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The Equal Pay Act is 50 years old – so why are women still not being paid fairly?

The landmark legislation that enshrined pay equality in law celebrates its 50th birthday in 2020 – but women are still losing out. 

On a cold afternoon in February 1970, Barbara Castle stood up in the House of Commons for the second reading of the Equal Pay Act. “We are witnessing another historic advance in the struggle against discrimination in our society, this time against discrimination on grounds of sex,” said the 59-year-old Labour MP for Blackburn. Her intention, she said, was “to make equal pay for equal work a reality, and, in doing so, to take women workers progressively out of the sweated labour class”.

Castle, who died in 2002, had been pushing for years for equal pay. The secretary of state for employment (and one of only 24 women in the Commons in 1970), she was instrumental in supporting the women machinists who went on strike for equal pay at the Ford Dagenham motor plant in 1968. Castle helped negotiate the women a salary increase, launched a government inquiry into the dispute and later introduced the Equal Pay Act 1970 to parliament.

In 2020, the Equal Pay Act – which was finally passed on 29 May 1970 – celebrates its 50th birthday. A landmark piece of legislation, it enshrined in law the right of all women to be paid the same as their male colleagues for doing the same or equivalent work (women in the public sector were given equal pay in 1955, introduced over a five-year period). 

barbara castle
MP Barbara Castle in 1970, the year the Equal Pay Act was passed

Dr Helen McCarthy is a historian at the University of Cambridge and the author of Double Lives: A History of Working Motherhood. “Before the Act, women in private industries were being paid around half the male wage. The legislation didn’t transform that overnight and women remained excluded from many of the better-paid, skilled jobs, but it had a major symbolic impact nonetheless,” she tells Stylist. “It overturned the assumption that men needed or deserved higher wages than women, and that paying men more was the natural state of affairs.”

But half a century since Castle’s Commons victory, and a decade since her legislation was absorbed into the broader Equality Act 2010, women are still fighting for equal pay at work. Employment tribunals in England and Wales have received more than 368,000 complaints relating to equal pay since the 2007-08 financial year, according to new research by the law firm DLA Piper – an average of almost 29,000 complaints a year. 

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Some of these complaints have been high profile. In October 2018, thousands of women employed by Glasgow City Council took part in what was believed to be the biggest-ever equal pay strike in the UK (they eventually won a collective £505m in settlements). And in January this year, journalist Samira Ahmed won an employment tribunal she brought against the BBC, after asserting she had been paid £700,000 less than one of her male colleagues.

“I could not understand how pay for me, a woman, could be so much lower than Jeremy Vine, a man, for presenting very similar programmes and doing very similar work,” Ahmed told the tribunal.

Samira Ahmed
Equal pay fighter: Samira Ahmed won the Glass Ceiling Award at Stylist’s Remarkable Women Awards

Equal pay and the gender pay gap

Distinct from the issue of equal pay, but tightly related, is the matter of the gender pay gap. “Equal pay is a right by which men and women in the same employment performing equal work must receive equal pay, whereas the gender pay gap is a measure of the difference between the average earnings of men and women in their organisation,” explains Alex Christen, an employment lawyer at London and Cardiff-based legal firm Capital Law.

In recent years, there have been positive developments around the gender pay gap – the biggest being the 2017 legislation that pushed all companies with 250 or more employees to publish their pay gap data. At the time, this felt like cause for celebration, but the most recent data shows there has been little effect: the gap has closed by just 0.1%, meaning the average gap between salaries paid to men and salaries paid to women is 9.6%. 

Women in the UK still work 63 unpaid days a year on average, according to research by the Office for National Statistics and the Trades Union Congress (TUC). The problem may be exacerbated by the ongoing coronavirus pandemic: a recent report by the Institute of Fiscal Studies (IFS) found that mothers are 47% more likely than fathers to have permanently lost their jobs or quit during the crisis, something researchers warn could increase the gender pay gap in the long term.

