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Editorial: The battle for equal pay begins on the shopfloor

For most women, the pay packet matters more than who’s in the boardroom

It is sadly apposite that yesterday's landmark Supreme Court ruling on equal pay should coincide with a setback to Brussels' efforts to address the gender balance in Europe's boardrooms. Despite decades of effort to ensure that women and men are treated the same way in the workplace, progress remains unsatisfactorily sporadic and slow.

In Britain, at least, the latest news is good. The highest court has now ruled that 174 female former workers for Birmingham City Council can claim compensation for not being awarded the same bonuses as their male counterparts, disregarding the council's argument that the women were ineligible to appeal because they had waited more than six months to make the claim.

In a victory for fairness and common sense, the court is allowing the case to go ahead in the civil courts, which allows the women six years to act, rather than through a time-limited employment tribunal. And with the precedent now set, thousands of women across the country can now file for compensation.

In Europe, however, lawyers have ruled that the EU's Justice Commissioner does not have the legal power to require listed companies to reserve 40 per cent of board seats for women. Opponents of the plan warned of tokenism and discrimination against men. But evidence suggests that such measures (put in place in Norway in 2003, for example) swiftly redress the gender balance with few of the distortions critics predict.

In fact, many male directors subsequently admit that their female peers improve the quality of discussion, and research shows companies with female senior managers routinely outperforming their all-male rivals. Perhaps the strongest argument of all is that, at the current rate of progress, it will be another 70 years before there are equal numbers of women and men in Britain's boardrooms.

As Birmingham Council so clearly illustrates, gender discrimination is not confined to the upper echelons of business. In the UK, legislation to enforce equal pay was introduced in 1970, yet deep-seated discriminatory attitudes remain. Birmingham argued – with little obvious basis – that bonuses were appropriate for binmen and grave-diggers (mainly men) but not for cleaners, cooks, caterers and care staff (almost exclusively women).

Nor are such contortions unusual. Forty years after the Equal Pay Act, women are still paid significantly less than men in nearly every occupation. Indeed, Britain has one of the worst gender pay gaps in Europe, with women earning, on average, 17 per cent less than men. And although the chasm has been closing among junior executives, progress among senior managers and company directors is glacial. At the present rate, it could be another century before the gender gap properly closes.

Although it is women (or the lack of them) on company boards that tend to grab the headlines, for the vast majority of the working population the question of gender balance is a matter of the monthly pay packet rather than the boardroom table. But management quotas may still be the best route to change. A higher proportion of female executives not only increases the number of women in positions of power but, it can only be hoped, it might also address some of the implicit discrimination that leads to unequal pay.

Although European legal restrictions prevent quotas being mandated throughout the union, they could still be introduced by individual nations. Thus far, the British Government has argued hard against such interventions. If progress continues so slowly, however, there might be no other option.