Sheila Wild: Will this month’s Equality Act make a difference to equal pay?

This year marks the 40th anniversary of the Equal Pay Act. While the film Made in Dagenham highlights the heroic struggle of the Ford sewing machinists to be paid the same as their male colleagues, many people will wonder why – nearly four decades later – the full-time pay gap remains an astonishing 16.4%, and the part-time pay gap an even bigger 35.3%.

The Equal Pay Act has actually helped close the gap, partly by making the kind of outright discrimination faced by the women of Dagenham illegal. However, there is still a long way to go.

So will mandatory pay audits make a difference? The Equality and Human Rights Commission’s short answer to this is that transparency will make a difference. It is difficult, if not impossible, to resolve a problem that cannot be seen.

The upcoming Equality Act contains provisions that will go some way towards increasing transparency. The Act will, for example, enable employees to discuss their pay more openly where they suspect that a pay differential may be discriminatory. The Act also contains a provision – the future of which is unclear – reserving the right for the government, should it come to the conclusion that progress has been too slow, to make pay reporting mandatory for non-public sector organisations with 250 or more employees.

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But if we are to truly tackle the pay gap, transparency will have to be matched with similar efforts to transform the world of work that makes it all too difficult for women and, indeed, men to balance work and family, as well as tackle the factors that close off more lucrative career paths to far too many girls.

– Sheila Wild, head of earnings inequalities at the Equality and Human Rights Commission