It is nearly 50 years since the Equal Pay Act which was hard won after the 1968 strike by Dagenham sewing machinists who challenged why they were paid less than the men for their skilled work. They famously won their case and the rest is history.  Recent high profile legal challenges against a number of local authorities and others involving household names such as the BBC, Asda, Sainsbury’s and now Tesco’s shows that the fight for equal pay is far from won.

Yet the law is clear.  Women are entitled to equal pay for doing the same job as a man or if their work is of equal value.  All of these current claims rest on the concept of equal value because work that is done by women is notoriously valued less.  In the Tesco case, women who work on the shop floor are (rightly in my view) claiming that their work is of equal value to the work done by the men in the warehouse.  They both load stock – the men load it from the lorry and the women load it onto the shelves in the supermarket. In fact, the women also have to deal with customers, so arguably perhaps they should even be paid more?  Good customer service is skilled work. So why is it that all of these employers have somehow independently of each other managed to undervalue their women?  It’s as if there is some unwritten rule that says you can pay her less.  The truth is that if a woman is doing a job it is valued less, because we value her less.  That is what sexism is all about.

Employers are of course allowed to pay different rates of pay for different jobs but if one job is predominately done by women and the other is mostly done by men then they need to be able to objective reasons for the difference (skill level, technical ability, level of responsibility etc). Without the evidence to justify the different rates of pay, an employment tribunal is likely to say it is sex discrimination. 

How an employer resolves pay disparity going forwards is up to them, but they also have to deal with the historic inequality.  The law says that women who have been discriminated against in this way are entitled to up to six years back pay. This is why the bill for resolving the claim in the Tesco’s case is and eye-watering £4 billion. Some may claim that these women are just being greedy, and companies (or local councils) can’t afford that.  But just stop and think about it. If the boot was on the other foot and the men had been paid less than the women, would the men waive their right to back pay?  No, I don’t think so either. Nor would we even expect them to would we? Somehow we think he is entitled in a way that she is not. That has to change.

We’ve recently published a review of sex discrimination law which recommended a number of changes which would help to deliver equal pay to many more women.  Firstly, the tribunal system isn’t working.  Equal pay cases can take decades to resolve. Women have literally died waiting.  So we want to see employment tribunals apply a time limit to cases, reducing them to a matter of months rather than years. All employers have to do at the moment is drag the case out for as long as possible.

If women have been underpaid they have also missed out on vital pension contributions, but equal pay law doesn’t guarantee pension payments as part of any settlement.  Many of these women are low paid and approaching retirement. They need every penny they can get in their pension pot so that has to change too.  Being underpaid and undervalued by your employer isn’t only unfair, it is humiliating, so pay settlements should be treated like other discrimination claims and include injury to feelings. At the moment they don’t.

Finally, we all have to get over it and start talking about pay. It is only with pay transparency that we can find out whether or not we are being paid fairly.  It’s not as hard as it sounds.  Go on try it, turn to your colleagues and say, “How much do you get then? I’ll tell you mine, if you’ll tell me yours.”


Sam Smethers, CE of FawcettSam is the Chief Executive of The Fawcett Society.


The Fawcett Society published a ground-breaking report, the Fawcett Society’s Sex Discrimination Law Review (SDLR), which concludes that our legal system is failing women and needs fundamental reform. 

The SDLR Panel was made up of a team of legal experts and chaired by Dame Laura Cox, DBE, a retired High Court Justice. It was set up to review the UK’s sex discrimination laws in response to the risk that long-established rights could be eroded or weakened as a result of Brexit. Read the Executive Summary and full report here.

If you believe in creating a more progressive agenda for Britain, take a stand with us. Join us today.