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Valorising Valerie - part one

In the first of her two part blog, Paula Lee asserts that adopting the label of feminism doesn't matter in the fight for equal pay.

Posted on 07 June 2018

I was inspired to write this blog after reading Aileen McColgan’s excellent article Winning Equal Pay: the value of women’s work

You would think that the UK government getting a judicial ‘sort your law out, you enablers of unequal pay you’ ticking off back in 1982[1] might make them feel a touch chastened, apologetic maybe. After all the world (well the EU) her husband and all their children were already quite happily interpreting article 119 Treaty of Rome[2] and equal work as including the concept of ‘work of equal value’[3]  - indeed the 1975 Equal Pay Directive[4] clarified the position[5] -  not us though.

Back in 1970 Barbara Castle thought it ‘too abstract a concept …’ and that wholesale job evaluation was “something we have never attempted in our wildest dreams of prices and incomes policies”[6] and so left the concept  of work of equal value neatly folded up into the ‘too hard to try / unimaginable’ drawer where it was firmly shut  for 13 years.

I have thought about Barbara’s view and asked myself what would I have done and have concluded that  I think she missed a trick (don’t get me wrong – I think she did a brilliant job overall) but  the maxim ‘you do not rise to the level of expectation, but fall to the level of preparedness’ fits here. Employers could have got their heads around the concept of work of equal value and we know that the unimaginable gets imagined every day.  The public sector was way ahead of the private sector here precisely because job evaluation audits were forced upon them under Single Status and Agenda for Change from 1997.  Governments are not known to shy away from the complex on the grounds that it’s too tricky for the punters to grasp.

In any event Barbara gave employers 5 years to get their finances ready for the Equal Pay Act 1970, electing not to enforce it until 1975. Those same 5 years, or 1,826 days, could also have been used to shine a wonderfully cleansing light on the concept of work of equal value. Those 5 years could have been used to start the attack on the stereotype which exists in all of us and serves to undervalue and normalise the work done traditionally by women.  In doing so we may have stolen a march on the need to counteract that pernicious of stereotypes and my mythical Valerie in the title of this piece, may well have been on her way to being valorised a little bit sooner.  Maybe …

Anyhow were the government of the day chastened by being told that they needed to amend the Equal Pay Act to include work of equal value? I can’t speak for the whole of government of course – but I can quote Tony Marlow M.P. who protested  that the Equal Pay Act, as amended, stood as "an open invitation to any feminist, and harridan or any rattle-headed female with a chip on her bra strap to take action against her employer…. This is a charter for petticoat lawyer”[7]  Quite a quote isn’t it? I love it – I absolutely love it. It satisfies me on so many levels. I find it  equally shocking,  horrifying, rousing, ugly, transparent but  above all, I think it is a gift; a beautifully wrapped gift. If only it was always so easy to spot bias, to see what is usually hidden so deep inside a person that they themselves deny its existence. Here we have a rare sighting of ‘the enemy within’ (the bias/the stereotype) displayed it all its glorious, recorded-forever, technicolor.

Don’t forget this quote is about the concept of work of equal value and whilst the quote is old, its sentiment continues today. For me perhaps the most harmful thing about the attitude owned by the “Mr Marlows” of society,  is that a woman might feel she has to identify as being a feminist, or a harridan or a ‘rattle – headed female’ if she wishes to pursue her equal pay rights. It is a significant barrier for some women and one which I see weekly in my practice and it breaks my heart.

So to all the Valeries out there reading this who are working in female dominated areas and who suspect they are being paid less than their male colleagues working in different areas; know that to pursue your equal pay rights, you do not have to be a feminist if you don’t want to be, you’re unlikely to be a harridan (and if you are– that’s your choice) and if your head rattles – who cares?  I wear a petticoat; I always have. In fact I wore a petticoat before I became a lawyer – Perhaps I am the Petticoat Lawyer referred to by Mr M? If so, I accept the invitation.  
[1] The European Court of Justice ruled in favour of the European Commission in proceedings against the UK for failure to give effect to the obligation imposed upon it by the Directive to secure equal pay for work of equal value. EUR-Lex 61981CJ0061
[2] Quote art 119 Treaty of Rome “Each Member State shall during the first stage ensure and subsequently maintain the application of the principle that men and women should receive equal pay for equal work.” The rest of the article then describes what ‘pay’ means.
[3] For an explanation of work of equal value see Dare to Compare
[4] Council Directive 75/117/EEC.
[5] Note the Directive it did not extend the definition of equal work to include work of equal value, but it clarified that it was already covered by the art 119
[6] 795 HC Debs (9 Feb 1970) col 915 -916
[7] Ref 6 H.C. Debs (20 July 1983), col. 491


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