Women, wait your turn, says EHRC?

// 16 March 2009

UPDATE: the EHRC has emailed in their response to the Guardian article, which they’ve sent as a letter to the newspaper. I’ve cut & paste it at the end of this post…

The Equalities and Human Rights Commission is poised to recommend government should not introduce pay audits, on the basis that it’s too much to ask companies to do in a recession, reports the Guardian.

The Equal Opportunities Commission, the body which preceded the EHRC, had recommended that companies should carry out equal pay reviews as a first step to addressing disparities. But the EHRC does not want pay reviews to be in the equalities bill, due to be published next month. “They can be a helpful diagnostic tool, but they are not the whole answer. I think we do need to be realistic about the economic climate,” Brewer said.

Pay audits are unpopular with businesses both because they are expensive and because revelations of pay disparities often unleash legal action by women who had not realised they were underpaid.

Then there’s this:

Summarising the strategy, the chief executive of the EHRC, Nicola Brewer, said an entirely new equal pay act was needed, and called for “radical reform in the future.” This would be a long-term exercise, requiring several years of work. More immediately, the commission’s approach is based on “encouraging” companies to improve their record voluntarily.

I do think that an equal pay act is needed (although what’s it going to have in it? Especially if pay audits are out?). And I can understand that the experience in the public sector demonstrates that pay audits can be expensive business for employers, as they uncover and are forced to confront and compensate for the endemic discrimination in their pay structures. But, is that a good reason not to do it? And isn’t EHRC is effectively saying, there’s a recession on, women should hold our horses and suck up unfair pay for the good of the nation? Isn’t the EHRC the body which is meant to be campaigning on women’s behalf? Can’t they leave it to the CBI to argue on business’ behalf? The Guardian story reports that the government may have already dropped the idea of pay audits at the CBI’s request; they already have massive influence. Don’t we need to be stepping up action on issues relating to work and pay, at this time, when it could all too easily fall off the radar, rather than giving in in advance?

The flip side to this is that the recession is a potential pressure point, at which we can demand change in the way the economy functions. What kind of economy do we want to emerge from this crisis? A replication of what’s gone before? Isn’t this arguably a good time for company’s to reassess their pay structures, to make them fairer?

Earlier this year, the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development said exactly that:

Charles Cotton, CIPD’s reward adviser, said, “There are clear business benefits to conducting Equal Pay Reviews (EPRs), but there is a lack of understanding amongst employers as to what those benefits are.

“Particularly, in economic conditions such as these, it is crucial that employers can see how linking employee contribution to pay ensures they are not wasting limited financial resources.”

Meanwhile, a study in Austria in 2001 found that setting contracts on a transparent ‘equal pay for equal work’ basis caused an increase in performance of 29%.

More from the Guardian:

The focus on what is realistic in the light of the recession dismayed campaigners for women’s rights. “We must not get caught in this trap of saying in difficult times we will trade in women’s rights,” said Katherine Rake, director of the Fawcett Society.

Sarah Veale, head of the equality department at the TUC, said pay audits were “a crucial part” of eliminating the pay gap. “Until companies are forced to shine a light on where the anomalies are, you can’t address the problem,” she said.

Bronwyn McKenna, a director of Unison, said she was “very sceptical about any measure that doesn’t actually compel any employers to do an audit”. “The voluntary approach simply hasn’t worked,” she said.

Here’s Fawcett’s proposals on how to close the pay gap:

  • Mandatory pay audits for all organisations.
  • The Government to set dates for finally closing the pay gap
  • Full sign-up to EU law restricting working hours, so that those with caring responsibilities can better balance work and home.
  • More flexible working at all levels, so that part-time work, doesn’t have to mean low-paid work
  • Allow equal pay cases to be brought by group action so individuals don’t have to go out on a limb. Enable ethnic minority women who have experienced ‘double discrimination’ to bring a case on more than one ground.


Commission’s response to today’s article in the Guardian:

For the avoidance of any doubt, I would like make it clear that the

Commission does not believe that ‘equal pay is a step too far in the

recession’ (The Guardian, 16 March). Fairness and a strong economy are

two sides of the same coin, they are not in opposition to one another.

