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Made in Dagenham, but still a work in progress: the Equal Pay Act 40 years on.

Equal Pay

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The recent film ‘Made in Dagenham’ deals with the struggle of a group of women workers for equal pay. Anthea Irwin reflects on the film and the significance of the 40th anniversary of the Equal Pay Act.

The release of Nigel Cole’s Made in Dagenham to mark the 40th anniversary of the passing of the Equal Pay Act should, and does, cause us to reflect on what the implementation of the Act has achieved.

Celluloid Struggle

The film follows the machinists from Ford’s Dagenham car plant who went on strike in 1968 when they were re-categorised as ‘unskilled’ workers, claiming that they should be paid equally with men for equally skilled work. We watch as they go through the day to day struggle, find new voice and talent for strategy and put them to good use, and end up negotiating with Barbara Castle, the secretary of state for employment at that time, payment at 92% of the men’s rate and support for a future Equal Pay Act that was developed and passed in 1970.

In Made in Dagenham it is refreshing to see a celebration of the comradeship that arises when workers are in struggle, and the fact that trade union struggles can be positive and pro-active affairs, rather than the negative and reactive ones they are often stereotyped as. The film’s narrative draws attention to the contradictions patriarchal capitalism presents us with, with gender and class interacting with each other in often complex ways: the union colleague who engages with the women workers and supports their cause at an early stage only does so because he can empathise with women’s experience through his own childhood and adolescence, raised by his mother as a lone working parent. As far as most of the other workers are concerned, the women’s experience is simply not seen as comparable to that of the men’s, at least to begin with; alleged equality of opportunity under the capitalism is called into question. The son of the main character has gained a place at a grammar school but is unfairly punished by his teacher because ‘boys from the estate’ take longer to ‘adapt’ to the ‘standards of language and behaviour’ held by the school; and this contradiction of ‘meritocracy’ under capitalism is not experienced only by working class characters: in the words of the factory boss’s wife, ‘I have a first class honours degree from Cambridge and my husband thinks I am a fool’; this is indeed apparent when she begins to share her (conflicting) view of the company’s industrial relations policy with a visiting company figure from the US and is immediately requested to go and ‘fetch that nice cheese’.

Overall, Made in Dagenham reminds us that the Equal Pay Act arose in a context where issues of gender equality were multi-faceted. They still are, albeit some of the patterns are different, so it is important for us to scrutinise how far we have actually come. The Equal Pay Act must very much be seen as a milestone on a journey to a goal, not the achievement of that goal. The European Commission puts the UK gender pay gap at 21%, above the EU average of 18%, and states that, after some initial improvements, the gap has actually remained constant for 15 years. The Scottish Trades Union Congress highlighted the gap in 2008 when they introduced ‘Equal Pay Day’ on November 10th, and drew attention to the fact that the gender pay gap effectively meant that women would work the remainder of each year from that date without pay.

Precursors to the Equal Pay Act

Karon Monaghan, in a paper engaging with the legislative issues around equal pay , outlines how equal pay was actually a requirement, via other fora, long before the Dagenham workers’ strike or the Equal Pay Act, reminding us that issues of gender equality are often not prioritised, if they are adhered to at all. The United Nations 1945 Declaration of Human Rights stated that ‘everyone, without any discrimination, has the right to equal pay for equal work’. The Treaty of Rome, too, which in 1957 brought into existence the European Economic Community, the precursor of the European Union, required adherence to gender equality measures including equal pay. The current EU equal pay guarantee requires by European law that member States ‘ensure that the principle of equal pay for male and female workers for equal work or work of equal value is applied’.

The Equal Pay Act

In May 1970 the UK government introduced an entitlement to equal pay for employees doing equal work with employees of the opposite sex employed by the same employer. This was intended to meet the conditions set by the 1957 Treaty of Rome mentioned above. In 1970, ‘equal work’ was defined as work that was the same or broadly similar, or work that had been rated as equivalent under an analytical job evaluation scheme. However, the European Commission carried out infringement proceedings after the Equal Opportunities Commission raised the fact that this was defining equal work more narrowly than it was defined in European law, and in 1983 the UK expanded the definition to include work that, although different, is of equal value.

