· Features

Made in Dagenham: 40 years on from Equal Pay Act there is still much to be done to remove the gender gap

Made in Dagenham, the latest British film to hit cinemas, takes us back to 1968 and tells the story of 187 female Ford employees who went on strike to secure pay that equalled that of their male colleagues. At the time they were considered pioneers but over 40 years later and with a gender pay gap continuing to exist, were the efforts of these women in vain?

The pay dispute arose because of Ford’s decision that the women, who were machinists producing car seat covers, were unskilled. The women disagreed and contended that they should be paid the same as their male skilled colleagues. Their pay, at that time, was 87% of that of their unskilled male colleagues and 80% of their semi-skilled male colleagues. When Ford dug in its heels, the women switched off their sewing machines and walked out.

The film reminds us that during that era there was a broad perception that the man of the household was the breadwinner while the woman’s primary role was to keep the house and look after the children. Almost by definition any work undertaken by the woman was considered less important than that of her husband and the money she earned was pin money. There was certainly no requirement for equal pay. 

These women were adamant, however, that they should not be paid less than their male colleagues and continued to strike for three weeks. The production line ground to a halt and the plant was forced to close temporarily.  

Barbara Castle, then secretary of state for employment and productivity, became involved in the negotiations between the women and Ford. A deal was brokered that resulted in the women getting an immediate pay rise to 92% of the wage earned by semi-skilled male colleagues. However, it was the Government’s commitment to the women that legislation would be passed requiring equal pay that was the real victory.

The Equal Pay Act 1970 came into force on 29 December 1975. Since then it has provided that women should receive the same rate of pay as male colleagues who undertake work of equal value or work that is considered to be equivalent.

Nevertheless, there continues to be a difference between the average earnings of men and women.  A report launched today by the Equality and Human Rights Commission states that although the gender pay gap has reduced, women today still earn 16% less than men. Worryingly, it is also reported that there are signs that progress is slowing.

This is evident in the annual statistics produced by the Employment Tribunal service. From 1 April 2009 to 31 March 2010 37,400 equal pay claims were brought. Although significantly less than the 62,700 claims brought in 2007/2008, it still represents more than the total number of claims brought for sex, race and disability discrimination. The bulk of these have originated in the public sector but the requirement for equal pay also applies to private-sector organisations.

And it isn’t just women who can bring equal pay claims. Given that the aim of the legislation was to ensure equal pay for work of equal value, a man who considers he earns less than a female colleague has the ability to pursue an equal pay claim. Further, men are also able to ‘piggy-back’ on successful claims brought by their female colleagues. 

With effect from 1 October 2010, the Equal Pay Act 1970 has been repealed and most of its provisions are now found in the Equality Act 2010. There is a move to create greater pay transparency. For example, pay secrecy clauses are now unenforceable so employees are able to discuss their remuneration to establish whether any differences in pay exist. 

Recognising this push for transparency, the Equality and Human Rights Commission and the British Chambers of Commerce have published guidance to assist small employers to conduct pay reviews.

In addition, while the Government appears to resist making equal pay audits and the publication of gender pay data mandatory, it is considering making these compulsory for employers who lose gender discrimination claims in the employment tribunal.

The women who were employed at the Ford plant in Dagenham could not have known just how significant their decision to strike would be. The reality is, however, there is still a great deal of work to be done to remove the gender pay gap completely.

Fiona Morrison, associate, Dundas and Wilson