The gender pay gap narrowed slightly for the third consecutive year, but the Government and campaigners for equal pay said it is not shrinking fast enough.
Figures from the Office for National Statistics, out yesterday, showed that women's median hourly pay was 85.7 per cent of men's in April 2004, setting another record low gap, lower than 85.4 per cent the previous year. The median hourly rate for men went up 4.9 per cent to £11.04, while that for women rose 5.3 per cent to £9.46.
Patricia Hewitt, the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, said: "I am pleased that the gender pay gap continues to narrow. But the pay gap persists despite all our efforts to improve the deal women get at work."
Ms Hewitt said that getting rid of career sexism and making it easier for women to get into well-paid jobs were vital to closing the chronic pay gap. She has asked the Women and Work Commission, which started work in September and will report next autumn, to examine the reasons behind the pay gap and how to close it more quickly.
Jenny Watson, the deputy chair of the Equal Opportunities Commission, said: "Any reduction in the pay gap is to be welcomed, but the rate of change is simply not fast enough. The gap has narrowed by just 2 per cent in the last 10 years."
She said the Commission's research shows that more than half of all employers still have no plans to carry out a pay review, and if this persists then further legislation would be the only way to guarantee a fair deal for women at work.
The annual earnings survey from the ONS also showed that median weekly pay for full-time employees grew 4.7 per cent in April to reach £422, with men earning £462 on average and women £358. Weekly earnings in London were £541, far outstripping other regions. There were 272,000 jobs that paid less than the national minimum wage held by people aged 18 or over, up from 250,000 last year, and representing 1.1 per cent of the total number of UK jobs.