05 FEBRUARY 2020
Sam Smethers, Chief Executive, The Fawcett Society

How do you know when you are equal? When my daughter is sharing sweets with her friends they can see what they each have. If they are not fairly shared out, it is soon sorted. But when it comes to equal pay, it is far from transparent. Yet we have been talking about women’s right to equal pay for 50 years as if it were obvious when they are equal or when they are not.  Put simply, it begs the question, equal with what? Unless you know what your male colleagues are earning for doing the same work or work of equal value, you cannot know if you are being paid equally.  Your right to equal pay is therefore a bit of an empty one.

Research my organisation the Fawcett Society has published today shows that only a quarter of women say their workplace is open about pay. Pay is a taboo subject and, even worse than that, people often think they are not allowed to talk about pay at work. Just for the record this isn’t true. You are allowed to talk about pay if you suspect discrimination, even if your contract says you cannot.

Perhaps even more worrying (and my head is hitting the desk at this point), four in ten people do not know that women have a right to equal pay. So these figures help to explain why one of those totemic issues for women’s equality, equal pay, is still such a live issue and far from being resolved.  From the BBC to ASDA and Tesco, from local authorities to catering companies, we see women challenging pay discrimination and winning their claims. But these cases can take many years to resolve (eg for the Glasgow Council women it took 12 years). The vast majority of them would rather not go to tribunal at all. They would much prefer to settle the claim early on with their employer and would probably rather stay in their jobs too. But at the moment the only way a woman can find out what her male colleague is earning is to go to tribunal. It is a traumatic and costly process for her and probably leads to her leaving her job. We are driving cases into the (creaking) tribunal system unnecessarily. This makes no sense. It would be far better to give women access to that information earlier on in the process.  This is why, to mark 50 years of the Equal Pay Act, we are today launching a new Equal Pay Bill to modernise our equal pay law and give women the Right to Know what their colleagues are earning if they suspect they are being paid unequally.

We have seen progress in recent years with large companies required to publish their gender pay gap data. But as the deadline for the third year of gender pay gap reporting approaches we can see that we need to move from measuring the gap to action to close it. So our Equal Pay Bill also includes a tightening up of gender pay gap reporting, requiring companies to publish action plans alongside their gender pay gap data and lowering the threshold to 100 employees, ensuring more women are covered. The pay gap varies hugely by ethnicity too, as our gender pay gap by ethnicity research shows, so our bill introduces ethnicity and gender pay gap by ethnicity reporting for the first time. And we are addressing the persistent lack of awareness by giving employees the right to find out about equal pay from the beginning of their contract.

Women are systematically undervalued right across our labour market. For decades we have tolerated and normalised this rather than fundamentally challenging it. To mark 50 years since the Equal Pay Act we think it’s time to actually help women to get equal at work.  It’s time to give women the Right to Know. It’s time for equal pay.

You can sign the petition for the #RighttoKnow here or donate here to support our #EqualPay campaign.