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Cometh the 'Hour', Cometh the 'Woman'

Employment law solicitor Paula Lee, who represents almost 3,000 Tesco workers in equal pay claims, talks about her recent appearance on BBC Radio 4's Woman's Hour and why she became an employment lawyer

Posted on 05 September 2019

The Hour in question is one of Radio 4’s flagship programmes - Woman’s Hour, and the Woman in question is equal pay champion and BBC journalist Carrie Gracie…   But this blog is about me and how I found myself on the ‘Hour’, talking about the influence the ‘Woman’ (and other high-profile equal pay cases) have had on equal pay claims. 

I am an employment lawyer and I love employment law – it is a love first kindled within the first 30 minutes of my first employment law lecture. [For fellow EmpLawyers - I was taught by the inimitable Professor Ian Smith. If you know him, you will know the love of which I speak.]

I was a mature student.  I was 29 years old when I started a degree in Politics and Philosophy. I became pregnant with my son (and second child) in the first term. I finished the academic year, took a year out, returned to university with a 4-year-old and 1-year-old in tow and I was skint.

So skint in fact my brother was buying me food each week. By the time I went to choose my second year options I had concluded  that if I wanted to be the one buying food for me and my kids,  I would have to switch degree courses – I had up to then not seen any jobs for philosophers, but I knew there was work for lawyers.

Roll forward three years and my first employment law lecture. As I sat there the law of the ‘world of work’ lay ahead of me. Behind me lay my personal ‘world of work’ in which I had earned money: plucking chickens, working behind a till in a newsagent and a supermarket. I had served in the Royal Air Force, been an admin assistant for Aviva, had had a stint selling houses for a local builder, worked for my brother, and my most favourite of all, worked  front of house in a variety of restaurants in Norwich, Darwin and Melbourne. 

I knew the ‘world of work’ very well. I was happy in it.  I knew low paid work, well paid work, casual work, shift work, the military, small employers and large employers. I also know what it feels is like to be the bread winner and what it feels like to be financially dependent on someone.

Perhaps it's unsurprising that the ‘law of work’ would call me, after all I had hard-won experience from almost every conceivable angle, but what had never occurred to me in any of those jobs was that I might be paid less because I was a woman. I assumed, as many still do, that because it’s the law, I would be paid equally. Ah, how we smile benevolently at our younger selves.

So, dear reader, I became an employment lawyer with special interests in discrimination, particularly equal pay. And as far as I was able to, I represented only employees (not employers) and that is what I still do today, and I would not change a thing.  

Right now, here at Leigh Day, we act for just over 42,000 supermarket employees in equal pay claims across all 5 of the leading supermarkets. These are all high-profile cases. I act for just under 3,000 employees who are bringing equal pay claims against Tesco. Assisting these employees achieve what we say is lawfully theirs is an immense privilege, not only for me, but for all of us working on the case.

We know from previous cases that the £1 or £2 an hour pay differential often makes a profound difference to an individual’s standard of living – success in the claim will mean back pay and a likely improvement in hourly rates moving forward.

It was in my capacity as a solicitor representing the Tesco employees that I was invited onto Woman’s Hour, along with Sam Smethers, CEO of Fawcett and Charles Cotton of CIPD to discuss high profile equal pay claims. It was an invitation not to be turned down. 

Jenni Murray, who is as warm and friendly in person as she is on-air, asked me what impact I think the high-profile equal pay cases have had for other women thinking of bringing equal pay claims and I could immediately think of three things to tell her:  

  1. Carrie Gracie, the hero of the title, has shown women that asking your employer to be paid equally does not automatically result in a settlement and agreed termination. This is important –it is all too common to see women wait until they are ready to part ways with their employer before raising the equal pay question. Carrie has shown that does not have to be the case.  She has shown that it is possible to confront inequality, to ask for reform and to retain your role. Nothing I have written here is to be taken as me saying bringing this to your employer is easy – it is not, support is key. What I can tell you though is that I hear so many stories about unequal pay, across all sectors and salary levels – you are not alone if you think you might be being paid less. My advice is to find a good friend or colleague to support you. Know that you’re not alone and know that it does not have to mean the end of your job. When you start to doubt, ask yourself ‘what would Carrie do?’
  2. The high-profile equal pay cases that we at Leigh Day specialise in are well resourced. We have teams of experienced lawyers working on these cases and we have the appetite to see every point go to the Supreme Court if necessary. We know that big employers such as the supermarkets will often contest every point, but we are not going anywhere, we are in these claims for the long haul.  The greater the number of contested points which are resolved by the higher courts, the greater the certainty which will be introduced into this unfriendly piece of legislation and lay the foundation for a smoother ride for future women. For example, our work on the case against Birmingham City Council means that women now know with certainty that they have up to 6 years to issue equal pay proceedings in the civil courts, rather than just six months in the employment tribunals.
  3. The high-profile mass equal pay claims afford employees a sense of safety. We hear much of the benefits of the psychological safety our clients enjoy knowing that they are one of 1,000’s bringing a claim.   

The litigation route to equal pay is becoming more well-trodden. Don’t get me wrong it remains complex and challenging, but and this is a thing of joy, it is astonishing how much 42,000 + (and growing) supermarket employees can achieve when they come together to ask for equal pay for equal work.   

So, a big shout out to Professor Smith - if he had not lit a fire in my belly all those years ago, I would not have been invited onto Woman’s Hour and would not have met Jenni Murray. Thanks Prof! 


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