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Third of employees don't know pay discrimination is illegal

One in three men (35%) and women (33%) in work do not know that it is illegal to pay women and men differently for equal work

Nearly 50 years since the Equal Pay Act, a culture of pay secrecy persists in UK workplaces charity the Fawcett Society has warned. Its research revealed that 61% of workers said they would be uncomfortable asking a colleague how much they earn. Half (52%) said their managers would respond negatively to more openness, indicating they think it is difficult to challenge the issue.

Three in 10 (31%) workers believe their contracts ban people from talking to each other about pay, despite this being legally unenforceable. More men (38%) than women (26%) think that a person does not have a legal right to ask their colleagues how much they are paid, even if that individual thinks they might be experiencing pay discrimination because of their gender.

In response, the Fawcett Society has teamed up with employment law charity YESS Law to launch a new Equal Pay Advice Service, bankrolled by an Equal Pay Fund that came from a donation of backdated pay from former BBC china editor Carrie Gracie. The service will be targeted at those on low incomes who believe they are experiencing pay discrimination and who do not have access to legal advice.

Speaking to HR magazine, principal solicitor and joint CEO of YESS Law Karen Teago said that Gracie recognised she had been fortunate in the support she received, and that other women needed similar help. “In her own words, Gracie said she had benefited from legal support and plenty of people willing her on,” she said.

“However, the Fawcett Society spoke to a woman called Kay who works for a restaurant and discovered that her male colleague was on £21,000 while she was earning just £16,000. And women like Kay might not always know where to turn for advice, and they don’t even necessarily know that anything is wrong.”

Teago added that its not uncommon for law firms to pressure clients into taking formal action against employers over unequal pay, whereas she hopes this new service will encourage open discussion between employees and HR.

“There are other services out there, but I suppose where this differs is that we will advise them on their rights and talk to them about what equal pay is and what it does. We will advise them and support them. We want women to keep their jobs, resolve things collaboratively, and keep moving forward to rebuild a relationship with their employers.

“We won’t, and don’t, pressgang clients into formal action or raising grievances; a lot of those things do more harm than good. Our approach is designed to make our clients feel comfortable and own their own process. YESS Law is a charity and we centre around avoiding litigation and resolving disputes.”

The BBC acted well by rectifying the problem quickly, admitting its failings and apologising, Teago added.

“If there is a message for HR in all of this it’s let’s open up that conversation, let’s talk about it. If our organisation has got it wrong there’s a lot to be said for acknowledging they’ve got it wrong and moving forward with that. And all credit to the BBC; because not only has it agreed to rectify the back pay issue – all of which Gracie has donated to this fund – it has also said sorry to her, and sorry is an immensely powerful word.”

Gracie has donated all of her £361,000 of back pay to the Fawcett Society to fund the collaboration with YESS Law.

Data in the Fawcett Society's report draws on a nationally-representative online panel survey of 1,209 individuals who are in work.