Whatever Happened to Equal Pay?

"Still waiting after all these years" - these words (with apologies to Paul Simon) could easily apply to the search for equal pay for women.

Thirty years after the passing of the Equal Pay Act in 1970, a new survey suggests that women could have to wait another 30 years before they can expect to be paid the same as their male colleagues.

A spokesman for Bargaining Report from the Labour Research Department, as reported by BBC News, said: "This year again the evidence shows that the legal route to equal pay is still moving very slowly, with long delays and often poor outcomes for the women workers concerned."

Julie Mellor, chairman of the Equal Opportunities Commission (EOC), also estimated that it "could take another 30 years" to close the 20% gap between women's and men's average earnings. She said that there had been little progress since the equal pay laws were first introduced, apart from a 1% narrowing of the pay gap!

In 1900, the EOC notes that "men comprised about 70% of the labour force… Only a small minority of married women worked and women were largely excluded from higher level and higher paid jobs." This contrasts with today when women make up half the workforce.

Pay for women has certainly improved if you look back to the period before the First World War, when they earned between two fifths and a half of the average annual earnings of men in most occupational groups, according to Office of National Statistics figures.

Since 1970, the overall gender pay gap has narrowed. "Women working full-time then earned 63% of the average hourly earnings of men … the equivalent figure for 1999 was 81%.”

But the actual situation is worse, if you look at actual weekly or annual earnings. The New Earnings Survey figures for 1998 showed weekly earnings of £310 for women, or 72.5% of the male figure of £427. The annual figures are £15,400 (71% of £21,900 for men).

The above figures are for full-time workers. The many women who need to work part-time, fare even worse. In 1998, part-time women workers earned £6.04 per hour - less than three quarters (73%) of the £8.22 hourly rate for full-time women.

But, if you compare them with male full timers, on £10.26, they earned only 59%, exactly the same proportion as back in 1978.

Government figures show women are concentrated in occupations where earnings are low. The average hourly earnings of hairdressers and beauticians is £4.84 and 89% of them are women. Three-quarters of checkout operators and sales assistants are women, with average earnings just over £5. At the other end of the scale, two thirds of general managers are men, with earnings of over £20 per hour.

Facts and Figures

The above situation may partly explain why women's average income in 1996-97 was £153 per week - just over half (53%) of the male average of £289.

Income from welfare benefits accounted for more than a fifth of total female income. Over 45% of women, compared with just over 20% of men had an income under £100 per week in 1996-97. At the other end of the scale, over 10% of men, compared with just 2% of women had incomes above £500 per week.

This demonstrates why the minimum wage legislation has benefited so many women. Over 2 million adult workers were estimated to earn below the National Minimum Wage rates in Spring 1998. Seven out of ten were women, mostly part-time. They were most likely to work in hotels and restaurants where nearly two thirds of employees were women.

In America, where they have had equal pay laws since 1963, women are still paid less - even when they have similar skills, experience and education.

But equal pay is not just an issue for women. The AFL-CIO trade union confederation calculates that, in 1998, women were paid only 73 cents for every dollar that men received. This works out to $200 billion (£143 billion) of income each year lost to working families in the USA.

The loss is even more significant when you take into account that, according to AFL-CIO's 1997 survey, nearly two out of three (64%) of working women said that they provide half of family income - or more.

International comparisons

When women get equal pay, their family incomes rise and the whole family benefits. Men gain too. The AFL-CIO points out: "The 4 million men who work in predominantly female occupations lose an average of $6,259 (£4470) each year…The 25.6 million women in these jobs lose an average of $3,446 (£2461) a year."

The gap in pay in the UK is higher than the European union average. On the basis of gross hourly earnings, while women in Sweden, Denmark and the former East Germany earn 87% or more of men's pay, the British figure is less than three quarters, at 73.7%. Ireland, Portugal and the Netherlands are even lower, with Greece at the bottom of the league with just 68%. (The figures are from Eurostat figures for 1994-1995.)

There was a residual difference showing that women were being systematically paid 15% less. This is after taking account of other factors, such as working women being younger on average than men, because many leave the workforce to have children. They also tend to be less well-educated than men, with over half (51%) receiving only a basic secondary level education or less, compared to 43% of men.

