PSA cabin crew

Six crazy rules for women in the workplace, past and present

Want to be a miner in China? Not much chance of that if you're a girl

From dress codes to rules around working while pregnant, women have faced all sorts of restrictions on what they can and can't do at the office for decades and across pretty much all sectors.

Some of those rules might be long gone (chatty secretaries in Waco, Texas, we hear ya). But not all of them. We run down six of the craziest, past and present.

1800s-1970s: Got married? Time to go

Rules at work - marriage

A ban on hiring married women or forcing them to quit after the wedding – known as a “marriage bar” – was commonplace for jobs in public service in the UK, Canada, Australia, Ireland and the Netherlands from the late 19th Century. That’s anything from teachers and nurses to the army and public broadcasting. It was repealed in the UK in 1935 – but it wasn’t scrapped in Ireland until 1973. Famous Australian Radio-physicist Ruby Payne-Scott hid her marriage from her employers until she was found out in 1950.

Why? Other than the fact they had more important things to be doing, like having babies, supporters of the ban believed that married women took employment from those who needed it more – men and single women. Once married, women were expected to be supported by their husbands.

1960s: Secretaries in Waco, Texas - try not to talk about yourself

1960s secretaries

To be a good secretary in 1960s Waco, Texas you had to follow a lot of rules. Making sure not to talk about yourself was one of them – along with controlling your impulse to meddle in other people’s business or make sarcastic comments. If you could master all of these, you would be well on your way to becoming a secretary, who needs 100 words-per-minute.

1960s: Female cabin crew - passed your best at 32

Female flight attendants in the US had to fit some very specific criteria. Just look at this advert for Eastern Airlines in 1966: "A high school graduate, single (widows and divorcees with no children considered), 20 years of age (girls 19 1/2 may apply for future consideration). 5'2" but no more than 5'9", weight 105 to 135 in proportion to height and have at least 20/40 vision without glasses."

Rules varied at different airlines - but it was common to only hire “slender, well proportioned” women between 5’2” and 5’9” inches tall. United Airlines required women to retire at age 32 or, if you were lucky, 35. Airline bosses believed that the image of the youthful, single stewardess was central to their success.

Some airlines still have strict requirements for staff – but most apply to men and women. Makeup is an exception. For example, United Airlines bans makeup for male flight attendants but women must wear lipstick or lipgloss.

1970s - present: Pregnant? It's complicated

Workplace rules - Beyonce - pregnancy

In the US, school teachers were forced to take unpaid maternity leave when they were four to six months pregnant until well after the birth. Fans of the policy argued that the pregnancy might distract students or the woman might not be able to concentrate.

In 1971, Susan Cohen, Jo Ann LaFleur, and Ann Nelson filed lawsuits against the schools they taught in. By 1974, in the Supreme Court declared mandatory unpaid leave policies unconstitutional – a big step forward for women’s rights at work. Pregnant women must be allowed to work, as long as they can perform their jobs.

But the US still lags behind the rest of the world - it is one of only four countries that does not guarantee paid maternity leave. Swaziland, Lesotho and Papua New Guinea are the other three.

Forever - present day: Dress like a woman

Dress like a woman

Last year, Nicola Thorp was sent home from her job as a receptionist in London for refusing to wear high heels. She started a petition in protest. Over 100,000 people signed it, so the government had to respond – MPs launched an enquiry and said they were “shocked” by what they found.

It’s everywhere. Until 1993, female politicians were not allowed to wear trousers and pantsuits on the floor of the US Senate. In February, Donald Trump caused (yet another) Twitter storm when a report exposed that he requires all female staff to “dress like women”. A ban on female lawmakers in Turkey wearing trousers in the assembly was only lifted in 2013. And, to go back to the air stewards, British Airways only allowed women to wear trousers last year – to stop women having to “shiver in the cold, wet and snow of wintery climates”. Yikes.

