Elizabeth Pullen was a successful company director, managing an annual £20m turnover and a workforce of 300. She was earning £42,000 a year and happy in her job. But when her employer, Onyx Environmental Group, embarked on a series of redundancies, she discovered how comparatively unrewarding her job had been.
Ms Pullen learned that two other regional directors, both male, had been offered a year's severance pay while she had been offered only six months'. In addition, they had been paid up to £15,000 more a year than she had all along.
"It came as a real shock. I was the only woman working at that level but we were doing the same jobs," she said. "I was hugely disillusioned to find that the culture of secrecy had allowed me to receive less favourable treatment." Ms Pullen's case was a classic example of pay discrimination, and a tribunal awarded her £75,000 in compensation.
The case was acclaimed by the Equal Opportunities Commission as excellent evidence of the pay gap, but it is not unusual. Across Britain, women are being paid thousands of pounds less than men for doing the same or equivalent jobs. But because pay scales in most firms are secret, such discrepancies rarely come to light.
Tomorrow a report of the Women and Work Commission will expose the extent of the gap. The commission, set up by Tony Blair in the autumn of 2004 to look into sexism at work, finds that while girls outperform boys at school, their advantage swiftly disappears when they get a job. Not only is there still a glass ceiling, but young women are routinely steered into low-paid jobs, such as childcare.
The difference between men's and women's pay can cost a woman thousands of pounds over a lifetime, and it is in highly paid professions such as banking that the discrepancies are often most stark.
In the world of finance, for example, the pay gap between men and women can be as high as 41 per cent. In manufacturing, women earn on average 19 per cent less than men.
In her report, "Shaping a Fairer Future", Baroness Prosser, a former trade union leader, finds that women who work part-time earn 41 per cent less per hour than men. Women who work full-time earn 13 per cent less per hour on average.
The pay gap is less acute in the public sector, and government departments now publish pay scales. Women's groups and the trade unions lobbied the commission to recommend that private firms be forced to implement annual pay audits revealing how much women and men doing equivalent jobs earn. But businesses argued successfully against it. The commission is expected to recommend instead that only private firms bidding for public-sector business be forced to lay bare their pay rates for men and women.
Baroness Prosser's reportis expected to identify "occupational segregation" as a reason for the pay gap.Sectors of the economy regarded as "women's work" are paid less than male occupations which require similar levels of skill and qualifications.
While boys are encouraged into construction, engineering and plumbing, girls are urged to become hairdressers, nannies and beauticians. Women still dominate the lowest-paid sectors, including cleaning, catering, caring and clerical work, and even those women who work side by side with men may find they have less in their pay packets.
Stuart Lambert, 26, has worked in marketing and public relations for four years. He works in London, earning £35,000.
"My partner also works in public relations and she's at the same level as me - in fact she's been doing it for a year longer - but she earns £5,000 less," said Mr Lambert. "All the women that I know are paid less than their male colleagues."
Jane Howard, 29, has been working in marketing and promotions for the past five years since graduating. She works in central London, earning £30,000. Miss Howard said that her male friends all tend to earn more than her female ones.
"Men are definitely more competitive in regard to getting better deals," said Miss Howard. "They talk about money more, it's more of a macho thing, especially in the city."Reuse content