Are women still second-class citizens in the workplace?

Back in 1968 a group of female sewing machinists at Ford Dagenham challenged their employer to pay women workers the same as their male co-workers. They eventually got a rise of 92% of comparable men's wages, rising to 100% in two years, as well as a promise of future equal pay legislation. The Dagenham women's action galvanised other workers to fight for equal pay and this resulted in the 1970 Equal Pay Act.

But 42 years on and the pay gap is, as Charlie Woodworth, spokesperson for the Fawcett Society, says, "still very much a burning contemporary issue". In the UK, the gender pay gap between full-time working men and women is 16.4%, according to the Fawcett Society, an organisation campaigning against gender inequality.

We are currently fifteenth in the World Economic Forum's Global Gender Gap report, well behind the northern European countries such as Iceland, Norway, Finland and Sweden. What's less easy to swallow is that less-developed countries like Lesotho and the Philippines are also above us in the rankings.

For more read Cathy Adams blog: Who says men and women are equal? Not me

The gap varies depending on your job and age: the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) found that on average at the age of 40 men earn 27% more than women. But while many of us think of businesswomen in high-flying City jobs whenever the gender pay gap is discussed, in fact it's mostly prevalent in low-paid jobs in manufacturing and the care sector, where the majority of the workforce is female. Working mums with no formal qualifications, for example, face a 58% difference in pay compared with a 4% gap in earnings for mums with degrees. That said, it's still an issue for women in more competitive sectors, with the Fawcett Society citing a 55% difference in pay in the financial sector.

Why the pay gap?

Why is it then that in 2011 women are still paid less? Dr Catherine Hakim, sociologist at the London School of Economics, argues that equal pay campaigners are missing the point: a lot of women earn less because of their lifestyle choices.

In a paper entitled Women, careers, and work-life preferences she writes: "At present, equal opportunities policies assume that all women are careerist in their work orientations, and that more support needs to be given to working mothers, in the form of public childcare services and time off.

"If only a minority of women are in fact careerist, and many of them are childless, then policy is at present misdirected, as well as overlooking people with life goals." 

Hakim argues that not all careers are suited to women who choose to have children, and it's their need to accommodate work with family life (for example, by going part-time or taking a job with more flexible working conditions) that is the main cause of the gender pay gap.

But Collette Fagan, professor of Sociology at the University of Manchester, disagrees: "The classic argument is that women are paid a different salary because they have a family and work different hours.

"But a government equality office study in 2004-2007, which looked at different industries and women who had worked full-time  for a varying amount of years, found that this cannot explain a third of the pay gap."

Fawcett Society's Woodworth is also unimpressed with what she calls 'the motherhood penalty'. "When women choose to have children, it has a real impact on their earnings, not just because they take time out, but also because some employers think: 'she might get pregnant soon, so there's no point promoting her'," she says.

Recent legislation

The 2010 Equality Bill – an update of the Equal Pay Act 1970 – should go some way to address some of the issues; however, critics are disappointed that the current government has stalled over one part of the legislation.

Section 78, which would have forced firms employing over 250 people to publish their pay data, has been delayed. Yet, for many campaigners, it's the lack of transparency over pay that's the crucial hurdle. "This is a major setback," says Stefan Cross, director of employment law specialists firm of the same name.

Cross set up his legal firm after his work with trade unions opened his eyes to the pay gap. He found that many female public sector workers had no idea they might be a victim of pay discrimination.

Take Phyllis Wiles, now 68, who worked as a cleaner at Northgate School in Guisborough for nine years on a salary of £6 an hour. Phyllis only discovered she was on lower pay than her male co--workers when Stefan Cross Solicitors informed her. The firm represented Phyllis and her colleagues at a tribunal and won the case. Phyllis received £7,000 in back pay – although the council took £2,000 in tax, plus £2,000 in legal fees. "I only received £3,000 in the end," she says, "so I'm not sure it was all worth it."  

The transparency hurdle

With very few firms publishing any salary information, unless you're in the know, it's extremely difficult to find out what other people are being paid. "Historically, we're not very open about what we earn. It's considered a bit vulgar to discuss your pay," says Woodworth.

Council and local authority jobs are separated into different grades, which means there is at least some public knowledge about salaries. Larger corporations may also publish pay hierarchies or be more explicit on job-level or salary brackets within job descriptions. However, if you work for a smaller firm, finding out about pay discrepancies is extremely tricky.

What can you do?

What can a woman do if she does suspect that she's being paid less because of her gender? "Firstly, go to your line manager or HR department with a copy of your job description, and state your case," says Fiona Newstead, an HR director in the City who has also sat on employment tribunals.

She also points out that you can cite as a 'comparator' someone who doesn't work for your company but has the same role or level of work.

It may be that your employer can explain the difference in pay satisfactorily or they might accept there is a discrepancy in pay and address this, in which case you won't have to take further legal action. If you can't come to an agreement then the next step is an employment tribunal. If you have union representation, it should be your 
first port of call.

Otherwise, go online to and download an application form (ET1) – you don't need a lawyer for this. Your employer should then respond with a similar form (ET3).

You can keep costs to a minimum by representing yourself at a tribunal; however, if your employer then hires a legal crack team, this is unwise. Ideally, if you're a member of a union, ask it to represent you. If not, you should consider taking professional legal advice.

A flawed system

The Fawcett Society is calling for a simpler tribunal process, and Cross heartily agrees that the system is flawed, with constant appeals clogging up the system.
This is what happened to Mairi Buchanan and Pat Holland.

The two customer service managers were paid approximately £10,000 a year less than their male colleague. The tribunal stated that Mairi and Pat's contracts should include equality clauses and that they were entitled to pay and benefits equal to their male colleagues. Unfortunately, this decision is currently being appealed, and Pat and Mairi continue to have to play the wait-and-see game.

With more women facing job losses due to tighter budgets, many argue that if you're fortunate enough to have a job you should put up and shut up. But is that a reason to accept a lower salary just because you're a woman?

There's no room for complacency: in the words of Fagan, "change has been a lot slower than one would have hoped for". The Dagenham women got the ball rolling, but there's still a gap that needs closing.

How does the UK compare with the rest of the world?

World Economic Forum's Global Gender Gap Index:

1 Iceland
2 Norway
3 Finland
4 Sweden
5 New Zealand
6 Ireland
7 Denmark
8 Lesotho
9 Philippines
10 Switzerland
11 Spain
12 South Africa
13 Germany
14 Belgium
15 UK

Bottom three countries
132 Pakistan
133 Chad
134 Yemen

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Your Comments

I'm a male employee who is paid less than female counterparts working for the same company who do a less highly skilled job, but no-one ever mentions situations like mine in the media.

I know of female employees being paid more than myself (a male employee) despite not being more highly skilled and the way everyone goes on about female discrimination makes it sound like it doesn't happen the other way around when in fact it does.

While the binman vs dinner lady case always gets brought up I also think marketing assistants, who are predominately female, get overpaid compared to more male orientated roles.