On the face of it, equal pay ought to be simple. Men and women should be paid the same for doing the same job. There is of course more to it, but in essence it’s simple; work is work whoever it’s done by and so we should be paid the same for doing it. And yet, despite the Equal Pay Act enshrining this as the law in 1970, huge numbers of men are still paid more than huge numbers of women.
The research released by the Fawcett Society today, demonstrates how a culture of secrecy around discussing pay is allowing pay discrimination to continue. Nearly 50 years since the Equal Pay Act, a shocking one in three men (35%) and women (33%) in work do not know that it is illegal to pay women and men differently for equal work, according to the research.
Although ignorance of the law is a factor, my belief is that the causes of pay discrimination are myriad - perception (women are less committed or clever), pregnancy, caring responsibilities, more part time working, workplaces staffed predominantly by one sex (e.g. binmen and cleaners), historic union deficiencies on collective bargaining and supporting women generally, to name but a few. How do we deal with such a pervasive problem?
At YESS we focus on solutions. This is why we have teamed up with the Fawcett Society to run the new Equal Pay Advice Service, which will provide free advice and support regarding equal pay rights to people earning under £30,000. This service has been enabled by Carrie Gracie’s extraordinarily generous donation to Fawcett for the specific purpose of funding equal pay advice. Fawcett has also launched the Equal Pay Fund, which will help pay for the service and it is running a fundraising drive on GoFundMe.
This new service provides access to expert legal advice for people who know or suspect that they are being paid less than someone of the opposite sex, but who can’t afford private lawyers or who don’t have the support of a trade union. Arguing with or being treated badly by your employer can make the workplace a very lonely, stressful place to be. Access to expert advice is crucial for many people, because the law isn’t straightforward and every situation is different. Our aim at YESS Law is to advise people on what their rights are, whether they have a valid legal claim - and most importantly to support them in trying to resolve that dispute, without resorting to litigation and hopefully whilst preserving their employment relationship with their employer.
YESS has been successfully providing resolution-focussed expert employment law advice for almost five years. Through accurate, pragmatic and realistic advice we get both parties to focus on how to resolve any concerns. We focus on encouraging people to treat each other as human beings, rather than immediately making them the opponent in a legal claim. An employee can raise their concerns without accusing an employer of discrimination. An employer can resolve concerns by acknowledging problems or inequalities, without destroying their relationship with an employee or punishing the employee for raising concerns. If the concerns are raised in the right way it can enable everyone to have a difficult conversation without animosity.
The law is the backdrop to these difficult conversations, but legal threats and litigation should be a last resort. Sometimes litigation can be the only solution – and where it is we will refer people to expert lawyers who do litigate. But if litigation was going to be the only way to fix things then surely we wouldn’t still be having this conversation 48 years after the Equal Pay Act was passed.
My firm belief is that transparency is key. Transparency is more than publishing gender pay gap figures. That’s a good start because it enables the conversation, but it isn’t enough. It doesn’t mean you have grounds for a claim for Equal Pay. Men and women need to be confident and comfortable discussing what they earn without fear of repercussions, because until that is the norm pay will remain unequal.
So go on – tell the person next to you how much you earn – and start the conversation.
Emma Webster is CEO at YESS Law, a charity helping solve workplace disputes