Equal pay for equal work - but only if you fight for it

Sex discrimination hasn't disappeared, but you have a right to claim equal pay, says Helen Monks

Women have had a legal right to equal pay since 1975, yet this week the Women and Work Commission revealed that women in full-time work are still earning 17 per cent less than men.

People often discover rather haphazardly that they are being paid less than someone of another gender, suggests the Equal Opportunities Commission (EOC). Perhaps it is through a lunchtime conversation or mistakenly opening someone else's pay packet, but, however the facts are revealed, it can leave individuals feeling demoralised and unsure of what to do next.

In the simplest terms, you have a right to claim equal pay in circumstances where you are doing the same or broadly similar work (known as "like work") to a member of the opposite sex (known as a "comparator") who is working for the same employer and is being paid more.

If you are being short-changed, the EOC suggests that you start building a case by finding out more about the work that you and your comparator are doing.

Try to get hold of job descriptions for the posts and then establish key facts such as job titles, the number of men and women doing this work, weekly hours, basic pay, and other benefits.

Other factors to consider include length of service, skills or qualifications, relevant work experience with the current or other employers, plus the responsibilities of your job and your comparator's job. You should also establish whether there are any differences between the two roles.

"Under the Equal Pay Act, you are entitled to write to your employer asking for information to help establish whether you have received equal pay and, if not, what the reasons are," says Caroline Slocock, the EOC's chief executive. "The equal pay questionnaire can be used to obtain information from your employer and can be downloaded from our website."

The information you gather can form the basis for negotiations with your employer, or to build your case with a view to an employment tribunal.

While you have a right to take your claim to a tribunal, this is the last resort for most people. You should try to resolve things internally first. It is in claimants' interests to show that they did everything possible to resolve the problem in the workplace, advises the EOC.

Begin by raising the issue with your immediate line manager, human resources department, trade union or staff association.

Consider getting expert guidance and support from organisations such as the EOC if the prospect of doing this makes you feel uncomfortable, or you are concerned that it may threaten your future employment.

A "statutory grievance procedure" applies to most claims of equal pay. It sets out the stages you and your employer should go through to try to resolve your grievance. If you are unable to resolve an unequal pay issue informally, write a letter of grievance to your employer. You must give your employer 28 days to respond. If the response is unsatisfactory, you can then submit your claim to a tribunal. Prior to the tribunal, your employer should set up a meeting to discuss your grievance.

The independent Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service (Acas) has a statutory duty to try to settle employment rights cases. It received 6,607 applications for equal pay claims in 2004/05. A conciliation officer will be allocated to you if you submit your claim to a tribunal. They will try to negotiate a settlement between you and your employer.

It is free to lodge a claim with an employment tribunal and should cost you very little if you do not use a lawyer.

You do not have to leave your job to make an equal pay claim and you can claim any time while you are working for your employer or up to six months after you leave.

If you win your tribunal you could receive compensation as well as the equal pay you deserve. You will also have the added satisfaction of persuading your company to improve their equal pay policy, which may help your fellow workers.

Judith Pryer from North Wales is a 56-year-old manager at an insolvency firm. She won a backdated equal pay claim at an employment tribunal in 2002.

Her salary was around £4,500 a year less than that of a male "comparator". "When I realised I was being paid less, I felt utterly undervalued - they just thought I was one of the girlies," she says. "You have to take your employer to task for your own self-respect."

Useful contacts: EOC (0845 601 5901; www.eoc.org.uk; or see www.payfinder.com/EO); Acas (0845 747 4747; www.acas.org.uk); Employment Tribunals Service (0845 795 9775, www.employmenttribunals.gov.uk); Citizens Advice Bureaus and Law Centres provide free employment advice ( www.adviceguide.org.uk; www.lawcentres.org.uk).

Elizabeth Pullen: 'There were times I wanted to thump people, but it's important to stay calm'

Elizabeth Pullen won an equal pay and sex discrimination claim against her former employer, a waste management company, last year.

Elizabeth, from London, had worked as a regional director, but was made redundant at the same time as two male counterparts.

The tribunal agreed that she had been discriminated against because her proposed severance package was smaller than her male colleagues' (she was offered six months' salary, while they were offered 12). The male directors were also earning up to £15,000 more than she did.

She says: "There were times I wanted to thump people, but if you lose the plot, you might lose everything. It's important to stay calm and plan your strategy carefully."

Elizabeth says that since winning her case many women have approached her for help and advice.

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