Right now: No women mining students in China

Only men are allowed to study mining engineering at China Mining and Technology University – a course that guarantees you a job after graduation. Reasons for this rule: women would not be able to carry heavy the machinery or escape as quickly in an emergency, apparently. A professor at the University told the BBC, "China's labor law suggests mining work is unsuitable for women, so we ask women to refrain from applying to our major."

Angry girl

Recent articles

Reader Comments

  • Macrocompassion

    Look to who owns the land of Greece and why they are not using it properly!

    Discover how much the value of the land is being speculated in by holding it unused and the resulting lack of opportunity. Why can’t small scale farmers begin their own production of farm produce and the selling of it to local suppliers for domestic consumption?

    Adam Smith (“Wealth of Nations”,
    1776) says that land is one of the 3 factors of production (the other 2 being
    labor and durable capital goods). The usefulness of land is in the price that
    tenants pay as rent, for access rights to the particular site in question. Land
    is often considered as being a form of capital, since it is traded similarly to
    other durable capital goods items. However it is not actually man-made, so rightly
    it does not fall within this category. The land was originally a gift of nature
    (if not of God) for which all people should be free to share in its use. But its
    site-value greatly depends on location and is related to the community density
    in that region, as well as the natural resources such as rivers, minerals,
    animals or plants of specific use or beauty, when or after it is possible to reach them. Consequently,
    most of the land value is created by man within his society and therefore its
    advantage should logically and ethically be returned to the community for its
    general use, as explained by Martin Adams (in “LAND”, 2015).

    However, due to our existing laws, land is owned and formally registered and its
    value is traded, even though it can’t be moved to another place, like other
    kinds of capital goods. This right of ownership gives the landlord a big
    advantage over the rest of the community because he determines how it may be
    used, or if it is to be held out of use, until the city grows and the site
    becomes more valuable. Thus speculation in land values is encouraged by the law,
    in treating a site of land as personal or private property—as if it were an
    item of capital goods, although it is not (Mason Gaffney and Fred Harrison:
    “The Corruption of Economics”, 2005).

    Regarding taxation and local community spending, the municipal taxes we pay are
    partly used for improving the infrastructure. This means that the land becomes
    more useful and valuable without the landlord doing anything—he/she will always
    benefit from our present tax regime. This also applies when the status of unused
    land is upgraded and it becomes fit for community development. Then when this
    news is leaked, after landlords and banks corruptly pay for this information,
    speculation in land values is rife. There are many advantages if the land
    values were taxed instead of the many different kinds of production-based
    activities such as earnings, purchases, capital gains, home and foreign company
    investments, etc., (with all their regulations, complications and loop-holes).
    The only people due to lose from this are those who exploit the growing values
    of the land over the past years, when “mere” land ownership confers a financial
    benefit, without the owner doing a scrap of work. Consequently, for a truly
    socially just kind of taxation to apply there can only be one
    method–Land-Value Taxation.

    Consider how land becomes
    valuable. New settlers in a region begin to specialize and this improves their
    efficiency in producing specific goods. The central land is the most valuable
    due to easy availability and least transport needed. This distribution in land
    values is created by the community and (after an initial start), not by the
    natural resources. As the city expands, speculators in land values will
    deliberately hold potentially useful sites out of use, until planning and
    development have permitted their values to grow. Meanwhile there is fierce
    competition for access to the most suitable sites for housing, agriculture and
    manufacturing industries. The limited availability of useful land means that the
    high rents paid by tenants make their residence more costly and the provision
    of goods and services more expensive. It also creates unemployment, causing
    wages to be lowered by the monopolists, who control the big producing
    organizations, and whose land was already obtained when it was cheap. Consequently
    this basic structure of our current macroeconomics system, works to limit
    opportunity and to create poverty, see above reference.

    The most basic cause of our continuing poverty is the lack of properly paid
    work and the reason for this is the lack of opportunity of access to the land
    on which the work must be done. The useful land is monopolized by a landlord
    who either holds it out of use (for speculation in its rising value), or
    charges the tenant heavily for its right of access. In the case when the
    landlord is also the producer, he/she has a monopolistic control of the land
    and of the produce too, and can charge more for this access right than what an
    entrepreneur, who seeks greater opportunity, normally would be able to afford.

