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Equal Pay Day 2014: The Only Way We'll Get Equal Pay Is Together

03/11/2014 15:06 GMT | Updated 03/01/2015 10:59 GMT

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It's depressing to write about equal pay as a young worker.

The Equal Pay Act, which says I should be paid the same as a man who does the same or the same sort of job I do, came into effect in 1970. It's a whole two decades older than me, and so it's difficult to fit into a debate of which our image is one grounded in the sixties and seventies, forged in Dagenham when a bunch of determined women strikers at the Ford factory triggered a debate which ended in a change to the law.

When we imagine the struggle for equal pay, it's in black and white newsreels, mini-skirted strikers and overtly sexist, cigar-puffing bosses. It's grounded in history, a fight long since won. We view the debate over Equal Pay as one that doesn't need to happen any more.

Except that that's bullshit. This week marks the point in the year in which women are essentially working for free as, according to the TUC, we're paid 15% less than men in comparable jobs.

Now it amazes me each year that, when I say those words, there are some people - amazingly most of them right-wingers - who go "oh but the stats, sweetheart, the stats. Look at the actual detail of the figures. Look at those three industries where women actually earn more - ignore that there are far less women in those industries, that's irrelevant - look at that percentage point there, look at the footnote of that report. It's very complex, you know, if you take into account all of that, then..."

To those people - two things. One: go swivel. Two: I am well aware of the bloody subtleties thanks. I've not just decided to dedicate a great deal of my time to campaigning for something I've plucked out of thin air. The entire movement built around this didn't just spring up out of nowhere because we all love meetings and placards. Cheers for your concern though.

Apart from that, telling me to look at the stats just reinforces what an ingrained and complex problem this is, one that's well worth tackling. The fight now isn't the fight we think was fought in the sixties, against the obvious and blatant sexism of a country run by bigoted sideburns. Its a trickier one. Now, when we ask for equal pay, we don't necessarily, all the time, mean "Anne and Andrew are both cooks, but Andrew is paid more than Anne". We might mean "Anne is a cleaner and Andrew is a refuse collector, but Andrew is paid more than Anne". Equal pay day is about equal pay for comparable work, not just the same work.

Because a great deal of the inequality today exists not just because of a few sexists choosing to pay women less - which does happen - but because of lower rates of pay in traditionally female industries or roles. Care workers, providers of a vital service, suffers horrendously from this. Publishing, my own industry, is traditionally low paid - coincidentally, it's also one dominated by women. And the subtleties men ask us to look for in the figures are our realities: part-time women tend to be paid more than part-time men, but women are overwhelmingly more likely to have to have part time jobs.

Even more horrifically, we are even more likely to be zero-hours workers, and to not earn the living wage. That's not us choosing those paths, as sexists like to think. That's us being forced down those paths through a combination of other people's bigotry and society's complete inability to view parenting as a) something the country should help you do alongside work by subsidizing child care properly, and b) something men should bloody well be responsible for too.

It's these "subtleties", "choices" and "shades of grey" alongside the good old blatant sexism which mean that the only way we will ever solve this is together, as a united front. What other form of organisation other than a union is going to be able to tackle all of these different causes, affecting all of us differently, at the same time as focusing on the one uniting factor?

Sheryl Sandberg talks of leaning in, but what's the use, really, if everyone you've leaned away from is still underpaid and undervalued? Collectivism and unionisation have always been the only way unequal pay has been tackled, and will be the only way we finally defeat it.

It's a tricky path to tread, full of obstacles and sexist arseholes who mansplain the stats. But all you've got to lose is your pay gap.

This blog is cross posted from TUC Young Workers' Month.