Head chef Kay Collins didn’t have to go digging to find out she was being paid £6,000 less than her male colleague. He volunteered the information during a casual chat, unaware of the inequality he was about to reveal. Collins, 59, from Weston-super-Mare – who had more qualifications, more experience, a more senior title, and had been working in the industry a decade longer – was so distressed she left work and went home for the day.
Once the initial shock had subsided, and her comparator’s higher £22,000 salary was confirmed by their manager, Collins gave her employer a chance to resolve the issue internally. But they didn’t and instead she began an official grievance procedure which was to last nearly three years and would see her lose her job in the process.
Unequal pay between men and women doing the same or broadly similar work has been illegal in the UK for 50 years since the passing of the Equal Pay Act (1970). But it still happens. In June 2018 the BBC’s former China editor Carrie Gracie won her unequal pay claim after it emerged she was being paid around £100,000 less than a male comparator. BBC presenter Samira Ahmed also won her equal pay dispute in January 2020.
And it’s not just high-profile cases: a survey in November 2018 by Young Women’s Trust (YWT) found unequal pay is widespread with 20 per cent of women reporting being paid less than male colleagues for the same or similar work. To mark this continued disparity, Unequal Pay Day (20 November 2020) highlights the point in the year women effectively start working for free.
In June 2018 the Bristol employment tribunal found Collins’ employer, the UK’s biggest catering company Compass Group, had been in breach of equal pay law and she won her claim. Although the terms of the settlement cannot be disclosed, Collins says the amount she received in compensation did not cover her legal fees.
Today Collins no longer has a stable income, and has to wait till 2026 before she can claim her state pension. “During the tribunal I lost two stone in weight,” Collins tells The Independent. ”My health and my husband’s health suffered, my GP wanted to prescribe me antidepressants but I refused. He also told me I had mild symptoms of PTSD, I was so nervous and worried. I found it very difficult to believe a company so large could still get away with this.”
Although some women, like Collins, feel confident challenging their employer more than 50 per cent of those surveyed by YWT said they would not do so. Collins acknowledges this problem: “There must be hundreds of women in my position who don’t take on their employers for many reasons – the cost, fear of being dismissed, health impact or financial repercussions.”
Jenny*, 28, who works in marketing didn’t tell anyone when she found out her junior male colleague, who had just joined the company, and she was helping train, was earning £3,000 more than her. This was because she was worried about coming across as “difficult” or compromising her role and future prospects at the small company.
“I found out during an office move – my manager shared a desk with me and asked me to help tidy up but left some confidential papers lying around, including an offer letter (with salary) for the other guy. I felt undervalued, angry and quite upset that the effort I put into working hard seemed pointless. It didn’t make me want to try my best at work any more.”
Jenny stayed at the company, and didn’t mention her discovery to anyone but said it left a “bitter taste” in her mouth and now, three years later, she wishes she had felt empowered to say or do something to address the situation.
Other women have taken action but still had unsatisfactory outcomes. Sarah*, 35, from southeast England, has worked in consultancy for five years and recently found out she is being paid £10,000 less than a male colleague who recently joined her team. The discrepancy came to light during a conversation about pay rises with a colleague who was leaving the business. He told Sarah the salaries of her teammates and encouraged her to investigate further.
Sarah went to her manager with the evidence but was told it was her fault for not negotiating her package when she joined the company. “They also told me that there are other women in the wider team who are paid more than me doing a similar (but not identical) role, so I didn’t have a right to complain about the gender pay gap,” she says.
“It made me feel furious, undervalued and demotivated,” says Sarah. “It would make a significant difference to my quality of life had I been paid the amount they were.” Sarah has now escalated her complaint to a more senior manager and hopes they will take her seriously but confesses if they dismiss it she wouldn’t take it further as she worries about taking on a corporation of that scale.
Emma*, 30, from Scotland, who works in the media, also had a dismissive response from her boss after finding out her peer was earning £10,000 more than she was. “I confronted my male editor and nervously brought up the pay gap but he just gave me a ‘so what’ response and told me I’d probably not negotiated at the start of my contract, which was true,” she says. “But I was 26 and grateful to be there, and didn’t think to ask for more.”
Unlike Sarah and Jenny, Emma – like many women – found she was unable to stay in her job after that conversation and left to go freelance. She isn’t the only one who saw the only solution to the problem to be handing in their notice.
Amy*, 34, who works in project management quit her job when she found out that, despite being the most experienced and working on the highest-profile clients, she was being underpaid compared with her male colleague. “I gave my boss an ultimatum and firmly suggested my salary was raised or my workload was reduced. It backfired on me as they reduced my projects, I became bored and left not long after. It seemed a shame to be penalised for that.”
Even women who are able to have legal assistance don’t always find it easy to resolve the issue at hand. Angela*, who is in her thirties, has worked in banking services in London for more than five years, says she was “bullied” by her manager when she confronted them about a male colleague earning 1.5 times her salary despite being in the same role.
“My manager used a bullying tactic to dissuade me from escalating the matter. I have since sought legal advice, which I feel very lucky to be in a financial position to do. I feel really sad for all the women out there who aren’t in a position to be able to take action. There are other women I’ve spoken to who worry about having their reputation ruined.”
At the current rate of decline the World Economic Forum estimates it will take 202 years to close the global pay gap (and even longer for women of colour). The UK government has now made it a legal requirement for all companies with more than 250 employees to publicly disclose their gender pay statistics but critics, including the Bank of England say it doesn’t go far enough and small businesses should be included too. And in 2020 businesses have been made exempt from reporting because of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.
At the end of her successful tribunal Carrie Gracie donated all of her backdated pay to the Fawcett Society to set up a fund for women who need legal advice on equal pay claims.
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