By Mark Richards

Despite centuries of strikes and years of legislation unequal pay between men and women – the so-called ‘gender pay gap’ – remains a fact of modern working life. How did unequal pay come about? What’s happening now – and what developments are we likely to see in the future?

Many of you reading this will have watched the last series of Peaky Blinders. If you are anything like my wife, you will be longing for the return of the ‘tall, handsome man in a dusty black coat.’

So I need to start this morning by discussing Tommy Shelby’s negotiating skills. Not the ones he eventually used on Luca Changretta, but his fairly blunt tactics with union convener Jessie Eden.

“The women at the wire factory are getting ten shillings a week less than the men for doing the same work,” complains Jessie.

“Fair enough,” replies Tommy, pausing to light yet another cigarette, “I’ll reduce the men’s pay by ten shillings. Then you’ll have equal pay.”

Not the response that Jessie wanted and – nearly 100 years after the time Peaky Blinders was set – still not the response that many women are receiving as they seek pay parity with their male counterparts.

How did unequal pay come about?

Men and women first began working together – and doing comparable work – around the time of the Industrial Revolution, beginning around 1760 and ending perhaps 60-70 years later. Right from the start, men were paid more than women – perhaps they could do more manual work, perhaps because they were seen as ‘breadwinners’ – or perhaps because the factory owners were men. There were strikes in favour of equal pay as early as the 1830s – but it was a slow process, and it was not until after the Second World War that legislation started to be enacted in favour of equal pay: in the UK, the Equal Pay Act was finally introduced in 1970.

What did the Equal Pay Act say?

The Labour Party manifesto of 1959 had included a commitment to ‘equal pay for equal work’ and by the end of the 1960s, public opinion was largely in favour of such a move. The Equal Pay Act received Royal Assent in May 1970 – just before Labour lost the General Election to the Conservatives under Edward Heath – but did not come into effect until December 1975, by which time Harold Wilson had once again replaced Heath as Prime Minister. Broadly speaking, the Act allowed women to claim for equal pay if they could show that they were doing ‘equal work of equal value’ compared to their male counterparts. The Equal Pay Act has now been largely superseded by the 2010 Equality Act.

What is Equal Pay Day?

Despite all the legislation, unequal pay – as we noted in the introduction – remains a fact of modern working life. To highlight it, campaigners around the world have designated an annual ‘Equal Pay Day’ – a symbolic day used to highlight unequal pay between men and women. In the USA the date for 2017 was April 4th – meaning that women needed to work through the previous year and to April 4th in the New Year to equal what men had earned in the previous year.

In the UK we do it differently, with campaigners highlighting November 10th as the day on which a woman on the average wage stops being paid for the year, relative to her male counterparts. It is important to note, though, that there are significant regional variations, with the gender pay gap much higher in some parts of the UK. As a general rule, it is narrower – and women tend to do better – in areas that have a high concentration of public sector employment.

Problems at the BBC

Unequal pay has jumped to the front of the news agenda recently thanks to problems at the BBC.

The Beeb’s China Editor, Carrie Gracie, resigned from her post, citing pay inequality with male colleagues and – in an open letter – accusing the corporation of having a ‘secretive and illegal pay culture.’

The BBC said there was ‘no systematic discrimination against women’ but did admit that its published list of people earning more than £150,000 a year showed that two-thirds of those on the list were men. Ms Gracie was not on the list, but both US editor Jon Sopel and Middle East editor Jeremy Bowen were there – and hence the resignation.

Like me you may wonder why the BBC needs to pay 42 journalists more than £150,000 a year – the same salary as the Prime Minister receives. And that is before we discuss the BBC’s so-called ‘top talent:’ even die-hard Leicester City fans must wonder how Gary Lineker can possibly be worth £1.75m a year…

Where the BBC leads…

What the furore at the BBC did was focus attention on equal pay, with six prominent BBC presenters agreeing to pay cuts. Some company bosses quickly followed suit, with EasyJet’s new boss Johan Lundgren asking that his £740,000 wage packet be reduced by £36,000 to match that of his predecessor, Carolyn McCall. But EasyJet appears to have rather more pressing issues to sort out, as it revealed a 52% gender pay gap at the company.

What will happen in the future?

The only logical conclusion is that moves towards equal pay will accelerate, especially as we see more women in Parliament: there are now 208 female MPs, up from 191 in 2015. 45% of Labour MPs are women and – were the party to form the next government – you would not be surprised to see equal pay legislation turned on its head, with employers required to prove a case for unequal pay.

It is also easy to see action being taken against firms who did not implement equal pay, with penalties being applied retrospectively. If I were an employer, I would have ‘equal pay’ right at the top of my 2018 to-do list.

What should you do if you think you are not getting equal pay?

The first thing to do is gather your evidence and be sure of your facts. Evidence should include the work you do, plus correspondence between you and your employer and notes of meetings that you have attended to discuss the issue. Ultimately you will need to bring a claim in front of a tribunal: if you would like more information, the Equal Pay Portal is a good place to start.

Alternatively, seek advice from your MP, especially if you live in Birmingham South. The newly-elected Thomas Shelby has a reputation for getting things done…