3 MARCH 2020

Kiran (not her real name) a 50-year-old senior accountant in a City accountancy firm with two children learned she was being paid significantly less than her male colleagues, some of whom were junior. Read her moving story of attempting to stand up for equal pay and the impact on her and her family.

Whilst I had known for some years that I was being paid significantly less than my male peers, I chose to say nothing. Why, you may ask yourself. Especially since I am a professional woman with years of experience and the added irony that I deal with claims on a daily basis—not employment claims (that would be adding insult to injury).

An overheard remark

How could I raise the issue when all I had to base my knowledge on was an overheard remark? On top of the lack of hard evidence, I faced the pressure of being a single parent who was trying to raise two young children by drawing as little attention to myself as possible. Whilst the feeling of injustice never left me over the intervening five years, I kept telling myself that excelling at my job and getting positive (even glowing) feedback from clients and colleagues would put things right. Don’t get me wrong, every year at my appraisal I would raise the issue and be fobbed off by a range of excuses—'this is not the appropriate forum', or 'unfortunately, if you start on a low salary there is nothing that can be done,' etc, etc.

Was it because I was a woman and, in addition, a woman of colour?

Then three years ago, I decided that the time was right. I had been in the organisation for over a decade; I had even been promoted to the point where I was the most senior claims handler, over and above the men who were being paid more than me. I went through all the right channels and asked the question: why — when I had been promoted over all these men and I could demonstrate that I was not only doing more work but actually carrying the load of two of them — why was I not being paid equally? Was it because I was a woman and, in addition, a woman of colour?

Waiting game

A response that should have been swift took several weeks and when it eventually came was merely a throwaway line that my salary was in accordance with the "market rate".

That day, which I will never forget, the red mist descended before me. I felt so betrayed it is difficult to describe the emotion apart from how I imagine a loyal partner feels when they discover their other half has been having an affair for the duration of their relationship.

I went into attack mode. I engaged lawyers and spent thousands of pounds making sure I had a claim and ensuring my letter of grievance was as factual as possible (an insurmountable task when all the evidence was with my employer). D-day came. I pressed the button and sent the email filing my grievance.

The strong formidable woman he had known was before him, broken.

Nothing. One day passed, two days passed, three days passed. Still nothing. No one in the organisation even bothered to acknowledge the grievance. My manager and other senior members of staff refused to engage. I had only spoken to one colleague about what was going on and she was the only one who tried to look after me.

Breaking point

After more than two months of silence, by which time I was near to breaking point, I called a friend of over 25 years in desperation. He was shocked that the strong formidable woman he had known was before him, broken. He insisted I called a meeting with senior members of staff. He attended the meeting with me, both for moral support and as an advocate. Never before have I not been able to speak up for myself or my family, but I had become a shell of the person I was.

Have I let myself down? Have I let my children down. Have I let women down?

It became clear very quickly that the organisation had no intention of handing over any data and were particularly adversarial, whilst conversely saying what a valued member of staff I was. We took a break and my friend asked me, ‘What do you want to do? If you take this all the way they will make it very difficult for you and you are already at breaking point. Add to that the fact that your children are still quite young.’

What could I do? For the preservation of my mental health and for the sake of my children I felt I simply couldn’t keep up the fight. I decided not to pursue the case any further. My friend stepped in and made sure certain terms were agreed, for example, the legal fees I had paid were reimbursed. I spoke to my lawyer who assured me I was not a failure for not taking my claim the distance. She told me that I had not thrown anything away and that even to have raised the grievance and then stay at the company showed great strength of character.

That is hard to accept. And even now that feeling of failure persists. Have I let myself down? Have I let my children down. Have I let women down?

Our mental health

We teach our children, and in particular girls, not to put up with unfairness but these ideals are empty when the odds are stacked against us. All the time that salaries are kept secret, legislation and rights are meaningless. Individuals need to have immense support — both financial and emotional — to see through an unequal pay claim. Until and unless employers are accountable for such blatant discrimination the injustice will continue.

We are told it will take 200 years. I say that if societal attitudes and legislation do not start to change soon then even 200 years are optimistic. In the interim, the cost is the mental health of individual women and by this, I mean all women. It is not just low paid women, it is at every single level of the spectrum.

It is about what is right. It is about self-worth. And it is about equality.

Fawcett is doing brilliant work on this. They are making more women aware of the issue and they are campaiging to change the law. Their new Equal Pay Bill would actually give women who suspect unequal pay like me a legal 'Right to Know' how much their male colleagues doing the same work are earning. If only I had been able to legally request that information, it would have been far easier for me to pursue my case - mentally and physically - knowing that I had the law on my side.

The mental health implications are not just for the individual but for their families and in particular the children who do not have the benefit of a happy fully present mother. Every day I question whether I did the right thing by backing down. Legally, I have not lost my right to bring my claim so perhaps my day will still come. But ultimately, it’s not about the money. It is more basic than that. It is about what is right. It is about self-worth. And it is about equality. I want that for every woman, not just for me!

Please make a donation to Fawcett's Equal Pay Appeal today to help make sure that women don’t have to suffer the ordeal I went through to be paid and valued equally.

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