Beat your sexist boss

Wimbledon ended 123 years of inequality in February 2007, when the All England Club bowed to mounting pressure to award women tennis players the same level of prize money as their male counterparts. But while this was great news for female tennis players, women throughout Britain are still earning less than male colleagues in the same role.

The exact size of the pay gap for full-time work is unclear. The Work and Women Commission claims women on average earn 83p for every £1 earned by men, while salary comparison site claims women get a measly 76p for every £1 men earn.

But while the degree of the pay gap may be in question, the fact that it exists is not. The Equal Opportunities Commission (EOC) estimates that the average woman working full-time will lose out on around £330,000 over the course of her working life.

Since 1970, women and men have had the right to equal pay both for ‘like work’ and ‘work of equivalent value’, yet these figures show that discrimination is still rife in the workplace.

“Since the Sex Discrimination Acts and the Equal Pay Acts came into force, women have made great strides in the workplace,” says Jenny Watson, chair of the EOC. “But the remaining pay gap suggests that our three-decades-old laws, which rely heavily on women bringing costly individual legal cases to challenge inequality, have reached the limits of their usefulness.

We need a new generation of laws that place a more active responsibility on employers to deliver equality for tomorrow’s generation of women.”

An un-level playing field

Equal pay is not just about wages and salaries – it also covers bonuses, overtime, holiday pay, sick pay, performance-related pay and occupational pensions. But while it’s clearly not the case that all employers follow the letter of the equal pay law, the answer is not as simple as tracking down unscrupulous bosses and forcing them to play fair.

“The pay gap is a legacy of the ’60s and ’70s, when women were still expected to be homemakers and bring up the children,” explains Andy Cook, managing director of Marshall James Human Resources. “Of course, things have moved on significantly, with more and more women entering the workforce at the same level as men.

"However, pay levels for men over the years have generally been in line with inflation and promotion, while this isn’t the case for women – because they weren’t in the initial selection pool.”

This shows that discrimination is not a necessarily a conscious decision. But while unequal pay often arises from the different working patterns of men and women, it doesn’t make it any fairer.

The EOC says pay discrimination occurs in a number of ways: the most common include a woman appointed on a lower rate than her male colleagues; a woman on maternity leave denied a bonus received by other staff; women’s jobs given different titles and grades to those of men doing similar work; part-time staff (predominantly women) given no entitlement to sick or holiday pay; and staff put on individual contracts and not allowed to discuss their pay rates.

Judith Watson, head of employment at Cobbetts Solicitors, hopes that in the future employers will have to make pay structures more transparent and fair. “Few companies currently carry out equal pay audits to ensure they comply with the law,” she says. “But many will be forced to, as employees become more aware of their rights.”

She adds that equal pay audits are not just beneficial to staff.

“Not only do they help companies avoid costly legal action, but they also improve staff morale and motivation, and help ensure that they recruit and retain the best people,” she says.

But until employers take responsibility, it’s up to individuals to exercise their rights to equal pay. Your first point of call should be your line manager, and you should attempt to resolve the issue internally.

“It’s not in anyone’s interests for a claim to get to the tribunal stage. It’s costly and not a nice experience, so it should be a last resort,” Cook says. If you have a union or staff association, contact them for help, or find out if your company has an independent body that deals with disputes.

How to make a claim

The first step is to find out whether you are being paid less than male colleagues for like work or work of equal value. The EOC says value is determined by the demands of the job, which means if your role requires the same level of skills, knowledge, physical effort and responsibilities, you have a right to equal pay.

This initial step is often the trickiest because, as Judith Watson says, “there’s an inherent lack of transparency in companies regarding pay”. She adds: “Finding out if you are being paid less than an equal male ­colleague can be difficult if there’s no clear pay structure in a company – unless you openly discuss salary levels with colleagues, which in itself can be quite uncomfortable.

Then, of course, many employment contracts actually state that you can’t discuss your level of pay.”

But help is at hand in the shape of the EOC’s equal pay questionnaire, which you can download at You fill in your details in one half and then forward it to your employer to give them the opportunity to say whether they agree with you, and if not, why.

If you don’t want to carry out the equal pay questionnaire, or do but aren’t satisfied with your employer’s response, you’ll need to gather evidence to back your claim.

Support your case

When you suspect – or know for certain – that you’re not receiving equal pay, it’s crucial to do some thorough research before approaching your employer. “It’s very easy to say ‘he gets paid more than me because he’s a man,’ but don’t automatically assume this, because there may be real valid reasons,” Judith Watson says.

“On the whole, particularly in large corporate organisations in areas such as law and banking, pay is directly linked to performance, so you need to take an objective look at yourself.”

If you’re satisfied your performance is equal to that of a better-paid colleague, you need to to discuss it with your employer – usually your line manager or the HR department. Before your meeting, you need to gather information about yourself and the male colleague(s) you are comparing yourself with. A checklist is available on the EOC website.

It includes facts like starting date, working hours, training received, skills and qualifications. Of course, this can be tricky to find out about someone else, so just find out as much as you can. Again, this is a reason to use the EOC’s equal pay questionnaire first.

Also, think about your performance at work.

“Gather facts and figures, such as details of new clients, or revenue and work you’ve brought in,” advises Judith Watson. “Present this to your manager calmly and professionally, and explain how you feel your contribution to the company is not being recognised.”

The last resort

The best-case scenario is that your employer is sympathetic to your claim, agrees that you should be paid in line with male colleagues and increases your pay. Another positive scenario is that you learn why your male colleagues receive more pay – such as, they have achieved better results or taken on an increased work load – and you understand the steps you need to take to reach that level.

The worst-case scenario is that your employer doesn’t accept your case.

Then the next step is to write a letter of grievance to your employer. The government has introduced a statutory grievance procedure (SGP) to encourage the resolution of pay disputes in the workplace rather than at employment tribunals.

So, you have to submit a written grievance to your employer and wait 28 days for a reply before submitting your claim to the tribunal – the tribunal will reject your claim if you don’t do this. If you have an equal pay questionnaire, submit this with your letter.

Your employer should then set up a meeting to discuss your grievance. You can take a trade union representative or colleague with you.

If your grievance is not upheld, you have the right to appeal, and should exercise this right – otherwise you may be awarded less in a tribunal.

If you decide to take your claim to this final stage, you must send your complaint on the official Employment Tribunal Application Form (ET1) to the tribunal nearest to your work if you live in England or Wales, or to the Central Office of Employment Tribunals (COET) if you live in Scotland.

“Tribunals are not a nice experience,” says Andy Cook. “You need to be prepared for a fight.” It will be up to you to convince the tribunal you’ve been discriminated against, while your employer will be defending their case. The chairman of the tribunal will decide the outcome and award compensation accordingly.

You don’t have to employ a lawyer and you may be able to get help through the EOC. You should also be able to claim costs such as travel and loss of earnings.

It’s the emotional cost of fighting for your rights that’s often the biggest strain.

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