Newly-released research suggests that the majority (60%) of women in workplaces across the UK either do not know what their male colleagues earn, or believe they are earning less than men who are doing the same job.

Speaking out to mark Equal Pay Day (14 November), the day in the year when women effectively start to “work for free”, the Fawcett Society said that its new report suggests that unlawful pay discrimination may be more widespread than previously feared.

Why women need a right to know: Shining a light on pay discrimination can be found at https://www.fawcettsociety.org.uk/Handlers/Download.ashx?IDMF=cd8d56a1-52cb-43f2-bd2d-ba272ff802a6.

It highlights that 60% of women in work are either in the dark about how much male counterparts earn or know the men earn more, while a similar percentage (65%) say that pay discrimination has a detrimental impact on how they feel about their job or their employer.

“Shockingly,” the Society pointed out, “as we approach the 50th anniversary of the Equal Pay Act 1970, 37% women who knew what their male counterparts earned reported that those men are paid more.”

The report calls for a change in the law to give women a “right to know” what a male colleague or colleagues earn if they suspect there is pay discrimination.

Most people asked about this proposal support the change (79%) and that includes three-quarters (74%) of men.

Fawcett Society Chief Executive Sam Smethers said: “Women need an enforceable ‘right to know’ what their colleagues earn so that they can challenge unequal pay. Men can help by simply telling their female colleagues what they earn. It really is that simple.”

Time for a change

As well as the proposed right to know, the Society is calling for changes to:

  • include ethnicity within gender pay gap reporting, expand it to employers with 100 or more staff and make action plans mandatory

  • ensure that women are able to bring equal pay cases without being ruled out by strict time limits

  • factor injury to feelings, and lost pension rights, into compensation for equal pay

  • ensure that women can overcome complex corporate structures by writing into UK law EU legislation which provides holding a single source accountable for pay discrimination.

Comment by Peninsula Associate Director of Advisory Kate Palmer

Employers will understandably fear that being forced to disclose pay practices will open up a “can of worms” and leave them open to additional tribunal claims from disgruntled staff.

However, providing pay practices remain fair, an increase in transparency may help disprove any suspicions that female staff have and guard against further unrest.

There is generally no requirement for employers to announce specific salaries to their workforce and, given that money can often prove disruptive at work, some businesses actively look to prevent any discussions by using pay secrecy clauses. Equal pay law already allows staff to ignore these restrictions if the reason for their discussions relates to concerns over unlawful pay practices.

Forcing employers to confirm to female staff exactly what their male counterparts earn will certainly cause businesses to re-think the way they distribute salaries.

Employers will need to be able to justify how salaries are decided and rely on a lawful reason for any significant differences.

With this in mind, employers are increasingly being encouraged to avoid asking candidates about previous salaries during job interviews, as critics suggest using these responses to decide wage offerings could have a detrimental impact on women and perpetuate the gender pay gap.

It is also a positive sign that such a large percentage of male employees appear to be on board with this suggestion, as they may be forgiven for feeling somewhat uncomfortable at the prospect of having their salaries disclosed to female colleagues.

However, if the UK is to succeed in reducing the gender pay gap, it is clear that support is needed from all quarters.

Many organisations already use a banding system for working out staff salaries, to ensure wages remain fair for staff working in similar roles. Naturally, there may be some slight variation depending on an employee’s responsibilities or experience but introducing bandings where possible may generally reduce concerns over unequal pay based on gender.

Last reviewed 15 November 2019