Our first female staff

The arrival of women permanently transformed the banking workforce.

The first temporary lady clerks

When the First World War began in August 1914, almost all British bankers were male. Some banks had hired a few women for typing and voucher-sorting, but for the most part, banking was a job for men only. 

Within months, however, it became obvious that things would have to change. One of the first banks to hire women to solve its staffing problems was Parr’s. By January 1915 it already employed 23 women, most of them at its London head office. In May that year, it urged local branch managers to recruit women too, and by January 1916, 425 women were working in Parr’s offices.

Other banks followed suit; some rapidly, others more reluctantly. By reputation, Scottish banks were more conservative than their English counterparts, but even they were employing large numbers of women by 1917. In July that year National Bank of Scotland authorised 19 female clerks to sign banknotes on behalf of the accountant, making them probably the first women to undertake this task in Britain.

Banks liked to recruit on the basis of personal recommendations. Sisters, wives and daughters of existing staff were particularly welcome, partly because the banks saw this as a way of supporting employees’ families, but also because the family connection implied quality, trustworthiness and loyalty.

Most banks paid their early female clerks between 20 and 30 shillings a week, depending on experience and qualifications – significantly more than a 16 or 17-year-old boy-apprentice, but less than any experienced male clerk. As the war went on and wages in all sectors rose, the banks added various benefits and bonuses to the basic pay, to help staff meet the rising cost of living, and to discourage them from leaving for better-paid jobs elsewhere.

The banks' greatest worry about employing women was that customers would be offended by their presence. For this reason, women were initially confined to back office jobs, where they did not deal face-to-face with customers. As the army swallowed up more and more men, however, it became clear that women would have to work on the counter too.

There was still reluctance to employ women in the most pressured roles: in 1915, Bankers’ Magazine remarked 'it is probably impossible to employ them on heavy tills, or in offices subject to periodical rushes, where the physical and nerve strain would be beyond the endurance of the normal woman.' Over time, however, the women proved their worth, and even their critics tended to ascribe failings to lack of experience, rather than to their sex.

Men and women at work together

Employing women brought new challenges for banks. In the early days, separate work rooms were provided, but such distinctions were not practical in local branches. Nevertheless, women's toilet facilities had to be provided, and in branches where air-raids were feared, evacuation procedures had to take into account the impropriety of ladies climbing ladders or undertaking other unseemly manoeuvres.

Other problems were more unexpected. According to the Evening Standard, one London bank granted women an extra quarter-hour for lunch breaks, because it took them longer to get served in cafés, where the waitresses were more attentive to male customers. 

Furthermore, the women had to be trained as quickly as possible, so they could undertake responsible work much sooner than would ever have been expected of anyone before the war.

Many of the women felt that their new jobs gave them a glimpse of a secret world, with its own unique traditions and vocabulary. One recalled being teased by the bank men for saying 'add' when she should have said 'cast', and referring to ledgers as 'books'.

The men, meanwhile, found their working environment transformed. A poem in Parr’s Bank Magazine in 1915 observed the change:

The office is really a different place,
For ev’ry man works with a smile on his face;
It’s certainly evident such is the case
Since we had girls at the office.

The junior formerly looked such a wreck,
But now with clean collars his form he’ll bedeck;
Indeed it is whispered he washes his neck
Now we have girls at the office.

We 'Mister' each other most formally now,
And never by any chance kick up a row;
Our conduct's exemplary all must allow
Since we had girls at the office.

From using strong language the seniors shrink
(The effort it costs them you really can't think);
It's cocoa and tea that all of us drink
Now we have girls at the office.

Another man, writing in the Manchester and District Bankers’ Institute Magazine in June 1915, described the arrival of women in banking as a step towards emancipation – not of women, but of men. He foresaw 'a time when the routine work of the world will be done by machines tended by contented females, the male finding occupation enough in the supplying of imagination and ideas.'

Women making a banking career

Although many women treated their bank jobs as a short-term commitment, others saw them as the beginning of a career, seizing every opportunity to develop their skills and knowledge.

One of the annual fixtures of the London banking calendar was the Gilbart Lectures and examination for bank clerks. Women were allowed to participate for the first time in 1916, and in that first year – and the second year too – top place in the exam was taken by a female candidate. 

From April 1918 women were allowed to sit the Institute of Bankers examinations – a recognition by the profession that at least some women would stay after the end of the war. In the 1918 exams, 322 women entered. 38 passed all four papers at the first attempt, and many more passed two or three.

After the war ended, those men who wished to return to their bank jobs were allowed to do so. Some women were glad to give up their jobs, but the banks were busy, so there was plenty of work for women who wished to remain. Unlike during the war, they were expected to leave upon marrying, and many did so during the 1920s, but others remained. They became the first women to spend whole careers in banking. They worked into the 1940s and 1950s, some rising to positions of responsibility. Most worked at head office, where it was easier for women to secure advancement; it was left to a later generation to rise to management in the branches.