The Equal Pay Act was not brought into force until five years after it was passed. Monaghan tells us that the reason given for this was an expectation that employers would pro-actively take measures in the elapsing time to provide equality in pay. This did not happen.

She draws our attention to two key issues around how the Act is implemented that effectively preclude it achieving what we might logically expect it to achieve, i.e. equal pay for women and men. The first is the presupposition that there will be a male comparator employed in the same employment against whose pay the woman’s pay can be measured. The fact that ‘occupational segregation’ is a large contributor to the gender pay gap, that is, that women and men tend to be employed in different kinds of jobs and those considered to be ‘women’s jobs’ are often undervalued, means that many challenges that might be brought under the Act are actually very difficult to carry out.

The second issue she raises is that the Act is ‘remedial’, that is, it will provide backdated pay or contractual damages to any woman who manages to argue she should be paid more because of it. There is no duty on employers to secure equality in pay under the Equal Pay Act. ‘Instead it is left to the woman litigant, as victim, to undertake the role of investigator, legal champion and enforcer’ which is not a huge incentive to go forward with such a claim. Trade Unions have for many years been calling for the burden of proof to be put on employers; this call must continue. Furthermore, the court cannot extrapolate from a specific case any general remedial action, for example requiring a company to carry out an equal pay audit or that pay be monitored and reviewed.

Whilst the Act itself does not require it, Sheila Wild points us towards cases that evidence the fact that the courts generally believe that employers are responsible for ensuring that their pay systems are free of sex bias and should not wait until being confronted with a case before taking action to ensure equal pay. It is not surprising, however, given Monaghan’s points above, that Wild cites The Equality and Human Rights Commission Gender Pay Activity in Large Non-public Sector Organisations, baseline report 2009 which found that the factors most likely to encourage action to tackle the gender pay gap are in fact the ‘push’ factors – employee complaints, equal pay cases or legislative requirements.

New Legislation

The Equality Act 2010 is very similar to the Equal Pay Act in that it still requires a comparator and is still remedial. One change is that it gives governments power to impose pay auditing by making regulations. It does not, however, require them to take any action to address inequalities that may be highlighted by such auditing procedures. The former Labour government indicated that it did not intend to use these powers before 2013 and the new coalition government have not yet commented on their position. Monaghan draws our attention to the explanatory notes to the Equality Act which say the purpose for this delay is to allow ‘for employers regularly to publish such information on a voluntary basis [and to] give voluntary arrangements time to work’. Her personal opinion on this is that ‘it is difficult to see why voluntary arrangements might work now when they singularly failed 40 years ago and have failed since’. It is easy to agree with her.

Measuring the Gap

In the last fully comprehensive report of the gender pay gap available , Debra Leaker of the Office for National Statistics considers patterns in the data that point to complex reasons for women’s disadvantage in this area which go far beyond questions of being the same as a man in the same job, and are instead related to societal structure. All figures are based on median calculations.


Analysis by age shows that earnings are similar when entering the job market, at 18 to 21 years old, but a gender pay gap appears after approximately ten years, for those aged from 30 to 39. The gap increases for the 40 to 49 age group, which is the largest at between 19 and 20.3 percent depending on which set of data is considered. This can be explained by the fact that women are more likely to have career breaks from paid work to care for children and other dependants, or to work part time, which will impact on their experience levels. Indeed, the numbers of women in full time work decreases with age whilst at the same time the number of women in part time work increases with age.


Analysis by major occupational groups shows that the widest pay gaps among full-time employees are for skilled trades occupations (25.4 per cent), managers and senior officials (23.0 per cent), and process, plant and machine operatives (21.7 per cent). The narrowest pay gaps are for professional occupations (3.8 per cent) and sales and customer service occupations (5.9 per cent). Across all occupations the gap widens the more highly paid individuals are. This fits with comparisons by highest qualification gained. The gender pay gap of full-time employees is narrowest for those whose highest qualification is GCSEs, at 12.7 per cent. The widest pay gaps are for those educated to A level, closely followed by those educated to degree or equivalent level, where the gender pay gap is 19.3 per cent and 18.6 per cent, respectively.