The Equal Opportunities Commission blames four factors for unequal pay:

  • Gender segregation in employment - because many women and men are concentrated in different areas of work. Those which are traditionally seen as women's work, such as nursing, teaching and clerical work tend to be lower paid. (60% of public sector workers are women.)
  • Different working patterns - where women are more likely to work part-time and take breaks to care for children
  • Direct discrimination in pay systems and
  • Undervaluation of women's jobs.

These inequalities lead, according to the Commission, to "reduced economic independence; greater likelihood of low pay while working; and greater likelihood of poverty in old age."

A Marxist analysis would add that unequal pay is another device used in the interests of the capitalist class to divide the workforce.

Successful Negotiations

On the positive side, last year was a bumper year for settlements.

The GMB trade union achieved a negotiated settlement on behalf of ancillary staff at Newcastle General Hospital worth about £1m for its members.

The EOC points out that "pay progression arrangements need looking at, since men generally stay longer with the same employer than women, even though women are increasingly returning to work soon after having children." (Labour Research, March 2000)

Some unions, for example the Public and Commercial Services union (PCS) have used job evaluation to achieve equal pay deals - in the Prison Service, Ministry of Defence and Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions, according to Labour Research.

Bargaining Report research found that workers are much more likely to win their claim through union negotiation than fighting their case at a tribunal. The number of applications to tribunals has averaged less than 500 a year and the number of cases actually heard has been well under 100 in most years.

However, last year one case heard by the European Court of Justice was that of Preston v Wolverhampton Healthcare. It involved the claims of more than 60,000 women workers concerned that, as part-time workers, they had been denied backdated pension rights.

The European Court of Justice ruled the women were entitled to backdate their pensions to 1976. It may be a hollow victory, when you think how many of these low-paid workers will be able to afford to make up more than 20 years' pension contributions.

The EOC launched its campaign, "Valuing Women", to help close the pay gap, in October 1999. They published a series of adverts. The first urged: "Prepare your daughter for working life - give her less pocket money than your son."

The Commission found that most 17 to 25 year olds were not aware of the pay gap. More than 70% of young women said that their choice of job would be influenced by an employer's commitment to equal pay. Julie Mellor said: "The cream of British youth simply won't stand for the gender inequalities we've all put up with for so long."

According to the EOC, in 1998, 93% of male employees worked full-time compared with only 57% of women. 83% of part-time employees were women. "Nearly half those with dependent children gave wanting to spend more time with their family as the reason, and two fifths said it was due to domestic commitments."

The Cabinet Office fact sheet on "Women's Income and Employment" says: "having children is possibly the most significant factor affecting women's income and earnings opportunities … [it] means a drop in personal income, a loss of momentum on the career ladder and often leaving employment for several years."

'Family-friendly policies' are hardly more than a slogan at present. Generous paid maternity and paternity leave are vital if women are to be able to play their full part in society. The trade unions have a vital part to play in winning these benefits for all.

Making changes

The government's own figures show that a woman is likely to be paid about a quarter of £1m less than a man during her working life.

If she has children she loses out even more - by an estimated £381,000.

These figures come from a study produced by the London School of Economics.

"Being a mother can add dramatically to the loss …but the reasons for what is termed the ‘female forfeit’ are women being concentrated in lower paid sectors of the job market, and discrimination in pay against those doing the same work as men." (Guardian, 21 February 2000)

The BBC reported on the Trades Union Congress campaign urging women to find out whether they are being paid the same as their male counterparts. But asking a colleague the size of his pay-packet goes against the grain.

The Equal Opportunities Commission has called for national strategies in employment, education and training to promote wider opportunities for men and women.

Under a capitalist system, the employers will only go along with this as long as it suits them. When skills are in short supply, like during both World Wars, they are prepared to train women and allow them to do a wider range of work.

The TUC calls for reform of equal pay and sex discrimination laws. "Women workers have put up with poor pay because of institutionalised discrimination and the fact that society has traditionally undervalued the kind of work they do," said general secretary John Monks.

It is not enough for the TUC to simply urge employers to be fair to women. In the interests of all workers, the trade unions must involve the women workers, who are now joining in greater numbers, in campaigns alongside male workers to combat the long hours culture which destroys the family and means that neither parent has much leisure time to spend with their children. We want a shorter working week, without loss of pay - which is perfectly possible using the latest technology. The wealth now concentrated in the hands of the few, should be shared and invested in enabling a better quality of life for all.

To produce a genuinely equal society, where workers can enjoy free education to fulfil their potential and receive an income based on needs, we have to re-organise society onto a socialist basis.