Shocking new figures have put equal pay back on the agenda.
A batch of recent statistics on the role of women in the labour market highlight the fact that widespread discrimination has not gone away - even though women now make up virtually 50 percent of the workforce in Britain. The figures on pay discrimination are particularly scandalous given that it is now more than 30 years since the Equal Pay Act came into force and - despite all the ballyhoo about 'Blair's babes' - there has been hardly any shift in the gender pay gap since New Labour came to power.
The most recent figures available show that average hourly earnings, excluding overtime, for full time women workers are £10.56, compared to £12.88 for men - which gives an average for the gender pay gap of 18 percent in 2003. Comparing average weekly earnings, the gap is wider - at 24.6 percent - partly because men are more likely to receive extra payments such as overtime, shift pay and bonus payments. The Equal Opportunities Commission estimates that, over a lifetime, women's gross individual income is on average 51 percent less than men's.
Figures like these are quite shocking, and not only for what they say about the huge discrepancy between the rhetoric we get from New Labour and most of big business about equal rights, and the reality for ordinary women - an increasing number of whom have no other option than to go out to work while bringing up children. Figures published by the Office for National Statistics in January of this year show that more than half - 53 percent - of working age women with children under the age of five now also have a job. The number in work rises to 73 percent for mums whose youngest child is aged between five and ten and to 80 percent for those with a youngest child aged 11 to 15.
Economic pressures have transformed the role of women in the labour market of the past couple of decades, but this has not been reflected in pay equality. There are now almost twice as many women employed in the British workforce as there were in the 1960s - the last time equal pay and equal rights became a major issue. But, whereas the women's liberation movement which emerged during the 1960s identified closely with the plight of ordinary working women, today that focus has been generally abandoned.
This might be less of an immediate concern for the tiny minority who have managed to break through the 'glass ceiling' into the corporate hierarchy or who have managed to find a comfy niche in the academic world or some part of the media (although discrimination is rife in all of these sectors as well). But for the vast majority of working women, the levels of exploitation are every bit as acute as they were in the 1960s. And it is worth remembering that what brought about the real breakthrough on equal pay at that time was collective action over the way they had been graded, involving a relatively small and heroic group of women sewing machinists employed at Ford Dagenham.
In June 1968 the women at Dagenham came out on strike after they had been put in a lower pay grade than men doing exactly the same job (making car seat covers). The strike was immediately made official by both main unions involved - the AUEW (now Amicus) and the TGWU - and spread rapidly to the other main Ford plant, at Halewood in Liverpool. The 850 women involved in this marvellous strike - the first against sex discrimination - stayed out for three weeks in a struggle that not only brought Ford's entire British operation to a standstill, but also inspired millions of working women and had a major impact on the women's movement.
Eventually the dispute became such a cause célèbre that a delegation of strikers headed by their leading shop steward, Rose Boland, was invited to tea in Whitehall with the then employment secretary, Barbara Castle. The women did not immediately win parity but the principle of equal pay was conceded and the following year the Equal Pay Bill (forerunner of the Equal Pay Act) was introduced. Though this dispute is nowadays largely ignored by most middle class feminists, it was not forgotten by the BBC's Sue McGregor, who last year broadcast an extended interview with a group of the women involved in the strike - an inspirational piece of radio which you can still hear on the internet.
Despite the fact that women are now firmly established as a permanent presence in the labour market, three key factors ensure that women continue to come out worse on pay. The first is that occupational segregation ensures that the type of jobs women tend to get into remains relatively restricted. And, linked to this, most of the occupations that the majority of women go into are relatively low paid.
So, the top ten occupations for men include relatively high-paying jobs such as marketing and sales managers, production works and maintenance managers, retail and wholesale managers, software professionals, carpenters and joiners, electricians and fitters. For women, the top ten occupations (accounting for 35 percent of the female workforce) are mostly in relatively low-paying jobs - sales and retail assistants, care assistants and home carers, nurses, primary school teachers, kitchen and catering assistants, fast food delivery staff and call centre operators.
Even within these occupations, women tend to be on the lowest grades and do not generally go up the ladder into managerial grades, let alone into the boardroom. For example, women with full time jobs on average earn less than full time men, even in occupations dominated by women like nursing and teaching. And, of the 257 separate occupations listed in the New Earnings Survey for which there is data available on male and female earnings, full time women earn less than full time men in 236 of them.
Since 1 December 2003 a new Equal Opportunities Code of Practice on Equal Pay came into force, which - though not compulsory - makes it advisable for companies to carry out equal pay audits. Already this push has caused the entire pay structure at the Health and Safety Executive to be reviewed. And at the Longannet power station in Scotland women workers have just won a landmark tribunal case which has led to an immediate increase of £1 an hour for all the women involved, and an undisclosed sum in compensation.
The GMB official involved in this case sees it as setting an important precedent and has promised that where employers flout the new code, they will face a fight over equal pay.