This week our chosen inspiration is Kathleen Roberts, a 100-year-old Woman of Steel who has been awarded an honorary degree in Engineering from the University of Sheffield.

Kathleen Roberts, woman of steel getting her degree

At just 18 years old, Mrs Roberts, along with hundreds of other women, was employed by the steelworks industry. Brown Bayley’s Steel cutlery factory specifically, keeping it afloat during the war. The women faced 72-hour weeks in abhorrent working conditions and were paid less than their male counterparts.

Mrs Roberts said: “I suppose now there’s a lot of book reading (involved in engineering). We didn’t have time for books, we had to get on with it and learn very quickly how to take a machine to pieces.

“(The girls) didn’t all enjoy it, but I did.”

However, in 1945, when the male soldiers returned, all the women were fired. They were discouraged from speaking out about their time in the industry. 

Kathleen, women of steel receiving her award

It wasn’t until watching a Women’s Land Army documentary in 2009 that Kathleen broke her silence. Speaking to The Star about her experience during the war. Following this, she set up a national campaign alongside new friends Kitty Sollitt, Ruby Gascoigne, and Dorothy Slingsby.

Their goal was to get official government recognition for all the women employed in the steel factories during World War Two. 

Over seven years £170,000 was raised through cake sales, concerts and coffee mornings. This paid for hundreds of commemorative medals and led to a statue being erected in Sheffield city centre. 

The Sheffield Star now holds their own Women of Steel Awards every year continuing the celebration of women who had inspirational stories.

Mrs Roberts is the oldest person to ever receive an honorary degree from the university and is the only surviving Woman of Steel. 

Mrs Roberts said: “It was such a surprise when I first heard I was to be given an Honorary Degree in Engineering, but I feel so honoured and privileged to accept it on behalf of all those Women of Steel who contributed to the war effort.”

For more spotlight women go to our spotlight women page on our website.

Photo Credit: University of Sheffield