Paying men more than women for undertaking the same work has been illegal for nearly half a century, under the Equal Pay Act 1970.
The Act is a hard-won piece of legislation that became law thanks to the tireless campaigning of women trade unionists, like the sewing machinists at the Ford plant in Dagenham, who never gave up.
But fifty years on, unequal pay is still a reality for far too many women, albeit one that modern-day employers have tried their best to keep hidden.
Like the women fighting for equal pay decades ago who wouldn’t take no for an answer, women today must continue to fight for their right to be paid the same as their male colleagues.
Unite member and former RBS worker Lucy Williams is one such woman who battled the odds in her fight for equal pay – and won.
‘You realise something is wrong’
Supported by Unite’s legal team, Lucy took on one of the biggest banks in the UK after it was discovered she was being paid a shocking £31,610 less each year than her male counterpart for doing the exact same job with equivalent experience.
“I didn’t know the full extent of the pay disparity at first,” she told UniteLive, recounting how she first came to know that something was not quite right with her pay.
“It just started with conversations with colleagues. You realise something is wrong when you learn that your male colleague is the sole breadwinner in his family, supporting his stay-at-home wife and three children. On my salary at the time, I would never have been able to do that. I noticed too that he had been given a greater holiday allowance. It became increasingly apparent that we were on vastly different pay and benefits packages.”
Lucy, who worked as a support analyst in NatWest Markets technology division, raised the issue with management repeatedly. But every time her concerns were dismissed.
“Management tried to twist it into an issue that it was not – they would fob me off with the possibility of merit increases ‘next year’. But that was never the point. It wasn’t about merit increases. It was about being paid the same as my colleague who was doing the exact same work as I was. It is incredibly demoralising to come into work day-in and day-out knowing you’re being paid so much less and the bank’s refusal to address it.”
The distress of being paid substantially less than her colleague was compounded by a vicious male-centric workplace culture she believes dominates RBS.
“My experience of working in NatWest Markets is that if you want to succeed as a woman, you have to either give up or cover up the traditional responsibilities of a woman. You’re not taken seriously if you’re not ruthless or if you have childcare responsibilities and need to maintain a good work life balance.”
“Despite RBS on the surface having good flexible working policies, I was ostracized and discriminated against when I attempted to make my flexible working request in line with their policies. Women aren’t supported – even by other women who collude in this unhealthy culture of discrimination.”
Blowing the whistle
As Lucy continued working for RBS over the years between 2010 and 2017, the gaping pay disparity between her and her male colleague continued to widen – he received a £3,000 pay rise in 2016 and a further pay rise of £2,000 and bonus of £2,000 in 2017. For both 2016 and 2017 Lucy received a pay rise of just £300, which was the minimum negotiated by Unite for those years.
After raising an official grievance in June two years ago, she was made redundant five months later.
“When you work for an organisation like RBS which has been cutting staff numbers for years, you observe the unhealthy alliances and behaviours which lead to discrimination when you blow the whistle on something like pay,” she explained. “But it wasn’t an issue I was going to let go.”
Eventually, with support from Unite’s legal team, RBS agreed to settle Lucy’s equal pay claim with a £150,000 pay-out – on the condition that she would agree to a gagging clause. This would effectively silence her from speaking out about one of the most shocking cases of unequal pay made public in recent years. Such gagging clauses are common in industries like finance and have worked to obscure the true extent of unequal pay.
But Lucy stood her ground.
“There was no way I was going to agree to a gagging clause,” she said. “It didn’t sit well with my morals. There are far too many women who are forced to back down. I was told I was mad for refusing. But I would rather have gone to tribunal than be silenced.”
Thanks to Lucy’s perseverance, her employers were the ones who, in the end, backed down – three days before the employment tribunal was due to sit in March this year, RBS dropped the confidentiality clause.
Unite assistant general secretary for legal services Howard Beckett hailed Lucy’s brave stand and the wide-ranging implications it could have for other women fighting unequal pay.
“The determination of Miss Williams to pursue this case with the support of Unite and her refusal to be gagged by RBS has lifted the lid on pay disparity at the bank and could lead to further equal pay claims,” he said.
“We now know that the number of women who received a bonus in 2015 was 20 per cent compared to 39 per cent of men and that a year later the gap widened further still. Just 13 per cent of women got a bonus in 2016 compared to 46 per cent of men,” Beckett noted. “Unite will be reviewing the implications of this case and won’t hesitate to support further equal pay claims.”
For Lucy, the stand she took in her fight against RBS was an exhausting one – “It dominated 18 months of my life,” she explained.
But it’s one that she encourages other women to take if we are to end unequal pay once and for all.
“I advise anyone to join a union. Unite has a proud tradition of standing up for those who are treated unfairly and fighting for what is right – things would not have ended as they did for me had I not been supported by Unite. There’s strength in numbers,” she said. “I also urge women to have courage, and ask if they are being paid correctly and in line with the Equal Pay Act. If not, raise a grievance. Don’t let them fob you off. Take it as far as you can.”
Find out more about how Unite can support you in an equal pay claim or another workplace legal issue here.