The real test of the gender pay gap

The gender pay gap  has rightly been in the news a lot recently, as companies, most of whom have been dragging their feet, have to report by April this year. Most of the big gender pay gaps reported so far including Easyjet, Aviva, Virgin Money are easily explained away by the fact that it is men who still hold the majority of well-paid and senior positions in organizations. It is not much of a surprise that senior managers are paid more than clerical workers, pilots are paid more than air stewardesses. Apart from encouraging more women into senior positions there is a limit to what companies can do to radically change. The outrage about the BBC’s publication of its figures was that, from an outside perspective, men and women seemingly doing exactly the same job were being made very different salaries. There was John Humphries and Sarah Montague sitting side by side on many mornings presenting the Today programme, and one was being paid more than three times as much as the other. That, if proven, would be illegal. The BBC argument boiled down so far is that there is just a far greater value placed on men than women. And this is the nub of most discrimination and hard for all of us to acknowledge today.

So what is very exciting and of real challenge to the gender pay gap everywhere is the news that female shop workers are taking their employer Tesco to court on an equal pay claim. They will be arguing that their work is of equal value to the male warehouse workers, who  are paid more per hour than they are, and receive better overtime pay.

The limits of equal pay legislation became apparent soon after its implementation in 1975. The fact that men and women were segregated into different jobs meant that direct comparisons then were few and far between and indeed still are. The Equal Pay Act was amended in 1983 and a new regulation which provides for claims of equal pay for work of equal value came into force in 1984. This has proved to be an invaluable (if lengthy and complex) route for women, challenging as it does the notion that skills and value are objective.

Equal pay legislation has been in place for over forty years. We must not forget that before then it was perfectly legal for companies to pay women half what they paid men. It seems incredible today but it was accepted that women were valued less than men in society and that followed them into the workplace. The hangover of women’s lesser social status is still with us. To put it bluntly, on the whole women’s jobs pay less than men’s jobs. Women are crowded into underpaid sectors of the labour market, sometimes known as the five C’s – caring, cleaning, clerical, cashiering and catering. These are structural labour market inequalities which we should all be questioning. Arguably we should be using these facts for pay demands rather than a simple public /sector private sector one.

As a society we really need to ask questions about value. Why should train drivers who are overwhelmingly male earn twice as much as highly qualified nurses overwhelmingly female? Do we as a society think that train drivers are twice as valuable?

The last big case of this kind was the case of the female Birmingham council workers who won their equal pay case based on work of equal value in 2010.

Nearly 4,500 women working in traditionally female dominated roles such as cleaning care and catering  for made individual claims against  Birmingham Council for which they worked, comparing themselves with male workers, such as grave diggers, street cleaners and refuse collectors.  During the seven week hearing the tribunal heard how a man doing the same pay-graded job as a woman could earn four times more than her. Under a bonus scheme male refuse collection staff sometimes received up to 160% of their basic pay. In one year a refuse collector took home £51,000 while women on the same pay grade received less than £12,000. The council appealed and lost in 2012 and is stilling paying out compensation to the women.

An early example of and equal pay for work of equal value claim (Enderby 1997) which affected a whole profession was the case of a senior speech therapist who compared her work (dominated by women) to clinical psychologists and pharmacists which at the time were mostly male. It took Professor Enderby eleven years but she won.