Women could be given right to know male colleagues’ salaries under new bill

Experts say proposed change could help fix the gender pay gap and that the trend is already towards reward ‘transparency and openness’

Women will be given the right to know how much their male peers are paid under a wide-ranging equal pay bill currently going through parliament.

If it becomes law, the Equal Pay Information and Claims Bill 2020 will give employees the right to know what their colleagues are paid and will require companies with at least 100 employees to report their gender and ethnicity pay gaps.

The private members bill, which was submitted to the House of Commons by Labour MP Stella Creasy yesterday (20 October), has cross-party support and the backing of former home office minister Caroline Nokes.

Presenting the bill to MPs yesterday, Creasy claimed many companies operated a ‘don't ask don't tell’ policy and did not analyse their gender pay gap to avoid generating information that might help women bring equal pay claims. 

"Pay discrimination becomes so prevalent because it is hard to get pay transparency,” she said. "Unless a woman knows that a man who is doing equal work to her is being paid more she cannot know if she is being paid equally.”

Under existing law, women have the right to ask about a colleague's pay but employers do not have to provide these details, and women who suspect they are being unfairly paid have no option but to take employers to tribunal to force a disclosure. This needed to change without delay, argued Creasy. “For nearly 200 years, women have been asking for parity and, with the pandemic bearing down on us, we cannot afford to wait any longer for action,” she said.

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The bill was drafted with the help of the Fawcett Society and mirrored a private member’s bill for equal pay submitted in the House of Lords by Baroness Prosser earlier this year. Sam Smethers, the Fawcett Society’s chief executive, said she was confident the bill had a chance of success.

“It is possible for private members' bills to succeed if the government gives them parliamentary time. This bill has cross-party support, and as we mark 50 years since the Equal Pay Act there has never been a better time to give women the right to know," Smethers said, adding that, without such a right, “the vast majority of women just can’t say for sure whether they are being discriminated against”.

A poll conducted by the Fawcett Society, released to coincide with the bill’s submission, found fewer than one in three (31 per cent) women thought their employer would tell them if their male colleagues earned more for the same work. It also found 62 per cent agreed that women who suspected they were not being equally paid should have the right to know how much their male colleagues earned.

David Ward, partner in the employment team at Blacks Solicitors, said the proposed change was a "logical step in promoting equality of terms”. "Having supported a number of female litigants in equal pay claims and grievances about their pay levels, the proposed measures would undoubtedly prove helpful,” he said.

“A fundamental aspect of preparing and presenting a claim is gathering the evidence to substantiate it and, all too often, claimants struggle to obtain the hard evidence to support their allegations.”

However, Kate Palmer, HR director at Peninsula, said many employers would have questions about the bill’s practicality if passed. “A person’s pay being somewhat a private thing begs the question as to whether employees would need to seek permission from their male staff before this can be effectively carried out – and if female staff’s pay should also be disclosed," she said.

But, Palmer added, if these potential barriers for employers were overcome, the bill “may well be the push needed to fix the gender pay gap”.

Charles Cotton, senior reward and performance adviser at the CIPD, called on HR teams to be transparent about pay during the recruitment process. "Having fair recruitment, reward and promotion processes in place – and being open about these as well as the outcomes – should avoid the need for employees to ask their colleagues what they're earning,” he said.

“The direction of travel is already towards further workplace transparency and openness, and this bill is an opportunity for people professionals to help their organisations think through the issues associated with pay disclosure, the various policy options and their potential consequences.”