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Dilution & Substitution - curse or blessing?

In 1915 the historian G.D.H. Cole described 'dilution' as 'the introduction of the less skilled worker to undertake the whole or part of work previously done by workers of greater skill or experience, often, but not always accompanied by simplification of machinery or breaking up of a job into a number of simpler operations'.


The Ministry of Munitions' own definition of dilution, as recognised by the engineering industry, was stated in its Circular 129, issued in September 1915. This described the essential features of dilution as employing women in all classes of work for which they were suitable, and only employing skilled men on work which could not be performed by either less skilled (male) labour or women.

However, during the First World War 'dilution' as an employment policy seems to have been interpreted according to the whims of those involved rather than through adherence to an official definition. For example, Alistair Reid points out that in the case of the shipbuilding industry, for both its management and concerned government administrators, dilution 'came to mean the relaxation of demarcation lines and the more flexible deployment of existing skilled male labour' rather than the introduction of female labour.

Substitution 'Substitution' was another term sometimes used interchangeably with dilution, and in some ways depicts more accurately the characteristics of women's employment during the war. Marwick distinguishes between the processes of dilution and substitution; he regards the imposition of universal conscription as marking the change from when 'highly controversial "dilution", which had been designed to maximise the domestic labour force became "substitution", the attempt to release the able-bodied by the employment of the less able- bodied'.

Success or Propaganda? Alistair Reid describes the effect of dilution in the ship-building industry as 'little more than morale-boosting propaganda'. He claims that the impression, conveyed in the official propaganda of very extensive adoption of dilution is misleading; that 'far from being universally implemented, throughout the metal-working sectors, dilution was restricted both by the uneven impact of the demand for war materials on different sectors, and by the existence of a large number of tasks which were thought to be unsuitable for female labour'.

Of the 14,000 women which the government claimed had been introduced on Clydeside in the first half of 1916, only 1,000 actually worked in the shipyards. The majority of women who worked in firms on the Clyde were employed in marine engineering shops, where there was plenty of 'suitable' light repetitious work available. Women seldom assisted skilled male workers, and many of them worked as clerks in offices, or on jobs such as painting and polishing.

Reid implies that as an employment policy, dilution was a failure because women were not actually replacing skilled men; still, if an additional 14,000 women worked on Clydeside, and whether by indirect substitution or rearrangement of jobs were contributing to the general productivity, some measure of the policy's success has to be acknowledged. Dilution was not introduced for the benefit of extending or improving women's employment experience; essentially, it was to encourage the provision of an effective, expanded workforce by whatever means should prove expedient.