Women in the history of Aviva
31 Mar 2010
International Women’s Day at the start of this month and subsequent discussions relating to workplace diversity on our intranet forum set me thinking about the employment of women in the history of Aviva.
Among our more recent alumni we have a number of internationally well known women such as the Olympic ice skater Jayne Torville and the singer/song writer Cathy Dennis (both of whom once worked for Norwich Union) and today roughly 50% of our staff are women, despite lower representation at more senior levels, but who were the trail blazers who first set foot in the male dominated insurance offices of the 19th century?
Involvement of women in the fringes of insurance in the early decades of the 1800’s was not unknown and when, in January 1822, Norwich Union Life Insurance Society appointed Mrs Barnes agent at North Shields in the place of her deceased husband it was not a particularly unusual step for a widow to take to safeguard her income.
Similarly, women married to company messengers or caretakers also often served insurance companies in the roles of housekeepers, cooks or cleaners. These “domestic” workers were unlikely to be salaried employees and arrangements such as that made by the General Life Assurance Company in 1838, “that Henry Hutt (second messenger) do live on the premises and have coals and candles supplied to him in consideration of his wife’s services in scouring premises,” would seem to have been the norm.
However, the move from domestic to office work and from employing women in place of or in conjunction with their husbands to taking on single “girls” took a very long time and it was not until 1895 that women were employed by Aviva companies as insurance clerks. The Scottish offices lead the way with M Louisa Shelton starting work for Scottish General Fire Assurance Corporation in July 1895 on an annual salary of £26 followed in August by the appointment of Mary Bain to the staff of General Accident Fire and Life Assurance Corporation on a salary of £40 pa.
For many of our constituent companies the arrival of women in the office coincided with that of the typewriter and indeed the women who used them were often themselves referred to as typewriters rather than typists. The “first lady typewriter” appeared in the head office of the Yorkshire Insurance Company in 1902 and the first at the London office of South British Insurance Company in 1906 while the head offices at the Scottish Union and National and Railway Passengers Assurance remained all male bastions until 1907 and 1908 respectively.
For some of their male colleagues the arrival of ladies in the office increased opportunities for cupid to strike, the first all head office Norwich Union Fire Society wedding took place in 1911, but in the same year an anonymous member of staff at Commercial Union bemoaned his loss of status in the eyes of his sweetheart when she joined him in the office in a verse referred to in one of my earlier blogs.
By 1914, when Miss Mills the lady superintendant for General Accident retired, there were 66 ladies working at the company’s head office in Perth but there were always new frontiers to be crossed and Marian “May” Lance later recalled the feeling of being a “dreadful curiosity” when she took her place in 1915 as the “first woman to work on the ground floor” of the London Head office of the North British & Mercantile.
The trickle of female clerks and typists pre 1914 became a flood during the First World War when in some cases 90% of pre war male staff were engaged in fighting the enemy. The companies were, on the whole, grateful for the work done by women on the home front, the Norwich Union staff magazine of 1921 grudgingly admitted that “taken broadly, their work was satisfactory” while “R” writing in the staff magazine of the British General Insurance Company in 1938 recalled
“The majority exhibited an intelligence, adaptability and zeal characteristic of British women generally.The pen in their hands became as mighty as the sword in the hands of the fighting insurance men-folk. The typewriting machines rattled in the offices to as good a purpose as the machine-guns in the trenches at the Front... necessity has proved that given the opportunity women can do a good deal of work formerly done by men.“
In consequence, although a few entries in our salary registers end with the note “dismissed on return of men from war”, a large number of these now experienced “ladies” stayed on in the service on their companies. The article in the 1921 Norwich Union magazine suggested the continued presence of many was due to the fact that “office life offers far greater attractions to them than that of shop assistant, financially and probably socially” as well as noting that there were sadly fewer opportunities for marriage after the carnage of the war so the traditional role of wife and homemaker was not to be an option for many.
The interwar years saw the appearance of two different groups of women working for insurance offices: those who came to fill the time before marriage who, according to “R” writing in 1938 “ in their inmost hearts, would much rather have homes than offices to manage” and those who either through choice or necessity were to make insurance their career.
Among the latter were Miss Hilda M Theobald of the Ocean Accident and Guarantee Corporation who, in 1921, became the first woman Fellow of the Chartered Insurance Institute and Miss Lillian Dell appointed in 1915 as the first Lady Superintendant at the head office of the Norwich Union Fire Society.
