Equal pay and the fight for equality in the workplace

Why don't more women pursue their legal right to equal pay? Michelle Gordon explains

Michelle Gordon, 9 March 2011

The Equal Pay Act came into force in this country in 1975. This followed years of campaigning to end pay discrimination between men and women. The Act and subsequent amendment in 1984 introduced three principles: firstly, equal pay for the same work, secondly, equal pay for work of equal value and thirdly, equal pay for work rated as equivalent.

I thought we could all agree on the first one: men and women doing the same job should get paid the same. However, since Ellie Levenson commented in The Independent that belief in equal pay for the same job is a feminist concept, we probably need to re-consider this:

In fact 'I'm not a feminist but...' has been one of the most frequent refrains I've heard, with women then going on to tell me they are in favour of equal pay for women who do the same jobs as men.

Levenson is often criticised, but really, does a belief in equal pay for the same work make you a feminist? If Levenson's definition is correct the majority of the population are feminists (at least publicly).

Equal pay cookie.jpg

Believe in equal pay? Have a cookie.

I think it is useful to consider this idea: do we as feminists think that women should get paid the same amount of money for doing the same work as men? Yes hopefully that is a given. Does society at large accept this principle of equality? Well it could be argued yes they do, the cases of women being openly paid less for doing the same job as a man have almost disappeared.

The civil service, for example, historically had a men's rate and an unmarried women's rate of pay for a job. If you are wondering about a married woman's rate there wasn't one, as you were forced to leave employment when you married - too many socks to darn and home cooked meals to prepare!

We can take the disappearance of male and female rates as a victory of sorts. However, is this basic principle of equality a feminist concept? Is that enough? Do feminists only want to eliminate this type of blatant discrimination? Or do we want to change pay structures and conventions to stop institutionalised sexism? If we can't convince ourselves we have a lot of work to do persuading the public at large and employers in particular.

Trade unionists once campaigned for men to be a 'family wage', as a response to the exploitation of women and children in work following the industrial revolution

The Equal Pay Act was actually very advanced for its time, it is not only concerned with equality for men and women doing the same job, it is also concerned with discriminations that are harder to define - work of equal value and work rated as equivalent. How do employers value different jobs and reward them appropriately and comparatively?

However the success of this part of the act is not going as well as the first. We still have a gender pay gap of 22% in this country.

There are many explanations for the gender pay gap, for example, career gaps (maternity and child care), the impact of part time working on progression to name just a few. These are not necessarily directly related to the Equal Pay Act but wider issues within society.

However, certainly some explanation for the gender pay gap comes from the view of employers, society and in some cases women of the 'value' of 'women's work'.

This reminds me of the original question, do we think men and women carrying out the same work should be paid the same? Well the old simplistic arguments for the men's and women's rates were that young women were probably being supported by their fathers and then when they married they didn't need to earn any money because it was their husbands job to look after them. Before marriage it's only them so they really don't need much money - maybe for a nice dress and the hairdressers, men will buy all the drinks and pay for dinner when they go out anyway!

Men need to be paid more than women because they have families to support - meaning wives and children, and they are the main bread winner.

This is certainly a view which was promoted by the trade union movement in its campaign for a 'family wage'. This campaign was in part developed as a response to the exploitation of women and children in work following the industrial revolution. The theory was that by demanding a 'family wage', enough for a family to live on, then women and children would not need to be exploited in the workforce and could be 'looked after' by their husbands or fathers.

The family wage never materialised and in practice women continued to work both through choice but mainly through necessity. However it could be said that some of these attitudes demonstrated by the campaign for a family wage continued.

When women did work when married (which was by no means unusual), there was a view that their earnings really only subsidised the household income, it's just a bit of extra cash for them - some pin money! Obviously we know that this was not really the case but was certainly the prevailing view.

Woman workers.jpg

You would struggle to find many people now who would argue this publicly although the comment regarding pin money has been heard in the trade union movement within the last 10 years!

But how much of this prejudice now informs and challenges us in our fight for equal pay for women across the workplace? Have these views disappeared? How does it impact on our campaigns to get pay structures which value and reward female dominated jobs as much as male dominated jobs?

In the public sector:

  • Why is a cleaner paid less than a refuse collector (or binman - as they normally are)?

  • Why is a teaching assistant paid less than a road worker?

  • How about a care worker getting paid the same as a maintenance person or more likely maintenance man?


In some of the local authorities where I have represented trade union members, some male-dominated job roles, such as road workers, refuse and maintenance jobs can be paid up to £7,000 per year on top of their basic pay as a bonus. No jobs where the majority of positions are held by women receive a bonus, yet these women are also expected to do their job competently and correctly. In fact many of the roles predominately undertaken by women require commitment over and above the tasks and hours strictly speaking paid for.

So as trade unions we identify that there are potential equal pay claims and submit claims on behalf of our members.

It is essential for me to attempt to tackle the issues within the trade union movement about this fight. It is fair to say that the movement has often let itself down in terms of its attitude towards women, including whether the argument for a family wage was actually just discrimination.

It took trade unions a long time to see equal pay as a priority. It took good women activists to raise the issue to the top of the agenda. We have by no means been perfect, there has been some great work done in the movement but in the past it has not been the priority it should have been.

However we have now begun to take the issue much more seriously and to be honest that isn't always about the equality issues, sometimes this is a major priority in terms of collective organisation. Where there is a requirement for employers to re-evaluate job roles (as there is in the public sector) and councils are looking to address their equal pay liabilities the first port of call for them is often - how do we cut the pay of the men to eliminate the inequality?

