Equal pay returned to the news agenda in ugly fashion last week as French tennis player Gilles Simon said that female tennis stars don’t deserve their equal Wimbledon prize money.
According to Simon, men’s tennis is “more attractive” than the women’s game and equal pay means that some top-100 male players are unable to pay their coaches because they don’t receive enough money from tournaments. Simon also claimed controversially that all the 128 men in the draw agreed with him.
The swift rebuttal by the Women’s Tennis Association and top female players including Maria Sharapova and Serena Williams, while welcome, indicates a wider problem with the debate around equal pay: the ‘us vs. them’ mentality. In an age of austerity, it is imperative to counter this distorted view that equality somehow represents a cost to male workers. The Labour Party, as pioneers and long-term proponents of the equal pay cause, should push not just the moral reasons for having an equally remunerated workforce but must also advocate the strong economic case for equal pay.
More than four decades after Harold Wilson’s Labour Government introduced the Equal Pay Act, women still earn an average hourly wage of 10.5% less than their male counterparts. In a progressive society this simply isn’t good enough. Moreover, with the country back in recession this gender pay gap is too much of a financial burden on the UK economy. A study on gender equality, growth and employment in the EU has found that equity between the sexes in the workforce has the potential to boost GDP by 15 – 45% in member states. If women are paid fairly for the work they do their tax contributions will be higher, they will be less dependent on male partners for financial support, and they will be less reliant on state benefits. Consumer spending would receive a boost as well. The economic case for equal pay is undeniable.
So is the Tory-led Government implementing effective strategies to achieve the aim of equal pay? The answer is no. The Equality Act, introduced in Parliament by Harriet Harman in the dying days of the last Labour Government, contained a provision to require private sector employers with over 250 employees to publish information relating to the gender pay gap in their organisations. This part of the new law has not been enforced by the Coalition, which has preferred to trial a voluntary approach to gender pay reporting called ‘Think, Act, Report’ (TAR). This is despite the fact that some 46% of UK companies with more than 250 employees have said that reducing the gender pay gap within their businesses was of ‘fairly low priority’, ‘low priority’ or ‘not a priority at all’. Indeed, the TAR scheme, set up nearly a year ago and targeting 12,150 organisations, currently lists only 34 businesses as ‘supporters’ on its website. It would seem that the voluntary approach has failed.
So how can Labour expose these Government failings and keep up the pressure on companies to instigate equal pay? Central to this objective is the need to alert the public to the untapped economic potential of equal pay. This means we must frame our push for equality through the language of growth. When we discuss George Osborne’s failed austerity strategy we must remind voters that this Government’s laissez faire attitude to equal pay is contributing to the UK being in double-dip recession.
In addition we must continue to lobby the Government to make gender pay reporting compulsory in all businesses with over 250 employees. This requirement needn’t be seen as a ‘stick’ to bash big businesses with, rather, with rival companies required to release equivalent data, it is hoped that such gender pay transparency can act as an incentivising ‘carrot’ for businesses to implement equal pay across their organisations, to attract and keep the best female talent.
A ‘race to the top’ to achieve a gold star equality rating will serve to benefit the economy, the government and businesses in the long-term.
Anna Rawlings is a Young Fabians member