16 Dec 2014

This is 2014. Equal pay for women isn’t ‘anti-business’

Amazing to think it was 46 years ago that a feisty band of female machine workers at Ford’s manufacturing plant in Dagenham literally downed tools and marched to Westminster to demand equal pay rights for women.

Their jobs – sewing the leather seats  together and making the cars’ upholstery – had been deemed “band b” category – in other words, they were doing an “unskilled” task. The same grade, so said Ford at the time, as the men who swept the factory floor. 

But the women were having none of it and, backed by a then powerful union, they came together to shut the factory down, because without them Ford’s cars could not be made. Their strikes over a number of years culminated in the introduction of the equal pay act of 1970, which decreed that no women should be paid less than a man for doing the same job.

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Fast forward from 1968 to today and women earn 81p for every male £1. Now, that may not sound like a huge difference but the equivalent figure back then was 64p. And the Fawcett Society estimates that if the rate of change stays the same, it will take another 52 years to reach parity. In other words, nearly 100 years since those brave Dagenham ladies made a stand.

You might ask how this can be the case in 2014, in a world so much more sophisticated and savvy about the workplace and issues of equality. The answer, many would say, is because businesses are not forcibly mandated to do anything.

The equalities act of 2010, introduced in the dying days of the previous Labour government, included a special rule, called section 78, which required companies to be transparent about the gap between male and female pay. But the Conservatives and LibDems came to power and section 78 was never enacted. Instead it was decided not to force companies to act but to wait for them to do so voluntarily.

200 businesses duly signed up to the plan – dubbed Think, Act, Report. But evidently, four years on, many of them are still in the thinking stage because just five out of those 200 have so far been transparent about the difference between men and women’s pay in their organisations.

One of them, from PWC, stood alongside four of the original Dagenham women today, and she revealed that in her organisation – one of Britain’s biggest accounting firms and one of its biggest corporates – women, on average, earn 15.1 per cent less than men.

The biggest problem, she said, was the lack of women in more senior roles. If you looked at their data on a role-by-role basis, the gap narrowed to just 2.5 per cent. Smaller yes, but still a gap for doing exactly the same job. And one the PWC lady said she wasn’t proud of.

The business lobby groups say forcing their hand is the wrong answer, that it will only result in changes being made in a rush and for the wrong reasons. And yes, for sure, the reasons behind pay inequality are many and complex. No-one would deny that. But how long do they need?

But the key thing about publishing the data – even if it’s ugly – is that it gives organisations something to work on and crucially gives women a stick to use when and if they’re brave enough to ask for a pay rise. If you don’t know how bad the problem is, how can you go about changing it? Or as one participant put it today: what gets measured, gets managed.

He’s right. This isn’t anti-business, it’s about ensuring women get fair pay. This is 2014. If nothing changes, the average woman today will earn £209,976 less over her lifetime than a man. Think about it.

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