Comment: UK: Transparency is only the start of closing the gender pay gap - Sally Brett

AGORA moderator's picture

David Cameron’s plan to make big companies publish the difference in male and female earnings is welcome – but it doesn’t force employers to make equal pay a reality.

David Cameron has announced, in his words: “a really big move”. The government will be introducing legislation to make every private sector company with 250 employees or more publish the gap between its average male and female earnings. He explains: “That will cast sunlight on the discrepancies and create the pressure we need for change, driving women’s wages up.”

This move is to be welcomed. It is a step towards greater pay transparency. Requiring private sector employers to be more open about gender pay differences should bring pressure to bear on them to explain the reasons for those differences and to consider what they can do to eliminate them.

But let’s be clear about what this legislation will not require. It will not require employers to carry out detailed equal pay audits, which is the main equal pay law reform that trade unions have long campaigned for. Equal pay audits require employers to assess where men and women are doing similar work or work of equal value in their organisations and to close any pay gaps between those men and women that can’t be justified.

There might be an advantage though in not focusing narrowly on compliance with equal pay law. Gender pay gap reporting could encourage employers to look more broadly at other factors behind the differences: the impact of motherhood and the uneven distribution of family and caring responsibilities on women’s paid work, and the failure of women to progress to higher level managerial jobs or to enter traditionally male-dominated areas in greater numbers.

But to understand what the main factors are in an individual workplace, we need more than a single figure for the whole workforce. To look at whether a failure to provide equal pay might be a cause of the pay gap, it would be helpful to analyse gender pay differences by job or grade. To understand if it comes from women tending to work part-time and part-time opportunities still being predominantly in lower-paid jobs, we need some measure of the part-time pay penalty. The consultation paper does recognise that “an overall pay gap figure does not offer the level of granularity required to explain pay differences” and the TUC in our response will certainly be calling for companies to have to report more than just a single figure.

The consultation paper suggests some ways in which being forced to report on the gender pay gap in their workplace could encourage employers to take action. But, just to be clear again, there will be no legal requirement for them to act on the data that they publish, just a requirement to publish it. Unsurprisingly, given this government’s clear hostility to trade unions and workers organising collectively to bring about change – and let’s remember that this is where the Equal Pay Act originated from – there is no mention of the role of trade unions or workforce consultation in this.

Rather, the consultation document talks about the gender pay gap figures being helpful to “those with a stake in the organisation, such as investors, stakeholders and clients”. Elsewhere it says that “competition and peer pressure (especially within the same sector) will also drive employers to take constructive actions to tackle any workplace inequalities identified”. Really? Take a glance at the history of equal pay litigation and you will find employer after employer citing “market forces” as a reason to justify paying women less than men.

Buried towards the end of the consultation paper, we also learn that although the regulations will be laid down in the first half of 2016 (a timetable set by the coalition) the government proposes delaying enacting them “to give businesses an opportunity to prepare for implementation”. They’ve already had five years since section 78 of the Equality Act 2010 hit the statute book, and the coalition government’s voluntary approach to gender pay gap reporting to guide them. What do they need to do to prepare? How long will it take them to calculate a gender pay gap figure? The maths is quite simple. It’s not a detailed equal pay audit we’re asking of them. But, again, it seems women must wait just a bit longer even for this step towards transparency.

SOURCE: theguardian, 15/07/2015,