Equal Pay Act at 50: Female lawyers reflect on lack of progress and fears for future

Equal Pay Act at 50: Female lawyers reflect on lack of progress and fears for future

Lady Hale

Today marks the 50th anniversary of the Equal Pay Act being enacted in England and Wales. 

The Next 100 Years, the latest project from the team behind the First 100 Years, which is dedicated to achieving equality for women in law, is warning that the slow pace of progress is likely to further stall in the wake of COVID-19. 

The project has spoken to leading female lawyers about the impact of the Equal Pay Act, the gender pay gap and their fears for the future.

Dana Denis-Smith, founder of The Next 100 Years, said: “When the Chancellor Rishi Sunak announced his economic emergency rescue package on 24 March, he also announced that compulsory gender pay reporting would be suspended for the current year. It was a move that hardly made any waves at the time, as the UK was placed under lockdown, yet we were only a matter of days from the filing deadline of 5 April, so most companies should have been ready to file. Those that did file, showed an increase gap of pay and bonuses. The situation is clearly getting worse, not better. 

“By taking this seemingly small step to alleviate the pressure on businesses, the Chancellor has unwittingly given them the green light to put the gender pay gap to the bottom of the pile.”

Baroness Helena Kennedy QC commented: “Although it is now 50 years since the passing of the Equal Pay Act, one of my great disappointments is that we have not achieved parity in so many sectors. The Covid-19 crisis, and the economic recession which is forecast, could set back the gains we have made, so we must use this anniversary to insist that we “End the Pay Gap”. The crisis has shone a light on the low pay of women in caring jobs. The world of work may change. The change MUST be for the better.” 

Cherie Blair QC added: “When the Equal Pay Act 1970 received Royal Assent it was at the end of a period of social and employment law reforms implemented by Harold Wilson’s Labour Government. Championed by Barbara Castle and inspired by the strike of the female workers at Ford’s Dagenham factory, it was one of the first laws specifically targeting the then reality of the second-class status of women workers.

“I started my own career as a human rights barrister in 1976, one year after the law came into force, and I fondly imagined that it would not be long before equal pay was a reality. Sadly, I was too optimistic. In the UK today the gender pay gap is 17.3 per cent. So yes, we have seen progress but we still have some way to go.”

Millicent Grant QC, the first chartered legal executive to become an honorary QC, said: “The aspiration for equal pay has been with us for a long time. Sadly, for many it is still just that, an aspiration.

“With research showing that women are taking on more caring responsibilities than men during the Covid-19 crisis, equality is taking another big hit at a time when the focus should be on redressing the balance. Businesses must not use the challenges of the pandemic as an excuse for not addressing the gender pay gap. Instead they should take pride in leading on the issue, rather than hiding away; leading not just with words but with policies and systemic changes that result in the equality we aspire to achieve. Their business will benefit from it in the long run.”

Lady Hale commented: “I’ll never forget the day when a bright woman student of mine at Manchester University told me that she had been offered a job with an insurance company (she didn’t want to go into legal practice) but that the pay would be two thirds of what a man would get for doing exactly the same job. The Equal Pay Act 1970 made that impossible. Whatever the good that it did not do, we should always remember the good that it did do.”

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