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Does equal pay equate to equal opportunity?

29 May 2020: Some 50 years after the Equal Pay Act, there is still a pay gap in every sector of the economy. But does the shift in working patterns driven by coronavirus offer an opportunity to level the playing field?

29 May 2020 was the 50th anniversary of the Equal Pay Act. For the first time, it was enshrined in law that it was illegal to pay women less than men for the same or equivalent work.

The Equal Pay Act 1970 (EPA) is rightly celebrated as a landmark piece of legislation but it is easy to forget that the principle of equal pay took many decades to be accepted as a given. In 1946, for example, a Royal Commission on the matter concluded that women in teaching and some sectors of the Civil Service might be entitled to equal pay but this should not be extended to women in industry: a category that included female chartered accountants.

It was not just that women could be paid less. Many companies, including accountancy firms, imposed a marriage bar which meant that many women had to give up work when they married. But even if they could work after marriage, the 1968 strike by women machinists at the Dagenham plant of the Ford Motor Company showed that skilled women workers were not regarded as ‘skilled’ as men and were paid less as a result.

Even after the EPA was passed, there have been many instances where women workers have had to go to court to ensure they were paid the same as men doing an equivalent job. These have tended to be in lower-paid jobs such as shop workers and public sector workers but the fact is that more women are employed in lower-paid sectors such as retail, caring and hospitality and this has only served to entrench the discrepancy between what men earn and what women earn.

Moreover ‘equal pay’ does not mean ‘equal opportunity’, as the gender pay gap reports have made abundantly clear. Women are still the minority on boards and at senior levels. There is a pay gap in every sector of the economy and across all levels from the shop floor to the boardroom. It is concerning that the government has allowed organisations to defer publication of the reports for 2020 because of the COVID-19 crisis as this suggest that pay parity is not a primary concern.

Added to this, the COVID-19 crisis has forced many to work flexibly and at home but a recent report published by the Institute of Fiscal Studies has shown that mothers are spending more of their working hours trying to care for children as well as work than fathers.

In addition, the lockdown has had a devastating impact on the retail sector which employs far more women whether on the shop floor or in the supply chain. Some of these jobs may never return and it is no exaggeration to say that women may well bear the brunt of any economic downturn.

But perhaps this is the chance to show that working flexibly works for both sexes and that we should value lower paid workers more because they may be considered ‘unskilled’, but we can’t function without them. Perhaps now ‘Equal Pay’ will equate to ‘Equal opportunity’. It would be a fitting tribute to all those who campaigned for equal pay, including Ethel Watts the second female to be admitted to ICAEW.