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From today, women will work for free for the rest of the year

On Equal Pay Day, Linda Wong looks at what equal pay day is, why women are still being paid less than men 50 years after the Equal Pay Act and what is being done to combat this inequality

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Linda is an employment lawyer based in Leigh Day’s Manchester office working with Chris Benson in large multi claimant equal pay cases against Asda and Sainsbury’s supermarkets.
 It is a saddening injustice but each year, women effectively stop getting paid on a day in November and work the rest of the year for free.

The Fawcett Society refer to this day as ‘Equal Pay Day’. It is almost half a century since the Equal Pay Act was introduced, but the gender pay gap in the UK is not budging.

According to recent figures released by the European Commission, the UK is one of the worst performers for earnings disparities between men and women with the fifth highest gender pay gap in the EU.

The current overall pay gap for both full and part time workers was reported as being 18.4% in 2017. This means that a woman earns around 82 pence for every pound a man earns. Although this is the lowest gap on record since the survey began in 1997, it follows relatively little progress in recent years.

Why does the pay gap persist?

The existence of the pay gap is due to interrelated factors such as gender segregation in the workplace due to stereotypes, women’s roles being undervalued or the balancing of work and family life.

Women often work in sectors (for example in health, education, and public administration) where their work is lower valued and lower paid than those dominated by men.

When we look at the health sector alone, 80% of those working in this sector are women. Women are also under-represented in managerial and senior positions, and the European Commission reports that they represent only around 17% of board members in the biggest publicly listed companies within the EU, around 4% of chairs of boards, and a third of scientists and engineers across Europe.

The statistical widening of the pay gap once a woman is in her mid-thirties suggests that this is attributed to more women working part time due to childcare commitments or fewer opportunities for promotion due to maternity absence.

The gender pay gap is not the same as unequal pay, but the two are closely intertwined. Many of the issues debated in equal pay cases (are men seen as the “breadwinner”? is men’s work more capable of being measured for productivity?) underlie the structural issues that give rise to the gender pay gap.

What is being done?

Successful equal pay claims in the public sector have exposed the failings in the current system, but radical reform is required.

The private sector has remained largely unscathed by equal pay obligations until the equal pay case against Asda was advanced. This is the UK’s first ever private sector equal pay claim and Leigh Day is now currently representing over 17,000 Asda employees and almost 1,000 Sainsbury’s employees in the current equal pay cases which are still ongoing.

The government has taken some steps, ordering all charities, private and public sector employers with 250 or more employees to publish their gender pay details by April 2018.

It is now mandatory for employers with more than 250 staff to publish annual figures in relation to gender pay information, including statistics on the proportion of men and women in each quartile of the organisation’s pay structure.

It is timely, especially in light of the recent BBC pay debacle where female presenters demanded "real change" before the end of the year.

Will we see real change?

Perhaps the most notable element of the new gender pay reporting requirements is what the Regulations do not do. There are currently no known penalties for non-compliance, leaving ‘naming and shaming’ and potential reputational risk of non-compliance as the only consequence of not reporting.

Accountability can be powerful if utilised well, but it remains unclear just how accountable employers will be following the publication of their statistics.

Pay transparency is helpful, but there should also be a requirement for employers to explain why a pay gap exists in their organisation and how they intend to act on the results.

For now, we know that the first gender pay gap reports will be due on April 2018; at least it is a baby step in the right direction.

A legislative framework can only go so far. The real way forward lies in a shift in the prevailing attitudes towards equal pay. This depends on commitment and consistency across the board: women better understanding their rights; improved maternity and pregnancy rights and better flexible working practices; increased employer accountability and an unyielding government agenda to truly end the gender pay gap.

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