There are some financial companies attempting to buck the trend. Millennial favourite Monzo reduced its pay gap from 47.6% in 2017 to 14% in 2018 by promoting women and hiring more women in senior positions. But by 2019 their gap had grown again to just over 20%. “That’s because we hired for a number of senior roles, many of which were taken up by men,” the company said in a press release. 

coronavirus mask
The coronavirus pandemic is predicted to exacerbate the gender pay gap, according to some researchers

The 30% Club are a campaigning group aimed at getting women into senior roles and onto boards. Ann Cairns is their global co-chair and also occupies one of the most senior positions at Mastercard. “Across 200 countries we pay women and men the same amount for exactly the same jobs,” she says of Mastercard. “But, globally, we still have more men in senior roles.” Having analysed the ONS stats, she does offer a ray of hope: “If you look at the overall gap for people under 40, it’s close to zero.”

Maternity leave also still plays a part. “Women of childbearing age can be seen as a liability to the business,” says Dr Ernestine Gheyoh Ndzi, academic and legal expert. Her research has looked at shared parental leave “which has the potential to shift things, but the policy itself has a lot of flaws”.

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Flawed and unenforceable policy comes up again and again. “It’s 50 years since the Equal Pay Act. This is clearly not working for women,” says Sam Smethers, chief executive of the Fawcett Society. “We need government intervention.”

“We need to start hitting employers with fines,” agrees Professor Marilyn Davidson, emirata professor of work psychology at Manchester Business School. “Bad PR they can just about ignore, but economic sanctions would be different.” 

freelance woman
Gender pay gap statistics don't include freelance workers - who are more likely to be female

Invisible women

There’s a chance the gap may be even bigger than the figures state. The TUC’s data does include part-time workers, who are more likely to be women, especially those with caring responsibilities.

But there’s also a pool of invisible women whose insecure earnings won’t be counted. Again, because of caring, women are more likely to be freelance or work on zero-hours contracts – types of work that don’t form part of the statistics. Zero-hours work is also common in female dominated industries, such as hospitality and retail. 

“Zero-hours workers have very limited rights,” says Dr Ndzi. “They have no leg to stand on. If they complain the company doesn’t even need to fire them, they will just stop calling.”

If this has made you mad, here’s what you can do to make sure women are paid equally.

It’s better than good to talk

Without transparency, we will never know if we’re being underpaid. The gender pay gap data released each April goes some way towards this, but not far enough.

“Only one third of women know they have a legal right to ask male colleagues about their salary if they suspect pay discrimination. Share pay information with colleagues,” says Sam Smethers. “We need to build a culture of doing this voluntarily in the absence of a law. Taboo is one of the ways discrimination thrives.”

She recommends asking what other staff are paid when going for job interviews. You can also support the Fawcett Society’s Right To Know campaign, which is pushing to modernise equal pay law. 

Take a long hard look at yourself

“Fifty per cent of women feel less confident than men when it comes to making for a pay rise or a pay assessment,” says occupational psychologist Marilyn Davidson. “It gets talked about a lot, but research backs it up.”

She suggests making an effort to look at yourself objectively. “What impact have you had on revenue and the business culture? What additional work are you doing outside your job description? Women often take on more without asking for compensation. Bring positive appraisals feedback emails, notes from happy clients. Are you invited to do things outside of your company? When you put it all together your boss may well be amazed.”

Remember, you are being evaluated on your worth as an employee, not your worth as a person. 

Stand together

“Join a union, if your workplace is unionised,” says Sian Elliot, women’s officer at the TUC. “It’s hard to be heard as an individual: there’s a power imbalance between employers and everyone in the workforce, which employers rely on. Fair pay and transparent pay structures should be for everyone.”

The TUC has a union finder tool where you can search by sector to discover the union who will represent you. There’s also information on how to organise and unionise your workplace if this isn’t already in place.

“The traditional view of who a union member is is outdated,” says Elliot, referring to the stereotype of a middle-aged man in a manual job. “Our biggest group of members are women working in senior or middle management jobs.” 

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It’s who you get you to know

Network both inside and outside your company,” says 30%’s Ann Cairns. “Internally, find someone who will sponsor and mentor you – who will help you make job moves and support you when it comes to promotions and pay. Outside of your company, you can ask for advice and have conversations that may be awkward to have in your workplace.”

Don’t be afraid to move on

“Women tend to stay in positions longer than men,” says Marilyn Davidson. “Some employers are very good at patting women on the head and telling them are doing a good job and that the place would fall apart without them. This isn’t true. Everyone is replaceable, even prime ministers. There are organisations that perpetuate gender pay gaps. You should think ‘I’m worth more than this’ and go and work somewhere that offers a better salary and better opportunities.”

Additional words: Moya Crockett

Images: Getty Images