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The Equal Pay Act: Fifty years on

Fifty years since the Equal Pay Act was introduced Jenny Rodriguez, Senior Lecturer in Employment Studies, and Isabel Tavora, Senior Lecturer in Human Resource Management, argue for further reform.

Over the last half century equal pay legislation has undoubtedly enabled women in the UK to challenge pay discrimination and advance gender equality. Recent examples include the success of thousands of women who fought Glasgow City Council for equal pay, or the BBC journalist Samira Ahmed who won an employment tribunal earlier this year.

But the very fact that these cases still had to be taken to court highlight how the legislation has, in many ways, failed to deliver on its key objectives.

Gender pay disparities continue to exist, and although the gender pay gap has narrowed, the legislation on its own has not been enough to overcome many of the underlying causes of pay inequality. While the introduction of Gender Pay Gap reporting two years ago was a step in the right direction, companies are still under no compulsion to take action on their figures.

Challenges

Research by Professor Jill Rubery and our other colleagues at the Work and Equalities Institute has highlighted that whilst pay structures may be at the centre of pay inequalities, causes are varied and multi-layered, and emanate from societal, organisational and policy arrangements.

They range from the overrepresentation of women in low paid occupations (and the over-representation of men in high paid occupations), through to the undervaluing of women’s work, and the lack of transparency about pay. In particular this secrecy around pay, coupled with the onus on individuals to identify appropriate comparators, means that the challenge to overcome pay inequality seems unsurmountable because it makes individuals responsible for resolving their own structural disadvantage.

Unequal sharing of family care responsibilities also prevents employment participation on equal terms. This is visible in gendered working-time patterns that are typical in the UK, such as mothers working part-time and fathers working long fulltime hours. In the absence of affordable childcare, it makes more financial sense for the parent with the lowest income, normally the mother, to reduce hours than to pay for childcare. This is further reinforced by low-paid maternity and paternity leave, and flawed shared parental leave legislation which still discourages most fathers from taking on care roles.

Changing work

Another area where we see a failure in equal pay legislation relates to changes to the nature of work and how the structure of employment has evolved rapidly, for example, through the rise of flexible working or zero hours contracts.

In today’s fragmented labour market the boundaries between jobs, contracting and service provision have become blurred so that flexible workers are not always neatly covered by equality law and employment protections. In addition, pay inequality is no longer just a matter of gender equality as evidenced by calls for the law to recognise multiple discrimination. This is complicated by the fact that Equal Pay legislation relies on individuals themselves to find out if they are being unequally paid (a job made more difficult by the lack of transparency in pay), and on them having the energy and resources to make a claim.

Solutions

So what are the solutions? Whilst we’re not suggesting the legislation should be scrapped, instead we propose reforming our legal and policy framework so that it really supports equality and fair pay for all. The kind of measures that we have in mind include:

  • Promoting better pay transparency by enabling and normalising pay disclosure in pay
  • Designing more open and transparent appointment processes for senior jobs
  • Making full-time childcare available and affordable for all
  • Discouraging the long hours work culture and not rewarding face time in promotions
  • Allowing shorter working hours for parents/carers
  • Providing well-paid leave for mothers and fathers, with incentives for fathers
  • Requiring action-taking to reverse inequalities revealed by Gender Pay Gap reporting
  • Establishing compulsory equal pay audits
  • Making pay equality a requirement for receiving government contracts and grants

Such reform could help us move from the current ‘reactive’ scenario – where companies only act when something happens (such as an equal pay claim) and towards a more proactive approach to equal pay, in which employers actively correct existing inequalities rather than passively waiting until they are caught.

Such reform could also help overcome the practical difficulties associated with taking employers to court over equal pay claims. Brexit could also be a perfect opportunity for the UK to think carefully about what it wants its labour and employment practices to look like so that we do justice to the principles that drove the establishment of the Equal Pay Act 50 years ago.