50 years on, what will it take to realise equal pay for equal work?

Today marks the 50th anniversary of the passing of the Equal Pay Act, which guarantees equal pay for equal work for both women and men. Coronavirus aside, the world now looks very different than it did fifty years ago. We have seen some important steps towards closing the pay gap, however we are still a long way away from true equality for women. One place where this is acutely clear is the value attributed to women’s work.

Equal pay was and is an important emblem of the fight for women’s equality. The issue of equal pay is often confused with the gender pay gap, but unequal pay is only one of the wide range of causes of the gender pay gap. Equal pay for equal work means that a woman should not be paid less than a man for doing the same work, similar work, or work that is different but determined to be of the same value. The gender pay gap is the difference between women’s and men’s average hourly earnings. This distinction is important, as equal pay law relates only to cases of unequal pay, while most of the causes of the gender pay gap lie outside of employment law, which prevents real progress on women’s inequality at work.

What we know about employers and equal pay

We know that employers are unlikely to take steps to close the pay gap if they are not compelled to do so, and this compulsion simply isn’t there in any meaningful sense. Gender pay gap reporting was meant compel employers to take action to address any pay gaps, including looking at the challenge of pay discrimination. However, research by Close the Gap and the Government Equalities Office shows that employers are unlikely to voluntarily take action on the causes of the pay gap. There is little evidence reporting alone is having any impact on employer pay practice or the gender pay gap.

Close the Gap’s assessments of gender pay gap reporting among Scottish employers found only one employer which mentioned doing an equal pay review. Despite an equal pay review being the only way for an employer to be certain that they do not have an equal pay issue, evidence shows the majority of Scottish employers have not done one. Perversely, gender pay gap reporting has had the effect of making pay discrimination increasingly invisible, and not only in employer reporting: the guidance issued by UK Government, EHRC and ACAS barely pay discrimination itself.

The erasure of equal pay in pay gap reporting has resulted in incomplete analysis of pay gaps by employers (where this analysis has been done). In 2018 and 2019 reporting many employers overstated the difference between equal pay and the gender pay gap, which appears to have led to many employers ruling out unequal pay entirely as a cause of their pay gaps. Most pay discrimination is built into the design of employer pay and grading systems, for example through people being appointed to different points on the pay scale, different job and grade titles for virtually the same jobs, and sex bias in analytical job evaluation schemes grading women’s jobs lower. This is often unintentional, but still leads to unequal pay, and if employers fail to identify the issues in their pay systems this will simply continue unaddressed.

The limitations of equal pay law

While equal pay law provides a means to recourse for unequal pay, it is an individualised response to a structural problem. It requires individual women to realise or suspect that they are receiving unequal pay and pursue this with their employer. The first step in this process is to make an informal complaint to their line manager or HR. If this is unsuccessful, they must then take a grievance on the basis of unequal pay. Once this process is exhausted, they may submit a tribunal claim for equal pay. This process requires individual women to have the resources and resilience to pursue a claim, which may be limited by a fear of ‘having their card marked’, a lack of support or representation and/or a sense of ‘what’s the point?’.

Equal pay law itself has significant limitations, in that women must be able to identify a comparator of the opposite sex in order to make an equal pay claim. Where no comparator exists, it is not possible to refer to a hypothetical comparator. While changes to the Equality Act 2010 offer an alternative route where there is no actual comparator (an employee can instead bring a direct sex discrimination claim in relation to contractual pay) this still requires an individual to go through the stress of taking a case against their employer. The individualised nature of equal pay law means it is women, not employers, who are asked to step up, while it is employers, not women, who are drivers of unequal pay.

The undervaluation of women's work

The issue of value was central to the fight for equal pay and remains a stubborn problem fifty years on. The sewing machinists of Ford Dagenham, and the countless others who have fought alongside them for women’s labour market equality both before and since, demanded that the value of their work and skills be reflected in the pay they received. Equal pay law has simply not been equal to this task. The strikes for equal pay by women at Glasgow City Council happened because women’s jobs were still undervalued and underpaid relative to men’s, despite the introduction in 2006 of a job evaluation scheme which was supposed to address historic gender pay inequality. There are still tens of thousands of equal pay claims in Scotland’s tribunal system. Pay modernisation programmes in the public sector, including Single Status in local government and Agenda for Change in the NHS, have failed to address the undervaluation of women’s work, with many women’s jobs remaining low-paid and low-status.

The issue of value has been made more visible by the coronavirus crisis. As the country clapped for key workers, the majority of whom are women, media coverage has included comment on the high risk and low pay associated with this work. Research by the Women’s Budget Group found that women account for 98% of the workers in high exposure jobs earning ‘poverty wages’. The undervaluation of women’s work means that women are the vast majority of low-paid workers, not just in key worker roles, but across the labour market. This means that women are the majority of those living in poverty, which is a direct cause of child poverty.

There is widely held support for a pay rise for these workers, who have often previously been categorised as unskilled, and are now categorised as ‘essential’. The work of cleaners, social care workers, retail workers, childcare workers, delivery workers, public transport workers, nurses and healthcare assistants has kept the country going, and kept people safe, in this unprecedented crisis. But alongside this, the hours and hours of unpaid work – increased childcare, home-schooling, domestic labour, and caring for vulnerable people – this is the foundation of our economy and society. It is no accident that the vast majority of this work – both paid and unpaid – is done by women. And it is no accident that – because it is done by women – it is undervalued. This is a crucial issue which must be recognised in any moves to look at the pay of key worker roles.

What will it take?

So, what will it take to realise equal pay for women? Employers should do equal pay reviews to check they’re paying staff fairly and address any issues that arise. We also need to see proactive steps from employers to identify and tackle pay discrimination embedded in their systems. In addition to this, Scottish Government needs to include addressing the undervaluation of women’s work in its COVID-19 economic recovery plan.

That Scotland’s gender pay gap remains at 13% shows there is still much to be done to create real change. The coronavirus crisis has exposed the inequalities that women’s organisations have been working on for decades, bringing these issues into the public eye to an unprecedented extent. Close the Gap is pushing for change and, crucially, asking that the plan for economic recovery addresses the causes of women’s labour market inequality, and their wider inequality, and doesn’t leave women behind. It is time for women to see real equal pay for equal work.

If you think you're being paid unfairly because you're a woman, there's information on our website about what you can do next.

If you're an employer who wants to check whether you're paying staff fairly, Close the Gap has developed online tools to help you. SMEs can use our Think Business, Think Equality self-assessment tool which has a resource on pay and reward. Large employers can use our Close Your Pay Gap tool which also includes a self-assessment test and lots of free resources.

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