Is pay equality a legal issue or just an attitude problem?

23 Jan 2019 By Benjamin James

Are the UK’s equal pay laws robust enough to change attitudes and ensure women are paid the same as men for the same work? Benjamin James reports

It is undoubtedly disappointing that 42 years after the introduction of the Equal Pay Act in the UK, we are still in a position whereby equal pay is still an issue. Looking back in history at the struggle for equality between men and women, 42 years could equate to a nanosecond, but it cannot be acceptable that this is still a problem.

With equal pay in such sharp focus of late, now is a good time for HR professionals to also reflect on the wider issues: have they done enough to ensure equality between their employees?

It is also important to consider whether the current law is enough. As well as the legislation introduced in 1976, we have the Equality Act 2010, the Equality Commission, a minister for equalities and numerous pieces of guidance but, according to the latest research, women are still being paid less than men. The law is in place to stop this happening, so the gender pay gap appears to be a matter of attitude.

So can we change attitudes through a change in the law? Will the introduction of rules within employers or a legal change to prevent a potential employer asking what someone is currently paid bring about a reduction in the gender pay gap? 

California and New York have introduced legislation to prevent asking about a person’s previous salary and it is likely that this will help reduce the gender pay gap. However, this will not be enough and even with a change, the salary offered will have to attract applicants and not leave it to the employee to ask, as this can lead to a gap when some applicants, usually men, ask for the moon and others, more often women, request what is to them a more realistic figure.

In law firms, when it is time for a review of salary or equity split, senior partners can be tied up for days writing memos as to why they are entitled to a larger share and lobbying partners – however, these are generally men. Female partners are less likely to do this. Decision-makers also generally listen to the lobbying, but do not always look at the wider picture.

It should never be thought that the pay gap is the fault of the lower paid. Men and women are different and it is those setting pay that need to recognise this and change the way that pay increases and offers are made – not just listening to the pressure and lobbying, but to make decisions on what they should know to be true. This is unlikely to happen overnight and some legislative changes could help the process. More likely these attitudes will cease to apply as a younger generation of men and women take control and bring about the changes required.

In all the pay reviews I have ever offered, a man has never turned one down, but it has happened twice with women (of course I refused), on the basis that they were thinking of what was best for the organisation as a whole.

Benjamin James is a partner at McCarthy Denning

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