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Tell me why.....

Solicitor Paula Lee was recently asked why I work in the equal pay arena and it got her thinking 'why is there still a problem'?

Posted on 05 December 2018

I see hundreds of articles reminding me that we have had equal pay laws for over 50 years and asking ‘so why is there still a problem?’ It is a fair question, and one I tend to answer ‘because we’re still trying to get others to sort it out for us’.
We know:
So if most of us think it is fair and most of us acknowledge the very real benefits of a more equal society – what’s the hold up?
I think the problem reveals itself when we move from ‘society’ to ‘individual’ and in that transition the spectre of ‘discomfort’ emerges.
Brene Brown was bang on when she said “Human approval is one of our most treasured idols, and the offering we must lay at its feet, is keeping others comfortable”. Ms Brown is convinced, as am I, that ‘discomfort’ acts as a deterrent. I see this as particularly applicable in the equal pay area. 
I am convinced our need for ‘human approval’, including from our colleagues,  keeps us  silent on the subject of personal pay and I am convinced that one of the unintended consequences of that silence  is that it gives pay discrimination the very air it needs to survive. People are largely reluctant to do anything which risks their personal comfort or do anything which might risk disapproval from their group, such as asking a colleague how much they earn. It is discomforting to think your group might not approve of what you have done; so rather than take such a risk we stay silent and the status quo holds. 
The discomfort clients experience when they realise that they and they alone, have to make happen the investigation into whether an equal pay issue exists is real and painful.  The fear that they will make not only themselves and possibly their employer uncomfortable invariably stops them from asking the very questions they need answers to.
From the employer’s position the fear of discomfort manifests itself in many ways – here are two which immediately spring to mind. First up, I am yet to meet an employer who admits to discriminating between men and women over pay; a fact which reminds me that you never meet an ‘average’ driver. Ask anyone to rate their driving ability and they will say ‘good’ or ‘above average’.  I often wonder where all the average drivers are. Ask an employer if they pay men and women doing the same job differently and they will say ‘no, of course not. It’s unlawful’. I get that. Superficially at least, it is more comfortable to deny the existence of a problem (not brave, but superficially more comfortable for sure).  Even if an employer does recognise there might be an issue,   I have heard it justified as ‘keeping the wage bill down’ (forgetting the legality)  
A quick diversion - have you ever noticed, how a good deed never needs justifying? Think about that for a moment. 
Secondly, think also about the need for approval directors (or pay decision makers) want from their fellow board members.  Such a need might stop a particular director from raising the possibility of unequal pay existing in their organisation, after all if you flag up that your organisation might have an equal pay problem, you risk making everyone around the table feel uncomfortable. You risk painting yourself as the ‘champion of broken birds’.  I say that specifically because it was an expression said to me once in a promotion discussion and whilst I am still not 100% certain what it meant, I do have absolute clarity that it was not meant as a compliment.  
So back to the title of the blog – why do I work in the equal pay arena?  The answer is I want to live in a more equal society and am happy to play my part, but  more than that,  I want to  make discussing pay feel less uncomfortable than it does now and more akin to an act of self-respect if you like.  No, scratch that, I want to go further; I want to help make it to feel absurd not to ask. I want raising the subject of money to feel normal for employees and employers alike. There is much to be done.


Paula Lee
Employment Equal pay Group claims

Paula Lee

Paula is an employment lawyer with a wealth of experience. She always puts her clients at the centre of everything she does, helping them to defend their rights fiercely