This is the thinking which essentially led to the refuse collectors strike in Leeds last year, male-dominated jobs having their pay cut rather than jobs primarily held by women having a pay increase.

The Leeds strike was a massive success for the trade unions but it highlights something else. Some of the reasons we have ended up with the disparities of pay is because workers in traditionally male dominated jobs have been better organised and have in general been more willing to take action to improve their terms and conditions.

I completely reject the idea that the union movement is at fault by supporting these male members. It is not the trade unions responsibility to ensure an employer has an equality proofed pay structure. That responsibility lies with the employer. However would the job be made easier if our female members were more inclined to take action to improve their pay and terms and conditions? Undoubtedly so.

Many of the reasons for this are the same arguments about why some members are reluctant to take up an equal pay claim against their employer.

Do members feel confident to challenge their employer? I have lost count of the number of low paid part time women who may well be entitled to tens of thousands of pounds of compensation who, despite the strongest possible advice, have decided not to rock the boat with their employer.

Can you imagine that happening if I told a male refuse collector he was owed £20,000 plus? I know many of our male members in these types of industries have gone on strike for much, much less. All these women need to do is agree to their trade union pursuing the claim for them (along with thousands of others), no strikes involved.

This does come back to the types of jobs that women are doing, they are often working in jobs which are quite isolated, particularly in schools, and are more likely to have more personal relationships with their managers (often head teachers). They feel more vulnerable in the workplace to personal pressure.

They are also more vulnerable to emotional guilt and negative treatment. Many of these members work in people facing jobs - if a teaching assistant claims their entitlement to equal pay will the pupils in the school lose out by having less facilities? If a carer claims thousands does this mean worse care for the elderly?

Another tactic is used against these women and it is a very real one particularly during this time of savage cuts and mass public sector redundancies. These members ask themselves if I claim thousands in equal pay does that mean I won't have a job in 12 months time because I will be made redundant? Or even worse, will one of my colleagues be made redundant and I will feel responsible?

Gold.jpg

Many question whether they really have a claim. They have always accepted, albeit grudgingly, what they get paid. They knew the money wasn't great when they 'decided' to work in the care sector or with children, but they love the work and anyway it may fit in with their parenting (read mothering) responsibilities. Everyone knows childcare or care work doesn't pay well!

Most of these concerns can be overcome by explaining the details of the claims, the injustice and that the money paid to the men is already in their pockets, no one threatened them with job losses for taking it. No one told them that the education system or care service would suffer if they took this money. It was given to them every month in their pay packet. But many women feel they have to be practical about these threats and make decisions with the least risk.

We have however found that the realisation of the inequality has led to significant numbers of these women pursuing the claims with real fight. Their confidence has grown along with the indignation at the way they have been treated.

During the summer last year there was a lot of local press relating to some cases which reinforced the threats outlined above. What was fascinating and very depressing was the public's response. Now obviously not all commentators understood the claims and those who are inclined to write into a local newspaper or comment on their website are a specific type of person, but below is a selection of (paraphrased) views expressed:

If you take a job at a certain rate then you should like it or lump it! (Even though you may not know that it is a certain rate just because it is a traditionally female dominated job and that you are legally entitled to more.)

Go and get another job if you don't like what you are being paid! (Why should you if you are only asking to be paid the true value of your work.)

The women who are claimants in our cases are low-paid, mainly part-time workers. Many have never challenged their employer before and are often reluctant to do so

These people should be pleased they have a job during a recession. (Regardless of whether they are being discriminated against by a council which has known about it for years.)

These 'greedy low-paid women workers' (a contradiction if ever I have heard one) are just out for what they can get from the poor council tax payer (all of this in a council where the male chief executive gets paid more than the Prime Minister).

There is a serious problem with the public's view of the Equal Pay Act and claims which aren't based on simply defined inequality. Determining work of equal value and work rated as equivalent is a complicated legal minefield. Currently case law on this changes what seems like every few days. So it easily gets lumped in with the litigious culture we have caught from the US.

But these aren't the real reasons. The women who are claimants in our cases are low-paid, mainly part-time workers. Many have never challenged their employer before and are often reluctant to do so. They are not trade union extremists or 'bra burning' feminists (not that I am saying these are accurate descriptions of anyone). They have discovered with their trade union that their employer has been systematically discriminating against them for many years and that using legislation introduced decades ago they are entitled to compensation. They also want a pay structure which does not continue to discriminate against them.

At the same time, their employer threatens them with job losses, pay cuts, cuts to services if they claim what they are entitled to. Many of our members who have never been active before have become so incensed by the way they have been treated by their employer that they are more and more keen to pursue and win these cases. It is essential that women understand their entitlement under the act and have the confidence and support to pursue these claims. I also believe that feminists need to support these women and remind the public at large that we are not happy with just equal pay for the same work: we want what was promised to us in 1975.

Photograph of "believes in equal pay" cookie taken by Flickr user sajbrfem. Picture of women workers at the Douglas Aircraft Company plant during World War II is in the public domain and obtained from Wikimedia Commons. Photograph of gold taken by Flickr user BullionVault.

About the author

Michelle Gordon

Michelle Gordon is a trade union organiser writing in a personal capacity. She is currently involved in pursuing a large number of equal pay claims against local government employers

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