    A wise and sensible government would recognize that this problem derives from
    lack of opportunity to work and earn. It can be solved by the use of a tax
    system which encourages the proper use of land and which stops penalizing
    everything and everybody else. Such a tax system was proposed 136 years ago by
    Henry George, a (North) American economist, but somehow most macro-economists
    seem never to have heard of him, in common with a whole lot of other experts.
    (I would guess that they don’t want to know, which is worse!) In “Progress and
    Poverty” 1879, Henry George proposed a single tax on land values without other
    kinds of tax on produce, services, capital gains etc. This regime of land value
    tax (LVT) has 17 features which benefit almost everyone in the economy, except
    for landlords and banks, who/which do nothing productive and find that land
    dominance has its own reward.

    17 Aspects of LVT Affecting Government, Land Owners, Communities and

    Four Aspects for Government:

    1. LVT, adds to the national
    income as do other taxation systems, but it replaces them.

    2. The cost of collecting the LVT is less than for all of the production-related
    taxes–tax avoidance becomes impossible because the sites are visible to all.

    3. Consumers pay less for their
    purchases due to lower production costs (see below). This creates greater
    satisfaction with the management of national affairs.

    4. The national economy
    stabilizes—it no longer experiences the 18 year business boom/bust cycle, due
    to periodic speculation in land values (see below).

    Six Aspects Affecting Land Owners:

    5. LVT is progressive–owners of
    the most potentially productive sites pay the most tax.

    6. The land owner pays his LVT regardless of how his site is used. A large
    proportion of the ground-rent from tenants becomes the LVT, with the result
    that land has less sales-value but a significant “rental”-value (even
    when it is not used).

    7. LVT stops speculation in land prices and
    the withholding of land from proper use is not worthwhile.

    8. The introduction of LVT initially reduces the sales price of sites, even
    though their rental value can still grow over a longer term. As more sites
    become available, the competition for them is less fierce.

    9. With LVT, land owners are unable to pass the tax on to their tenants as rent
    hikes, due to the reduced competition for access to the additional sites that
    come into use.

    10. With LVT, land prices will
    initially drop. Speculators in land values will want to foreclose on their
    mortgages and withdraw their money for reinvestment. Therefore LVT should be
    introduced gradually, to allow these speculators sufficient time to transfer
    their money to company-shares etc., and simultaneously to meet the increased
    demand for produce (see below).

    Three Aspects Regarding Communities:

    11. With LVT, there is an
    incentive to use land for production or residence, rather than it being unused.

    12. With LVT, greater working opportunities exist due to cheaper land and a
    greater number of available sites. Consumer goods become cheaper too, because
    entrepreneurs have less difficulty in starting-up their businesses and because
    they pay less ground-rent–demand grows, unemployment decreases.

    13. Investment money is withdrawn from land and placed in durable capital
    goods. This means more advances in technology and cheaper goods too.

    Four Aspects About Ethics:

    14. The collection of taxes from
    productive effort and commerce is socially unjust. LVT replaces this extortion
    by gathering the surplus rental income, which comes without any exertion from
    the land owner or by the banks–LVT is a natural system of national income-gathering.

    15. Bribery and corruption on information
    about land cease. Before, this was due
    to the leaking of news of municipal plans for housing and industrial
    development, causing shock-waves in local land prices (and municipal workers’ and
    lawyers’ bank balances).

    16. The improved use of the more
    central land reduces the environmental damage due to a) unused sites
    being dumping-grounds, and b) the smaller amount of fossil-fuel use, when
    traveling between home and workplace.

    17. Because the LVT eliminates
    the advantage that landlords currently hold over our society, LVT provides a
    greater equality of opportunity to earn a living. Entrepreneurs can operate in
    a natural way– to provide more jobs. Then earnings will correspond to the
    value that the labor puts into the product or service. Consequently, after LVT
    has been properly introduced it will eliminate poverty and improve business