The 29th May 2020 marks the 50th anniversary of the Equal Pay Act, which established the principle that men and women should receive equal pay for equal work. Prior to its enactment, it was commonplace for private and public organisations alike to have separate pay scales for men and women. Such was the extent of this practice and so stark the differentials that the government of the day delayed the implementation of the Act to give employers time to set up new pay structures compliant with the new principle. The Act eventually came into force in 1975 (and has then been repealed and replaced by the Equality Act 2010, which essentially replicates its spirit).
Since then, the UK has been in the forefront of the fight to ensure fair pay regardless of gender at international level, where it became member of the Equal Pay International Coalition, a multi-stakeholder network for disseminating good practice on what works to close the gender pay gap.
At domestic level, the gender pay gap in the UK is at a record low (a 2019 survey of the Office of National Statistics revealed that the overall gender pay gap is 17.3%). However, there is no doubt that more still needs to be done: according to the Equality and Human Rights Commission it could take an estimated 20 years to close the gap without further corrective action. In addition, equal pay cases brought before the employment tribunals show no sign of slowing down, making up 14 per cent of all cases in the period 2019-2020, including some recent high profile claims brought by BBC presenters Carrie Gracie and Samira Ahmed.
The anniversary of the Equal Pay Act represents an opportunity to reflect on the progress made over the last half century and what still needs to be done. It should also have been a time to review and analyse the information gathered from companies with 250 employees or more about the average pay of men and women across their organisation (including their gender pay gap, bonus gap and the proportions of men and women in each level of their business.) Unfortunately the COVID-19 pandemic put this review process on hold: on 24 March the Government Equalities Office and the Equality and Human Rights Commission announced the suspension of enforcement of the gender pay gap deadlines for this reporting year (2019-2020). Also an Equal Pay Bill, aiming to reform the current legislation and enhance transparency of on equal pay information, lingers in the House of Lords since its first reading in January 2020, with the second reading date yet to be announced.
However there are some positives. The pandemic and subsequent lock-down imposed by the UK government (as well as other governments around the world) forced employers and employees alike to rethink the way in which work is organised, with a focus on work-life balance, part-time work and flexible working arrangements. Whilst for years people with childcare obligations (predominantly women) had to store away their careers and ambitions of a high salary because part-time and flexible working were often viewed with hostility by employers, the Coronavirus "stress test" has shown that different ways of working are possible: flexibility and homeworking are seen as an opportunity and possibly the new norm, with rumours of a right to request work from home to be introduced.
In this scenario, issues of pay inequities and pay transparency (as the key element of an honest conversation about gender pay gap and unequal pay) may be addressed more boldly. We look forward to seeing these discussed in Parliament.