Last week whilst a vote was taking place inside the Parliament for pay equality, Gemma Arterton and the cast of the West End musical Made in Dagenham stood outside with banners held high in support of this bill. No this wasn’t method acting, this was real. They stood alongside the women they portray on stage every evening to continue their campaign that began 44 years ago. This story of gender pay inequality is now so old that we’ve made a successful feature film with some of Britain’s best loved actors and now a West End musical about it. That day Gemma went from the protest to the stage to perform in a historical musical as its lead character Rita O’Grady to portray the same narrative that is still at play today. The irony here, is not lost on me.
On the 16th December, parliament voted on a bill to require greater pay transparency within large companies. This is asking the government to actively enforce measures in the 2010 Equality Act which were not implemented by the coalition government. They will make companies with more than 250 staff publish the difference between male and female pay. The bill has cleared its first hurdle by 258 votes to eight. 7 male Tory MPs voted against and one abstained. However for now this victory is only symbolic, there are more steps before this is pushed through.
This is an extremely important piece of legislation. As equal pay campaigner Jane Bruton said on Sky News, if we continue to progress at the same rate it will be about 100 years since Rita O’Grady and the brave women of Ford campaigned for gender equal pay. MP Sarah Champion, who put forward this bill, said: “I’m ashamed to say that 46 years from that historic strike and 44 years since the [Sex Discrimination and Equal Pay] Act was passed equal pay is still no more than a promise.” Another 52 years for us to level the playing field with our male counter-parts.
The reason this bill hadn’t been pushed through with the 2010 Equality act is because we’ve had Think, Act, Report in its place. Concocted by the coalition government it’s been a complete wash out, its principle is that large companies are asked to voluntarily publish their pay. Over the last 4 years only 250 have taken part and only a measly 5 have reported their findings. The times I’ve found out about men being paid more than me have been hushed conversations with female colleagues over a cup of tea or private conversations with managers who’ve encouraged me to ask for more, as that’s what the men were getting.
In previous years figures had suggested that with the gender pay gap is widening. In the last year women effectively stopped being paid on 4th November, (accounting for how much less we get paid on average than men), this is 3 days earlier than it’s been in recent years. That’s 81p to every £1. However the average full-time gender pay gap is now at its lowest since comparative records began, according to the latest figures from the Office for National Statistics (ONS). In light of these statistics in recent years and the slow progress of those before it is time now to actively support this bill. How do we still have a gender pay gap in 2014? When the bill is taken to its next stages, I will be standing outside Westminster like the Dagenham women and hopefully with lots more people beside us.
The main, and exceptionally frustrating, problem we currently have is proving and explaining the injustice to those who are new to the idea. If you’ve been born in the last few decades your fully aware of the minimum wages that protect our lowest paid and we have enough token ‘women at the top’ to give anecdotal arguments that women now have the same choices men do. The story that 50% of our population is not being paid the same as the other half should be front page news. But it isn’t. There should have been thousands of people standing outside Westminster with the Made in Dagenham girls.
As a British feminist, I’m often criticised for seeing inequality where others don’t. The gender pay gap ‘myth’ is a rhetoric I find tiresome, frustrating and dangerous. We need the Equality Act to challenge large companies, we need the transparency to publish its results and give more fuel to the statistics and research we already have. To talk about directly comparable roles in real terms alongside the national average statistics we already have. This needs to be on the front page, this needs to be public knowledge and half of our community deserves the same financial chances as the other half. Social politics like this breeds underlying prejudice, we often have to fight long held opinions. Phrases like; ‘women are just better secretaries’, ‘they’re not as technical’ and ‘most women just don’t want to be politicians’, I have no patience for. We are not all the same, we are as diverse as men and as capable.
‘What have you got to complain about?’ they say, women have it much worse in other countries. Yes this in irrefutably true, no one is attempting to deny this. But the fact is this; if me and a male friend go to a shop, buy the exact same product and he is given £1 change and I get 81p. I’m going to ask for the rest of my change. And to be quite honest, I don’t have 100 years to wait.