). Three percent were either charwomen, office cleaners, window cleaners, or chimney sweeps (46% of these were women). (Source: ONS LS)

The careers service today describes the career as Postman or postwoman with alternative titles for this job to include Postal delivery worker. “Postmen and postwomen sort letters and packages for delivery to homes and businesses” with an average salary of £20,000 to £25,000 (a year), typical hours of 41 to 43 (a week) with an early morning start. Postal delivery workers are going to be protected from an estimated 2,000 job cuts due to take place at Royal Mail to deal with the aftermath of Covid-19. Instead, one in five management roles at Royal Mail will be cut by 2021. With women occupying 31% of Royal Mail’s senior management roles in 2019, it will be left to see if such changes will have a long-lasting impact on what is still described as a male-dominated industry.

The permission of the Office for National Statistics to use the Longitudinal Study is gratefully acknowledged, as is the help provided by staff of the Centre for Longitudinal Study Information & User Support (CeLSIUS). CeLSIUS is supported by the ESRC Census of Population Programme (Award Ref: ES/R00823X/1). The authors alone are responsible for the interpretation of the data. This work contains statistical data from ONS which is Crown Copyright. The use of the ONS statistical data in this work does not imply the endorsement of the ONS in relation to the interpretation or analysis of the statistical data. This work uses research datasets which may not exactly reproduce National Statistics aggregates.

Nicola Shelton