According to recent research, women still earn about 18% less than men on average, 46 years after the first Equal Pay Act was passed in 1970 despite former Prime Minister David Cameron vowing that the government would close the pay gap within a generation.

Women’s fight for equal pay has been a long and bitter struggle. The government has recently introduced a policy that will require all companies in the UK that employ more than 250 employees to disclose how much they are paying in salaries and bonuses to their male and female staff respectively.

The league table ranking firms by the gender pay gap will be published in 2018. This actually gives companies who do have issues surrounding pay inequality time to implement changes before details are made public.

But is ‘naming and shaming’ the right way to deal with gender pay gap issues? Does the blame lie with employers, a majority of whom have made huge strides towards tackling gender inequality? Will such a tactic actually help women attain pay parity with men?

The long struggle for equal pay

It’s a fact: Women have always worked. The utopian ideal of the male breadwinner and the wife at home raising the children and keeping house only existed in reality for a few short decades after the Second World War (slightly longer for the middle and upper-middle classes). Prior to 1750, women worked alongside men doing agricultural work or working in cottage industries, managing the dairy, gardens, orchards and farm animals. They were also primarily responsible for raising children and running the household, but this was part of their duties, not the main purpose of their daily life. Men and women worked together as partners, (although this in no way suggests that women were equal to men in the eyes of the law – in fact, the opposite is true).

Then came the Industrial Revolution. Records show that in 1780, women were paid one-half to one-third of men’s wages, making around 5 shillings a week whilst men made between 10 and 15 shillings. Women had few rights compared to men and most of their earnings had to be given to their fathers or husbands…by law.

The demand for equal pay began to surface in the 1830’s via union membership. For example, in 1833, women in the ‘Women Power Loom Weavers Association’ in Glasgow went on strike for equal pay. In 1834, the ‘Grand National Consolidated Trades Union’ (GNCTU) advocated the demand for equal pay in the pages of its journal, the Pioneer, on the grounds that ‘the low wages of women are not so much the voluntary price she sets upon her labour, as the price which is fixed by the tyrannical influence of male supremacy‘.

However, trade unions for the most part, were for skilled and better paid employees, which resulted in most women being excluded from membership. In fact, unions were often openly supportive of unequal pay, as they were focused on obtaining pay increases for the ‘male breadwinner’. This marked the beginnings of a husbands ‘shame’ in allowing his wife to work, and often as a result, married women were barred from working altogether, lest they threatened men’s employment opportunities.

By the 1880’s, the women’s suffrage movement had begun to grow, alongside unions dedicated to unskilled workers. This brought the issue of equal back to the fore. Clementina Black, Secretary for the Women’s Trade Union League, tabled a motion at the Trade Union Congress of 1888 which stated, “in the opinion of this Congress, it is desirable in the interests of both men and women that in trades where women do the same work as men they shall receive the same wages.”

The First World War resulted in millions of women entering the workforce and doing jobs once reserved for men. Demands for pay parity became stronger, and in 1918, female tube workers launched a strike over bonuses. The resulting action by bus girls brought London to a virtual standstill.

That said, women still had to wait until 1970 for Parliament to enact into law the concept of equal pay for equal work. This was followed the three-week strike by sewing machinists at the ‘Ford’ plant in Dagenham (this event subsequently inspired the movie ‘Made in Dagenham’).

Thereafter, the Equal Pay Act 1970 came into force in December 1975, prohibiting differentiation of wages, holidays, pension rights, perks and bonuses based on gender.

In 1988, Julie Hayward made headlines around the world when she won the first case with a ruling of “equal pay for equal work“. She had fought for ten years in the UK tribunals and courts but was eventually successful in being awarded the same pay as her male shipyard colleagues.

The new research on the gender pay gap

The latest research, released in August 2016 by the Institute of Fiscal Studies, hints at an entrenched penalty paid by women in the workforce for becoming mothers. Further, the pay gap between men and women widens consistently for 12 years after the birth of a first child, until women receive 33% less pay per hour than men.

Another key cause for concern is that there has been little improvement for female graduates or those with A-levels. For the mid-level and highly educated, the gender wage gap is essentially the same as it was 20 years ago, despite the fact that women are now 35% more likely to go to university compared to men.

So although the wage gap has narrowed, progress has occurred mainly in low-skilled, low-paid sectors.

The essentials of the problem

The study found that the gender wage gap resulted from women working fewer hours after they had children, not from employers paying them less than their male counterparts. People who work 20 hours or less per week end up losing out on subsequent pay rises, meaning that the hourly wages of colleagues working full-time move further and further ahead.

Mark Crail, content director at XpertHR, commented in the Guardian, “The gender pay gap is not primarily about men and women being paid differently for doing the same job. It’s much more about men being present in greater numbers than women the higher up the organisation you go.”

So will gender pay gap reporting change anything?

The organisations who will be noted on the gender pay gap league table are most likely to be the ones doing the most to promote gender equality. It is therefore unlikely that forcing these companies to report what they pay to male and female staff will make one jot of a difference to the wage gap. Flexible working hours, more affordable childcare and more recognition for part-time roles (including opportunities for promotion) is what is needed. Men also need to be incentivised to take more of a ‘primary parent’ role in our culture. As long as part-time work is treated as a career cul-de-sac by society, organisations and the government, this is unlikely to happen.

Although women have always worked, they have been reported as treated as less favourably than men in the eyes of the law and society since historical records began. In truth, this latest move to attempt to name and shame individual businesses is not highly likely to help us close the gender pay gap once and for all.

Instead we need a cultural shift.

After all, how often does a childcare centre or a school call the father at work if their child is poorly?

The journey of a thousand miles begins with one step.

Lao Tzu

Saracens Solicitors is a multi-service law firm based in London’s West End. We have dedicated and highly experienced employment law solicitors who can assist you with any advice you require regarding your legal rights around equal pay or the new reporting obligations. For more information, please call our office on 020 3588 3500.

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