For an act that came into force in 1970, The Equal Pay Act, which was designed to ensure equal pay for all, is bottom of the class in terms of progress. A recent survey suggests that far from reducing the pay gap, it has actually grown despite more woman obtaining positions of authority.
The Conservative Party has recently unveiled plans to give employment tribunals the power to force businesses found guilty of pay discrimination to undergo obligatory pay audits to ensure all employees are treated equally.
While this may appear a sensible and attractive proposition at first glance, will the stick approach mean that women will really start to see the gender pay gap closing or will employers continue to ignore the issue because it suits them not to rock the boat?
The measure may force some less progressive employers to clean up their act in a reactive way, but in reality it is unlikely to result in a rush by all to ensure pay is based on objective criteria and there is transparency in setting salaries.
The gender equality duty, which requires pay inequalities to be addressed and which has been implemented in the public sector, is one of the first steps towards placing an obligation on employers to proactively reconsider ‘the battle of the sexes’ within their workplace. However, what remains to be seen is whether the duty actually has any teeth.
Organisations that have a real appetite for tackling the issue, rather than simply cutting and pasting together an action plan borrowed from another employer, will be key and at the fore of pioneering a new approach.
Unless an employer is clear about the workforce it wishes to attract and how they should be treated, the current situation will not change. Ultimately, business needs to understand the importance of a successful and happy workforce to its bottom line.
Essentially, if an employer is going to decide to stamp out any pay disparities, there must be buy-in at a senior level and responsibility at board level, which is maybe even linked to their own salary progression.
So while audits and the equality duty may make some progress, responsibility rests with businesses themselves to realise why it is important for them to have equal pay high up on their agenda. It is as if the 1970s never happened.
Rachael Heenan is an employment partner at Beachcroft