What is true is that we believe that the present approach to achieving

equal pay – the Equal Pay Act – needs radical reform. We need a longer

term approach than simply demanding in law that all businesses above a

certain size carry out a pay audit.

While audits are a useful diagnostic tool, without wider legislative

reform they will simply lead us down a cul-de-sac of a further deluge of

individual claims, without signposting a way out. The tribunal system is

already creaking under the weight of a 500 per cent rise in equal pay

claims in the last four years, and the key problem with the current system

is that it provides no other alternative to tackle unequal pay other than

for the ‘victim’ to seek redress through often lengthy and costly tribunal

claims. Some women are dying waiting for justice.

What we need is more ambitious – a root and branch review which looks at

the type of information the public and private sector should publish on

pay, how much of that should be enforceable in law and how other measures

such as an ability for transitional arrangements (where pay gaps are

gradually reduced without being derailed by litigation) can help.

What we hope the Equality Bill can do now is push for representative

actions, a higher degree of transparency, an ending of gagging clauses, and

empower employment tribunals to make wider recommendations on pay.

Calling for immediate mandatory audits on their own are not the answer to

a complex and decades old problem.

Nicola Brewer

Chief Executive, Equality and Human Rights Commission

Comments From You

Lottie Fox // Posted 16 March 2009 at 1:48 pm

I saw the article this morning and knew this would end up on here. I was absolutely livid. Recessions’s hurt everyone, there’s plenty of households where women are the primary or only breadwinner and need every penny they can get. Not to mention building up a business which you can only afford by paying half your workforce substantially less isn’t really a viable business plan.

I’ve created a petition on facebook encouraging everyone to email the commission to let them know this is unacceptable.

email is info@equalityhumanrights.com please spread the word, get emailing. Rights aren’t rights if they can be taken away simply because it gets abit difficult too. Historically rights as feminists well know are things people have fought for and established for themselves. If anyone else writes a blog or knows someone who does please spread the word and let them know about this, get emailing, protesting and fighting! xox

Laura // Posted 16 March 2009 at 3:10 pm

Considering we’re 17% less well off than men, an economic recession should be further incentive to close the pay gap, not an excuse to let businesses off the hook once again.

Sam // Posted 16 March 2009 at 3:37 pm

Here are some other things that would lead to more favourable conditions for employers during these difficult economic times:

– Abolishing the minimum wage

– Removing the legal requirement for sick leave and redundancy pay

– Not enforcing Health and Safety legislation in factories

– Legalising slavery

The recession is becoming to economic rights what terrorism has become to civil ones. It is devastating, and obviously we want to mitigate its effects. But any society which even aspires to liberalism has to limit the the actions it is prepared to take to do this. Equal pay is not negotiable.

Aimee // Posted 16 March 2009 at 4:07 pm

I don’t really understand how this works for me. It’s all very confusing, but at the end of last year I discovered that I was being paid a lot less than a man for doing the same job. Apparently this was acceptable because they are allowed to pay discretionary bonuses based on experience, but now that I have the same experience he had, I am still not getting paid as much. Gah, I hate this.

Kirsty // Posted 16 March 2009 at 4:24 pm

“Revelations of pay disparities often unleash legal action by women who had not realised they were underpaid.”

Better just to keep those ignorant women in the dark about just how unfair their salaries are – then all the management staff can use the money they’ve saved cutting corners to award themselves bonuses! How ridiculous.

polly sytrene // Posted 16 March 2009 at 8:49 pm

I had some dude from a marketing company e-mail a bit ago about an ‘awareness campaign’ the EHRC were running. Apparently it’s some new variation on viral marketing, target bloggers and try to get them to run stories for free.

If this was what they were trying to market, I think my scepticisim was entirely justified.

