We’ve come a long way in the last 50 years on gender pay inequality, but there is still plenty of work to do
Some of the original Dagenham women strikers - "We’ve come a long way in the last 50 years, and for that, we have the Dagenham sewing machinists to thank," says Laura Farris MP | Credit: PA Images
On the 50th anniversary of the Equal Pay Act, women’s wages are still on average 82% that of men across all settings and women in full-time employment earn around 9% less.
Today marks the 50th anniversary of the Equal Pay Act, landmark legislation which introduced discrimination law into this country for the first time.
It was a response to years of unfairness in which women were paid a fraction of the wages of their male counterparts for doing the same or very similar jobs.
Unbelievable as it sounds now, back in the 1960s this was often a product of collective bargaining where Unions would seek pay rises solely for their male members on the basis that men were the breadwinners, and women were nearly always married and primarily belonged in the home.
But its timing was triggered by sewing machinists working in the Ford car plant in Dagenham.
These women went on strike in 1968 over the classification of their work as ‘less skilled’ than equivalent male jobs at the plant with a knock-on effect on their pay.
Eyebrows were raised at the sight of women on strike but it brought them to the attention of Barbara Castle, the then-Employment Minister in Harold Wilson’s Government, and got the ball rolling.
Although the Act was not expressly directed at women (indeed men can and do bring claims), it was drafted specifically to resolve female pay inequality and led to the passage of the Sex Discrimination Act five years later.
Together, a revolution for women’s rights.
Before becoming an MP in December last year I spent 12 years working as an employment and discrimination barrister.
In the early days I saw female City professionals losing out on bonuses and stock options to male counterparts for reasons that were spurious or impossible to fathom.
By the end workplaces had changed: more mothers were returning to full-time work after children, there was more mentoring, more women in Executive and senior roles. All in all, a different culture.
However, this change in culture is not an issue resolved - that is why we have tried to keep the conversation going.
Today’s battles are about achieving true equality over childcare and domestic work in the home, supporting women to return to work after children and seeking promotion when the time is right.
In 2017 we introduced Gender Pay Reporting, making it mandatory for businesses with over 250 employees to publish their gender pay gap data, for the government and for public viewing.
This reporting has been instrumental in not only allowing companies and the government to see the bigger picture on the gender pay inequalities, but also giving companies a benchmark by which they can improve upon, year on year.
And we are seeing progress. Just last year gender pay gaps hit a record low here in the UK, whilst female employment hit a record high.
Stats like these are always welcomed, but we are not there yet and there is still plenty of work to do.
Women’s wages are still on average 82% that of men across all settings and women in full-time employment earn around 9% less.
Some argue that this comparison is flawed since it does not take account the differences in the jobs themselves, but I think this underscores the point that it is more likely that women will be working in lower paid roles and on a part-time basis than men.
Whilst I know that in a number of cases this will be a product of children and choice (for which I make no criticism), we cannot ignore the fact that there are still roles which are disproportionately occupied by women and they are almost never the best paid.
But make no mistake, we are moving in the right direction.
Today’s battles are about achieving true equality over childcare and domestic work in the home, supporting women to return to work after children and seeking promotion when the time is right. And men too are increasingly demanding greater flexibility in working hours to balance childcare at home.
We’ve come a long way in the last 50 years, and for that, we have the Dagenham sewing machinists to thank.
Laura Farris is Conservative MP for Newbury and co-chair of the APPG for Women & Work.