Miss Lillian Dell had previously been private secretary to the Scott Expedition on its return from the Antarctic, was the first chairman of the women’s section of the Norwich Insurance Institute in 1929 and advised the Norwich Union Life Society in 1937 when they somewhat belatedly decided to employ women in their head office.
Comparisons of pay for male and female staff in the period are hard to make as pay scales were not really fixed and many variables were taken into account such as the age of the individual and their length of experience in the company.
This, and the specialist skills of some women in using office equipment, might explain apparent anomalies such as the fact that stenographer and typist Miss Mooney of the Yorkshire Insurance Montreal Office was the third highest paid member of a staff of 14 in 1910 commanding a larger salary than the chief clerks of the fire and livestock departments.
In 1933 a female typist could earn anything between £76 and £122 pa and an experienced female clerk around £200 pa while her male equivalent might earn up to £365 pa.
The gender pay divide is clear in the fixed salary scales of Commercial Union Liverpool office in 1946 where male and female clerks both started on £120 pa aged 18 but from the age of 22 increments for male staff were greater so that by the age of 25 a man should be earning £310 pa while a woman doing the same job would expect to take home £245 pa.
A brief survey of female salaries both pre and post First World War suggests that there was a limit to the salary any female could achieve with numerous examples of women reaching a certain level of earning between £150 and £200 and remaining on virtually the same pay for the next 10 or 15 years.
This too is evident in the Commercial Union 1946 salary guide as no allowance was made for the salaries of female staff to increase beyond the age of 29 when they could expect to be on £285 pa while their male colleagues, already earning over £100 more a year on £390 pa, continued to have yearly rises in salary.
There was at this time no attempt to treat male and female staff equally and it took women many years to gain access to reward packages which included life assurance and pension or house purchase schemes which were open to their male colleagues. Within Aviva companies, pension schemes for male staff existed as early as the 1880s but a pension fund for female staff at Norwich Union was not set up until 1940 while the staff life scheme remained closed to women at Northern Assurance until the 1960s. As late as 1963 female staff at Norwich Union were expected to resign their posts upon marriage although they could then apply to join the Society’s temporary staff.
It was not all bad news however, female staff at Norwich Union in the 1950s did get 10 minutes longer than their male colleagues for lunch and in 1958 female staff at the Northern, who evidently did not have to resign on marriage, were allowed an extra week of holiday for their weddings.
By the Second World War women were an established part of the insurance company office and many enlisted along with their male colleagues to join the war effort or were engaged on the home front as fire watchers, spotters or first aiders. One of our staff members, Vivienne Hall, who worked for the Northern Assurance Company wrote a diary of her life in this period which has become a well used primary source for information on conditions endured by those working in London during the blitz.
The paucity of staff records in the archive after the 1940s makes it hard to track the more recent progress of women breaking through to higher management levels within the group. “R” writing in the staff magazine of the British General in 1938 prophesised “it will take a generation for them (women) to develop and become capable of taking on the administration of large staffs. We may however expect a few to rise above the crowd and make a name for themselves.”
Certainly the majority of women into the 1970s joined the service of the companies within the group young and only stayed until they married. However a few did “rise above the crowd” enough to be mentioned in staff magazines which record that by 1936 the Belfast branch of General Accident had a lady chief clerk, Miss Lyster, who had joined the corporation in 1902. Miss Susan Armstrong became the first lady on the field staff of the Yorkshire Insurance Company when she was appointed trainee Inspector in July 1967 at which point the editors of the staff magazine wrote that “Agents and Brokers now accept her equally as well as her male colleagues”. In 1970 when Theresa Fortescu was appointed Executive assistant she was, according to the staff magazine, the first woman in the Commercial Union group to achieve managerial status while one of our French constituents, La Paix, boasted a female deputy General Manager Mme Langolet as early as 1956.
I was also very excited to see a woman, Florence J B McKim, acting as interim company secretary for one of our smaller constituents, Law Investment & Insurance Corporation, in 1918 but further research has indicated that this was probably only a nominal position as Miss McKim was at that point private secretary to Francis Norie Miller of the parent company General Accident and indeed some years later became his second wife.
The women of Aviva have come a long way since Miss Shelton first took her place in an all male office, today we have women on our board of directors and in senior management positions - the patronising Mr “R” would be surprised.