Campaigning for equal pay – 50 years on

‘Gender Equalities at Work’ is an interdisciplinary collaboration between researchers at the University of Edinburgh, University College London, and The University of the West of England. Funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council, the project is producing the first comprehensive history of the creation, trajectories, legacies and lived experiences of the Equal Pay Act 1970, and Sex Discrimination Act 1975 (now integrated for GB in the Equality Act 2010) across the four nations of the UK. We invited Hazel Conley, Frances Galt, Louise Jackson and Tanya Rhodes from the project to reflect on 50 years of the Equal Pay Act.

Image: The Gender Equalities at Work team, from L-R Tanya Rhodes, Louise Jackson, Ann Henderson and Frances Galt.

The ‘Gender Equalities at Work’ project team was delighted to attend the Scottish Trades Unions Congress (STUC) Women’s Conference in Glenrothes, 31 October to 1 November 2022, to discuss this year’s conference theme: ‘Inspired by Our Past, Organising for Our Future’. Examining the history of campaigning on workplace gender equality, the team asked: what tools and strategies have been successful? Why and for whom? And why has change so often been slow?

Equal Pay Day

Despite the Equal Pay Act of 1970, the fight for equal pay remains a live issue for women. Amidst a cost-of-living crisis and increased pressure on families, low pay is also an issue of women’s pay. More women than men are employed part-time, on ‘zero hours’ contracts, and often segregated within female dominated occupations such as social care. In 2022, there is still a Gender Pay Gap of 14.9% (for all employees) despite slow improvement across time – and the gap remains higher for those from Caribbean, African and Pakistani backgrounds, as well as those aged over 40. The Fawcett Society has identified Equal Pay Day this year as Sunday 20 November: the day in the year when women, on average, stop earning relative to men because of the pay gap.

Women and the trade union movement

Labour markets are heavily gender segregated with the jobs traditionally taken by women receiving lower rates of pay as a result of stereotypical assumptions about the value of women’s work and the role of men as ‘breadwinners’. Across time, women within the trade union movement have played a vital role in campaigning for equal pay. In her presentation to the STUC Women’s Conference, Frances Galt examined women’s trade union activism of the 1970s. The Equal Pay Act permitted a five-year ‘enactment’ period, meaning that employers had a phased compliance period until 1975 – but this was a ‘catalyst’ for women’s industrial militancy. When employers used loopholes in the law to regrade or redeploy women (to avoid paying equal pay for ‘like’ work), women responded with resistance, with manufacturing and clerical unions at the forefront of equal pay campaigns.

Image: Workers striking during the Grunwick dispute 1976-68; even within a gender pay gap, women of colour earn less than their counterparts. Courtesy TUC Library Collections at London Metropolitan University.

Yet there were also tensions within the trade union movement itself. Women encountered opposition to their equal pay demands, and there were even strikes against equal pay by men at the Vauxhall factory in Luton and the Hoover factory in Merthyr Tydfil in 1970.  The men, who were largely classed as skilled workers, felt that equal pay diminished the status of their work by reducing the pay differential between skilled and unskilled work, which was usually undertaken by women.

Equal pay and equal value

In her presentation, Hazel Conley discussed equal pay for work of ‘equal value’: the legal concept that recognises the impact of gender segregation in labour markets and remains the core issue in relation to equal pay today.

The concept of ‘equal value’ first appeared over 100 years ago in 1919 in the Treaty of Versailles, but has proved hard to implement. The 1970 Equal Pay Act was based on a much weaker definition: of ‘like’ work or work rated as equivalent. The UK government did not change its position until forced to do so by the European Court of Justice; it did so through the introduction of the Equal Pay (Amendment) Regulations 1983. The introduction of ‘equal value’ in 1983 – and the use of job evaluation to demonstrate it – paved the way for huge collective agreements like ‘Agenda for Change’ and ‘Single Status’.  These collective agreements, in the NHS and Local Government respectively, were intended to harmonise the pay and conditions between manual and clerical workers.  In order to do this, job evaluation schemes were used to measure the value of different jobs against each other by comparing a range of factors.  However, in doing so, the schemes also uncovered extensive pay inequality between men and women which, with the intervention of No Win No Fee lawyers, led to over 60,000 equal pay case being taken to employment tribunals.  Recent cases in supermarket chains have used the principles established in these public sector cases to extend the fight for equal pay to the private sector.

Equal value remains complex and open to manipulation. But can we have pay equality without it?

Workplace discrimination

In a final presentation to the STUC Women’s conference, Louise Jackson shifted attention to the issue of sexual harassment, deemed to be a form of workplace sex discrimination in the UK as a result of landmark case law of 1986.

Women in trade unions began conducting prominent campaigns against sexual harassment in the early 1980s, working in conjunction with other anti-discrimination organisations. The most active were those involved in local government, where women constituted around half of trade union membership, and they were instrumental in getting ‘sexual harassment’ on to the radar of press and media coverage.

Yet the issue has resurfaced across time, especially in the wake of #MeToo. Stigma and fear of the consequences of reporting make it an intractable problem across time. So, too, does the fact that sexual harassment reflects and is a direct consequence of broad power inequalities in the workplace, particularly for women from ethnic minorities. As the STUC Women’s Committee highlighted in its 2022 Report ‘Silence is Compliance’, it is especially prevalent in male-dominated industries and in forms of precarious and freelance employment. Sexual harassment is a trade union issue – for men and women to solve together and the STUC report suggests an extensive list of recommendations for action by employers, government and trade unions themselves.

Thus political and trade union support is imperative – for equal pay legislation to work but also for other forms of workplace injustice to be tackled head on. Current campaigns include recognition of the need for flexible working around childcare, and of the impact of domestic violence and menopause on working women.

Hazel Conley is Professor of Human Resource Management, The University of the West of England. Frances Galt is a Research Fellow specialising in Feminist Labour History, The University of the West of England. Louise Jackson is Professor of Modern Social History, University of Edinburgh. Tanya Rhodes is Communications and Events Officer, Gender Equalities at Work.


Twitter: @GenderWork50