New plans to bridge the pay gap between men and women have highlighted persistent discrepancies in their salaries, despite the fact that three decades have passed since the Equal Pay Act was passed.
Employment minister Tessa Jowell last month announced a new scheme designed to persuade companies to carry out voluntary reviews of their pay structures in order to ensure staff are being treated equally.
She said the government recognised the need to move towards an improvement of present legislation on equal opportunities, specifically on equalising the pay divide between men and women.
Current figures show women still earn 20% less than their male counterparts despite 30 years of legislative pay reform.
The Equal Opportunities Commission has pressed the government to bring in a change in the law making pay auditing mandatory for businesses. It hopes this will eradicate inequalities.
Trade unions and campaign groups have also called for legislation to compel firms to review their pay structures as companies have not undertaken pay reviews voluntarily in the past. But lobbying by the Confederation of British Industry has successfully has persuaded the government to make this voluntary rather than compulsory.
Ministers rejected the idea of enforced auditing because of the risk of antagonising business and instigating a backlash over excess regulation.
Speaking at an Industrial Society seminar, Jowell announced the creation of fair pay ‘champions’, designed to promote pay equality, making it unacceptable to give women workers a poorer deal.
An annual awards scheme for employers who conduct and act on pay reviews voluntarily was also unveiled.
The awards ‘will recognise employers’ excellence and good practice in promoting equality of opportunity and addressing the pay issue’, said the employment minister.
The CBI reacted positively stating that it is pleased with the government’s decision which it described as a workable solution.
John Cridland, CBI director general, said: ‘This is a good set of proposals for tackling the gender pay gap which should be both workable for business and effective for women in the workplace.’
John Seear, head of careers at the ICAEW, also described the government’s voluntary review system as an excellent initiative.
He is quietly confident that female members of the institute already gain the same equal pay and recognition as male members, and said that any good progressive companies would have similar equal opportunities policies to promote fairness in pay.
But while the EOC and trade unionists have welcomed the government’s recognition of the pay gap, they are still questioning the lack of any real legislative reform.
A compulsory system, they say, would expose bad employers who continue to flout present pay laws using the voluntary system as a means of escaping equal pay evaluation.
They said it is likely that only conscientious bosses, probably already paying fairer rates, will want to carry out reviews unprompted.
The Equal Opportunities Commission’s website can be viewed at www.eoc.org.uk and the CBI at www.cbi.org.uk