It is equally important to consider the pay gaps between occupations as those within them. Women’s employment is highly segregated by occupation: in figures from a few years ago, Engender inform us that 93% of primary teachers and 58% of secondary teachers in 2004, 78% of NHS employees in 2005, and 67 per cent of local government employees in 2005 were women . Female-dominated occupations such as caring professions and clerical work are historically lower paid than average, which calls into question the concept of ‘work of equal value’ on an ideological level; women would not ‘naturally’ choose jobs that are less ‘valuable’, so what counts as valuable needs to be rethought.

Relationship and family

The gender pay gap of full-time employees also varies by married/cohabiting status. The gender pay gap between men and women who are not married or cohabiting actually shows women better off, albeit the difference is negligible (–1.1 per cent). However, the gender pay gap for married/cohabiting couples is 14.5 per cent. The gap increases with the number of children present in a family: where four or more dependent children are present, the gender pay gap stands at 35.5 per cent, significant evidence that women are much more likely to take career breaks and have opportunities narrowed on return, thus earning less.

Disability and ethnicity

Leaker’s figures suggest that the gender pay gap also varies according to disability and ethnicity. The pay gap between disabled women and disabled men is 6.5 per cent, whilst that for women and men who do not classify themselves as disabled is 12 per cent. As regards ethnicity, the widest pay gaps are for Asian/Asian Black employees at 12.6 per cent and White employees at 12.4 per cent. Black/ Black British women earn more than black British men, a gender pay gap of –6.4 per cent. When considering both disability and ethnicity, however, the figures do not necessarily suggest anything positive for women; they tend instead to suggest that disabled people are lower paid overall than non-disabled people, and that black people are lower paid overall than white people.

Furthermore, the Equality and Human Rights Commission found that minority ethnic women in Scotland are employed at a rate of 3 per cent compared with 53 per cent for White women and that Pakistani and Bangladeshi women have particularly high unemployment rates, with only between 10 and 14 per cent in work , so a similar gender pay gap for white and Asian communities masks an overall much lower employment and payment rate for Asian people compared with white people.

The organisation of work

Working Families put it well when they say ‘work is organised, at the moment, in a way which does not do enough to close the pay gap; in some ways it exacerbates it because the focus is on providing choices within the current systems, but not on changing these systems’ . Their point is that, whilst ‘flexible working’ is much used as a buzz word, in an ideological sense workplaces are still organised around the norm of an ‘ideal’ worker, from which the ‘flexible’ worker deviates. Women are much more likely to wish to work flexibly, and because of this they lose out. In fact, everyone loses out: women lose income, families lose choices about working and caring, and society loses talent.

One step forward, two steps back?

We have already seen that, after initial improvement, the gender pay gap in the UK has remained static for 15 years, which should give us pause given that any gender pay gap is essentially illegal. And the current coalition government’s planned cuts arising from their Comprehensive Spending Review will undoubtedly cause the picture to worsen once again. Whichever way we look at it, women stand to lose out more than men do.

We have been told we can expect somewhere between 300,000 and 750,000 public sector jobs, depending whose figures we read. 65% of public sector workers are women, so we can presume that more women will lose their jobs than men. Women are already more vulnerable in old age as lower earnings mean lower pensions, and now they will have to wait six more years to begin to receive their pension at all. 94% of child benefit, 70% of tax credits, and 60% of housing benefit is paid to women; all face significant cuts to the amount or to who receives them.

There is a better way

Basic demands to work towards closing the gender pay gap would be:

• Employers to hold the burden of proof for gender equity in pay
• Equal Pay Legislation to be amended to allow general principles to be extrapolated from individual cases and to require government to act to rectify gender inequity where it is found.
• Parents to be properly supported in caring for their children, including remuneration for care in the home by either parent
• Full exploration of flexible working and repositioning it as the norm
• A full audit of pay across occupational categories to be carried out, to properly scrutinise the meaning of ‘equal pay for work of equal value’ and make the relevant changes to ensure it is put into practice.

Just three months ago the Scottish Government produced a report on progress towards equality of opportunity for women and men made by public authorities in Scotland which discussed ministerial priorities for gender equality; they should be held to account to put this into practice when they produce their budget in the coming weeks, rather than simply paying lip service and reproducing the increased gender inequity the UK government have begun. We should have come further in 40 years. We must not move backwards. We cannot allow the constant cry of ‘we’re all in this together’ to be a smokescreen for further gender inequity. Let us not forget that the status quo is socially unjust and effectively illegal.