The only thing that will work here is a big stick, not a plea to employers to please play nicely. They need to know it will seriously impact on them if they don’t clean up their acts.

polly styrene // Posted 17 March 2009 at 8:29 am

And mandatory audits would have a HUGE effect because often women simply don’t know that men are being paid more than them and that they potentially have a claim. Particularly if they’re not unionised which a lot of low paid women arent. Thus employers would be forced to do something about it if they did, or face legal action.

The point about ‘equal pay claims cluttering up the tribunal system’ is just ludicrous. Obviously more tribunals are needed then. The answer isn’t ‘please don’t try to assert your legal rights, because it’s a bit inconvenient’.

Rick // Posted 17 March 2009 at 4:16 pm

Equal pay claims have driven many public sector organisations almost to bankruptcy. The same would happen if equal pay were to be imposed on the private sector. You might get compensation and back pay but what’s the point if the company goes bust.

And Sam, this is not about making conditions more favourable for employers. It’s about not making them less favourable.

Anne Onne // Posted 18 March 2009 at 11:52 am

Sam, I thought you were serious for a second.

‘Equal pay claims have driven many public sector organisations almost to bankruptcy.’ Citation, please? Or are you suggesting that the terrible economic decisions and climate and huge salaries of those at the top are not as important factors as women asking to be paid the same as their male colleagues?

Because there’s also more than one way to bring in equal pay. One can take those who are paid more and reduce their pay to the same level as their colleagues, or level off the difference between them. Theoretically (maybe not legally as it stands) they could bring in equal pay without paying out compensation. We could even take bonuses and redirect that money to equal pay. Whatever, the point is there are different options in how to bring equal pay about, but none of these are being addressed.

It’s important to try to avoid making things worse, but the point is that real people are affected as things stand. This is unfair, and shouldn’t be seen as acceptable. It would be understandable if the process takes more time to progress because of the economic climate, but telling companies they don’t need to care about equal pay is saying that this doesn’t matter and doesn’t need to change. Change needs to be complex, and will be difficult, but it needs to be discussed and seen as an important thing. Too many people see inequality as trivial if it doesn’t affect them. People see parking fines or speed cameras as a bigger problem than women being paid less!

David // Posted 19 March 2009 at 8:56 am

My understanding is that the main reason why the EHRC are backtracking slightly is because of the results of the equal pay review in local government. Rather than women getting the pay they deserve for the work they do, LAs are simply cutting the pay of equivalent workers in ‘traditional male’ roles. Given that these equivalent roles are often low-paid and unskilled, all an equal pay review will do is make sure everyone at the bottom gets paid peanuts.

The last thing we want the law to do is allow the CBI to legally cut pay because then everyone in low-paid work suffers. Taking a longer-term view and making sure that the legislation is watertight will be more beneficial to everyone.

In a recession, we all know that employers will take an equal pay act as an excuse to cut the pay of everyone in their organisation.

Amy2 // Posted 19 March 2009 at 1:10 pm

Anne Onne, exactly.. It just sounds like fannying around the actual problem to me. I can’t believe this is how un- important women are seen in society, people using matter- of- fact language to justify why we should put up and shut up. None of the argumentss against our equal pay actually make sense, there are a load of ways to get around it, but it’s our second class status you can hear behind it.

Taking away audits is senseless! women absolutely have a right to know; the employers should be shamed. The only reason they’re probably THERE in the first place is so people don’t get to know how unfairly they’re being paid! ‘Privacy’ um.. no.

Such a Victorian attitude, it’s sickening. Sounds like a firm reluctance for women to be anything more than her man’s accessory which earns on the side. How many women nowadays have to earn for their own entire household + kids?

Have Your say

To comment, you must be registered with The F-Word. Not a member? Register. Already a member? Use the sign in button below

Sign in to the F-Word

Further Reading

Has The F-Word whet your appetite? Check out our Resources section, for listings of feminist blogs, campaigns, feminist networks in the UK, mailing lists, international and national websites and charities of interest.

Write for us!

Got something to say? Something to review? News to discuss? Well we want to hear from you! Click here for more info

  • The F-Word on Twitter
  • The F-Word on Facebook
  • Our XML Feeds