Women in banking

The history of women as bank customers and partners goes back at least as far as the 18th century, but - with one or two exceptions - the history of women as bank staff is confined to more recent times.

Female customers

The earliest role of women in our banks was as customers. Although they represent a small minority of customers, women do appear in the earliest surviving set of bank records in Britain, the ledgers of goldsmith-banker Edward Backwell dating from the early 1660s. In most cases these were women who had gained their money by inheritance, from a deceased father, husband or other male relative.

Before the Married Women’s Property Act of 1882, women’s property automatically came under the ownership of their husbands, so a married woman could not own property in her own right. Many banks required married women to submit a form of authorisation signed by their husband before they could open an account. Some banks even passed by-laws barring women from buying their shares. In other banks, however, women – particularly widows and orphans of moderate means – became very well-represented among the shareholders. This was because in many cases their trustees or advisors saw bank shares as a safe way of securing a quiet, stable income.

In the early 20th century, the growth in female employment led to increased numbers of women becoming financially active. In the same period, banks became more seriously interested in attracting customers with smaller savings and incomes, including – for the first time – many women. New products such as home safe accounts and, later, savings stamps, were devised to appeal to customers who might have previously felt both economically and culturally excluded from banking. 

In the 1960s one of our constituent banks, National Commercial Bank of Scotland, tried an unusual experiment in catering to female customers. In 1964 it opened Britain’s first ‘Ladies’ branch’, located above a normal high street branch in Edinburgh’s West End. Staffed entirely by women, the branch sought to serve women who might be handling their own financial affairs for the first time, or who simply preferred to deal with another woman when discussing what could be very sensitive personal matters.

From the outset there was disagreement over the idea. Some people suggested it was patronising; others believed that even women would rather see a man behind the counter. Nevertheless, the branch settled in as part of National Commercial Bank of Scotland and – after the 1969 merger – the Royal Bank of Scotland. The branch remained open until 1997, although in later years men were no longer officially barred.

In later decades, banks became far more sophisticated in tailoring and marketing products to various categories of customers, including women. This was partly a result of the diversification of banking business, which led banks to play a wider range of roles in people’s financial lives, from mortgage or loan provider to account custodian, insurer or stockbroker. It was also a natural consequence of the growing diversity of the banking workforce; as more women came to work for banks, it became easier for banks to prioritise and understand the interests of female customers.

Female bank partners

On the other side of the counter, the first women to take a role in banking were partners in family-run banks. They gained their places not by appointment, but through inheritance. There are several prominent examples in our history:   

  • Sarah Child became senior partner in Child & Co in 1782, following the death of her husband Robert. She held this position until her death in 1793, when the role passed to her granddaughter Sarah Sophia Fane
  • Sarah Sophia Fane inherited her position at Child & Co – along with the rest of her grandmother’s fortune – when she came of age in March 1806. She was to remain the owner and senior partner of the bank for 61 years, until her death in 1867. She was also a leading social figure, known as ‘Queen Sarah’ in London society. Her sister-in-law described her as ‘brilliant, talkative, gay and beautiful; always dressed in the latest fashion, in sky blue or rose colour, with flowers in her hair.’ She rarely attended the bank in person, but took an active interest in its affairs throughout her life. 
  • Harriot Coutts, unlike Sarah Child and Sarah Sophia Fane, was not born into privilege. She began life as the daughter of the wardrobe mistress to a troupe of travelling players. Harriot herself went on to become a successful actress. There, she caught the eye of Thomas Coutts, senior partner in Coutts & Co, and in 1815 they were married. When Thomas died in 1822, Harriot inherited his share in the business. She generally left the running of the bank to her partners, but always took an active interest in what was going on, primarily to ensure that her late husband’s wishes continued to be honoured. 
  • Angela Burdett-Coutts was Harriot's granddaughter and heir. When she inherited her grandmother's fortune at the age of 23 in 1837, she became probably the richest woman in England. She was to be the public face of Coutts & Co for the rest of her life, although in fact her grandmother’s will specifically barred her from direct involvement in the bank’s business. Nevertheless Angela felt that it was her duty to understand the workings of the business that created her wealth, and so always took an interest in the bank and its affairs. She became one of Victorian England's most active philanthropist, eager to use her wealth to do good in the world. She died in 1906, at the age of 92

Female bank staff

With one exception, the history of women as employees of our banks does not begin until the 20th century. The exception is Fanny Hopkins, who ran the Hawkhurst agency of London & County Bank from 1859 until 1905. Her appointment was an anomaly, undertaken as an exception to deal with a particular local requirement. It was not until two years after her retirement that our next female staff were hired. 

In September 1907 London & County Bank appointed three female shorthand typists and a lady superintendent to work at its head office. Discipline was strict; they were not permitted to talk to male employees on stairs or in passageways. The work was hard and the hours long, but efforts were made to feminise their working conditions; blinds were put up on the windows to their office, and window-boxes were filled with geraniums and marguerites.

Within a few years, however, this tentative step was overtaken by global events - the outbreak of the First World War - which forced the banks to recruit very large numbers of women, as a solution to wartime staff shortages. 

After the end of the war many women resigned, handing their roles back to men returning from the war. Others remained, however; this was a time of expansion in the banking sector, and many jobs needed to be filled. A permanent shift in society had occurred, and banking would never again be a male-only job.

During the 1920s women remained a small minority in banking, but their presence became more formalised. Systems, pay scales and regulations were developed to manage their permanent presence in the workforce. In most banks, female candidates for jobs had to be aged 17 to 30 and single. Existing female employees had to resign upon marrying.

Women were thought to be better-suited than men to operating the machines that were playing an ever-increasing role in bank back offices, but the greatest single advantage of hiring women lay in the lower salaries that they could be paid. In 1931, for example, a man with nine years’ experience working in a London bank branch would have received an annual salary of around £250. A woman with similar experience was paid only around £170. The difference was rationalised on the grounds that men would marry in their twenties and become responsible for a family, whereas women would be single, and therefore did not need as much money.

The outbreak of war in 1939 - just like the First World War a generation earlier - prompted a staffing crisis in banks, and once again, women were called upon to fill the vacancies left by men. Staff shortages continued after the war, and in 1950 National Provincial Bank addressed the problem by becoming the first British bank to remove the marriage bar, meaning that women could continue to work in the bank after marrying. The other banks soon followed suit. Banks began to target recruitment drives directly at women, and gradually the literature started to talk of ‘careers’ as well as ‘jobs’.

Despite these advances, there was still a perception that women could not achieve significant advancement in branch banking, so many women focused on head office careers, working in income tax departments, trustee services, accounts departments and credit clearing.

In 1964, however, Westminster Bank appointed its first female branch manager. Betty Nicholls, manager of Portsmouth North End branch, was one of the first female bank managers anywhere in Britain. 

In 1970 the Equal Pay Act legally prohibited unequal treatment between men and women in terms of pay and conditions of employment. This Act, which came into force in 1975, had a broad remit, covering holidays, pension rights, company benefits and some kinds of bonuses. It was followed by the Sex Discrimination Act of 1975, which protected men and women from discrimination on the grounds of sex or marital status.

With the passing of these two Acts, women were placed on an equal footing with men and the barriers which had prevented women from advancing in professions such as banking were legally removed. Although there was still much progress to be made, for the first time, equality had become the expectation.