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How to close the gender pay gap

This article is over 11 years, 6 months old
Women workers at Birmingham council have won a significant case for equal pay. Sarah Ensor looks at how a sexist system still discriminates
Issue 2327
February 2008 strike for equal pay in Birmingham (Pic: Charlie Kimber)
February 2008 strike for equal pay in Birmingham (Pic: Charlie Kimber)

Women who used to work for Birmingham City Council last week won a step forward in their claim for equal pay.

Some 170 women, including cooks, cleaners and care assistants, were technically paid the same as men doing similar work, between £11,000 and £15,000. But the men got bonuses of up to £15,000 which women weren’t able to access.

The case highlights the scandal that over 40 years after the 1970 Equal Pay Act came into force, women are still paid less than men.

There are currently 13.6 million women in employment compared to 15.6 million men. While 17 percent of men in work are low paid, the same figure sits at 28 percent for women workers. Women working part-time are most likely to be in low paid jobs.

Research by the Institute for Social and Economic Research in November 2005 showed that the overall gender pay gap in Britain had stayed “roughly constant” across the pay levels.

In the public sector the gap ranges from 14 percent for the lowest tenth of earners through to 21 percent for the top tenth.

In the private sector the gap is wider still at a flat 22 percent across the pay grades. So where the pay gap is not constant across pay grades, it is greater at the top of the scale.


But for working class women, systematic sexism means they bear responsibility for the bulk of childcare, and often act as a carers for sick or elderly relatives. So the government’s attacks on benefits and public services will act to compound the impact of unequal pay.

And with women making up 65 percent of the public sector workforce, the Tories’ fundamental attack on public sector pay will have a disproportionate impact on women.

The Birmingham case is an example of how women workers have been left to pursue employment tribunals and courts to get their legal rights.

The employment tribunal is the bosses’ preferred terrain. In the 12 months to last April, 28,800 equal pay cases were submitted to employment tribunals. Only 32 won.

In contrast, it was workers’ struggle that won the 1970 Equal Pay Act. Some 187 women sewing machinists struck against sex discrimination in their job grading at Ford Dagenham in east London in 1968. The strikers were joined by 195 women at Ford’s Halewood in Merseyside.

The dispute, sparked by the demand that the workers should be recognised as skilled, became more broadly about equal pay.

The three week strike brought Ford’s entire car production to a standstill. The minister for employment, Barbara Castle, was forced to intervene. The women won a pay rise to 92 percent of the men’s pay, and created a model for how we can fight for equal pay today.

Single status cast a light on equal pay

The Birmingham women workers’ case started in 2008 when the Labour government introduced “single status” deals in the name of equal pay. The deals were supposed to deliver a common pay scale and harmonisation of conditions for all jobs.

But then-chancellor Gordon Brown didn’t give local authorities any extra money to pay the workers who were supposed to gain from the deal. So in the name of equal pay, local councils cut women and men’s wages and cut services.

Birmingham became the centre of the resistance to the local government employers. Tens of thousands of council workers struck. There were also protests in Waltham Forest, Leeds, Edinburgh, and Islington over the council attacks.

But the campaigns didn’t link up in a national fightback. Many workers were isolated and some felt they had no choice but to go to the courts to get decent pay.


The union leaderships used these legal cases as an excuse to prevent a national focus emerging, or in some cases even discussing single status.

But in Birmingham in February 2008 some 3,500 people turned up to a meeting to oppose the council’s single status plans. It showed the workers’ potential strength.

Birmingham City Council tried to block the claims, arguing that they should have been made in front of employment tribunals (ETs). ETs have a six-month time limit.

But the supreme court agreed with the original court’s decisions—if the women were excluded by the time limits from an ET, they could go to court.

Dave Hughes, a Unison steward and activist in Birmingham, spoke to Socialist Worker. “Equal pay disputes had been going on for a while, but the single status brought it into the light,” he said.

“It was right to argue against the idea that better paid workers should pay to raise lower pay. Now no one has had a pay rise for three years.”

What is the gender pay gap?

On average women get paid 15 percent less than men. In London the gap is 23 percent, which means that for every £100 men take home, women get £77.

Some 71 percent of women in Britain work outside the home. Even after having children, 68 percent work—the percentage rises as children get older.

The pay gap for part time women workers is 30 percent. But over a working lifetime it rises to 50 percent. And 20 percent of part-timers would work full time if they could find a job.

Tories resist pay audits push

The PCS civil service workers’ union is pushing a campaign demanding that bosses who lose sex discrimination cases should be forced to carry out equal pay audits.

But the Tory right is fighting the idea. They don’t want audits to be compulsory. They would show who gets promoted to better paid jobs—and when women are paid less.

Where do women work?

The pay gap isn’t just about women being paid less within one job. Women overall are concentrated in a narrower range of jobs than men, and they are more often low paid.

A TUC report said women were largely confined to “the five Cs”—caring, catering, cashiering, cleaning and clerical work.

Some 19 percent of women workers are in admin or secretarial jobs, compared with 5 percent of men. And 10 percent of women work in sales compared to 5 percent of men.

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