England

Battle of the sexes: 'Radical' laws reach 40th birthday

Battle of the sexes Image copyright Thinkstock
Image caption The sex discrimination and equal pay acts were enforced in the UK on 29 December 1975

When the equal pay and sex discrimination acts were implemented in the UK, both were hailed as radical new legislation that would alter women's pay and workplace status. Forty years later, BBC News looks at what it was like to be a working woman in 1975 and how things have changed.

"For thousands of years man has regarded woman as a thing apart. A remote, mysterious, contrary, unpredictable goddess and bitch.

"However man has regarded woman until now, it has rarely been as equal."

Such were the words spoken on the 29 December 1975 by the BBC's Ludovic Kennedy, on the day the equal pay and sex discrimination acts came into force.

Media playback is unsupported on your device
Media captionWhy should a woman be more like a man? How the BBC announced the acts coming into force

Passed in parliament separately but enforced on the same day, the acts were described as "radical legislation" whose impact was "far-reaching."

They would later be superseded by the Equality Act 2010, but the acts stood for 35 years and outlawed discrimination on pay between men and women, ruled job adverts had to be open to both, and bias by landlords, schools and finance companies became illegal.

'Second-class citizens'

On the day the laws came in to force, Gwen Davis remembers feeling "very pleased" but also aware that "not everybody would get equal pay".

Seven years earlier, she had taken part in the strikes that helped usher the Equal Pay Act through parliament in 1970, although it would be five more years before it was implemented.

In 1968 along with 186 female car-seat machinists, Mrs Davis downed tools at Ford's Dagenham factory and walked out demanding she and her colleagues be classed as skilled workers and paid equally.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Striking female machinists from the Ford Dagenham plant in 1968

"Why should we be classed as unskilled with the janitors and toilet cleaners? You couldn't be younger than 21 to get a job as a machinist at Ford, and you had to have two years machining experience," she recalls.

The strike - dramatised in the film Made in Dagenham in 2010 - lasted for three weeks, and secretary of state at the time Barbara Castle stepped in on the women's behalf.

Being a working woman at the time you were, Mrs Davis says, often made to feel like "a second-class citizen".

Image copyright Stephen Lovekin
Image caption Gwen Davis (right) with fellow Ford Dagenham striker Vera Sime at the screening of the movie Made In Dagenham

"There were lots of jobs advertised where women weren't accepted because they were seen as too incapable or weak, and when me and my husband went to get a mortgage for our house they didn't even consider women's earnings. Women's money was just seen as pin money," she said.

After three weeks of striking, the Ford workers agreed to go back to work on 92% (up from 87%) of the men's wages, but "still not the recognition as skilled workers", says Mrs Davis.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Former secretary of state Barbara Castle (far right) supported the Ford Dagenham strikers

'You're in my seat'

Fast forward more than a decade to the early 1980s and women workers at Ford Dagenham were "still getting annoyed" at the lack of equality they had with their male colleagues, says 77-year-old former Ford Dagenham worker Dora Challingsworth.

She began working at Ford Dagenham in 1971, but does not remember the acts coming in to force in 1975 as "women were still downtrodden".

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption The Ford Dagenham plant, pictured in 1969

She recalls the time female workers were told by management they had to have a later lunch hour because male workers complained women took their seats in the canteen.

"Because we went to the canteen before the men, they would come up to us and say 'You're sitting in my seat'. I mean, crikey!

"Being a woman, you had to fight for everything."

That fight continued until, in 1984, women workers at the factory went on strike for a second time demanding again that their work be classed as skilled. After several weeks on the picket line they got what they wanted.

Despite that though, in the wider industry more than 30 years later the gender pay gap remains.

Hidden discrimination

According to the latest Office of National Statistics figures, the median pay gap between men and women's pay for full time workers was 9.4% in April 2015 - a slight decrease from 9.6% the year before, and at its lowest since figures were first recorded in 1997.

When pay of part-time workers is added however, the ONS median figure rises to 19.2%. In 2014, Trades Union Congress research showed that on average, for every pound earned by a man a woman was being paid 80p.

Sam Smethers, director of women's rights campaigning group Fawcett Society, says that while the pay gap is known the scale of discrimination in the work force remains unclear.

Image copyright Thinkstock
Image caption The gender pay gap stands at 9.4% for full time workers, according to the ONS

"There's a culture of secrecy around what your colleagues are earning and it's difficult to challenge or change that," she said.

Jacqueline O'Reilly, a professor at Brighton University, says she faced discrimination after getting her first lecturing job.

At the time two male colleagues with less experience than both she and another female member of staff, earned a salary three grades higher than theirs.

Image copyright Jacqueline O'Reilly
Image caption Jacqueline O'Reilly found out she was being paid less than male colleagues after starting her first lecturing job

"When I asked what category was used to decide this, my employers couldn't explain," she told BBC News.

"I wouldn't have known about this other than I happened to be on the appointments panel and had to review references. In the end they paid what they thought they could get away with."

'Long way to go'

Maria Miller MP, chair of the women and equalities committee which is currently taking evidence on the gender pay gap, said while there has been huge progress made in the last four decades, there is still a long way to go.

"Many of the factors driving the gender pay gap are still baked in to the system, particularly the part-time working penalty women have to endure, which impairs their ability to progress in work and forfeits their chances of promotion and pay rises," she said.

"More than 40% of women choose to work part-time to fit around family responsibilities, and three quarters of part-time work is low paid. There has been progress in terms of the gender pay gap for women under 35, but we haven't seen this same progress for women over 40."

Image copyright Oli Scarff
Image caption Maria Miller MP says we "may never see the gender pay gap eliminated"

She adds that in order to stamp out the pay gap, there needs to be more women in leadership positions, greater access to training for women returning to work, and "greater transparency across the board".

New government legislation will soon require companies in the UK with more than 250 staff to publish details of male and female pay.

Ms Smethers says while this greater transparency is needed, the government needs to ensure that alongside this there is "an action plan to address the pay gap".

According to Fawcett Society, at the current pace of progress it will take over 50 years to close the gender pay gap for full time workers.

"Based on the evidence seen to date there's a very strong suggestion that unless there is a sea-change in business attitude to part-time working we may never see the gender pay gap eliminated at all," adds Mrs Miller.

Related Topics

More on this story

Related Internet links

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external Internet sites