The struggle for equal pay lies at the heart of exploring women's campaign for fair and equal rights in the workplace. The TUC backed "Union Makes Us Strong" website includes a historical introduction to the campaign for equal pay covering the 1830s, to the introduction of the Equal Pay Act in 1970. The campaign for equal pay has a long history; one which is still ongoing. Women were often a marginalised sector of the workforce and were effectively excluded from many unions until the latter part of the 19th century.

The story of the Women Chainmakers' fight for a living wage, provide ideal opportunities for challenging traditional attitudes about women's place in society. In 1910 the Women Chainmakers of Cradley Heath formed a trade union and won the first minimum wage agreement after a strike battle lasting for 10 weeks.  This increased the wages of the poorest workers by some 150 per cent and remains today one of the most inspiring tales of workers' struggle.

Women's low pay is rooted in long standing assumptions about a woman's place. The jobs women do attract lower wages. Mary Macarthur's story, and her dedication to improving conditions for working women, form an ideal route into a study of past campaigns for equal pay.

The Equal Pay Act

On 7th June 1968, 850 women machinists working at the Ford Factory in Dagenham went on strike for equal pay after discovering they were being paid 15 per cent less than men for doing the same work. The demands of these women paved the way for the enactment of equal pay legislation in 1970. You might want to look at both equal pay and the position and status of British women in the late 1960s. The Film Education charity has produced digital teaching materials exploring the film Made in Dagenham. The TUC has produced a series of films about the fight for equal pay. They include oral history interviews with women and union representatives involved in some of the major equal pay cases since 1968 including the film "A Woman's Worth: the Story of the Ford Sewing Machinists".

The Equal Pay Act 1970 gives an individual a right to the same contractual pay and benefits as a person of the opposite sex in the same employment, where the man and the woman are doing:

  • like work; or
  • work rated as equivalent under an analytical job evaluation study; or
  • work that is proved to be of equal value.

The Equal Pay Act has now become part of the 2010 Equality Act.

The first effect of the Equal Pay Act 1970 was to remove separate lower women's rates of pay. Before 1970, it was common practice in the private sector and some parts of the public sector for there to be separate, and lower, women's rates of pay. So, for example at the Ford Motor Company, before a new pay structure was introduced in 1967, there were four grades for production workers:

  • male - skilled
  • male - semi-skilled
  • male - unskilled
  • female

The only significant group of female production workers at Ford were sewing machinists, who were paid less than male toilet cleaners and stores workers.

The Equal Pay Act introduced an 'implied equality clause' into all employees' contracts. This had the effect of eliminating separate lower women's rates of pay. All such rates had to be raised to at least the lowest male rate over a 5 year period between 1970 and 1975.

Some employers got round the legislation, for example, by raising the women's rates to the lowest male rate, even when the women's jobs were more demanding than the men's, or by creating different job titles for the women. Despite these strategies, full-time women's average earnings compared to men's rose by 5 per cent, from 72 per cent to 77 per cent, over a 5 year period in the 1970s - the biggest ever increase in this ratio.

Nearly 40 years after the introduction of the Equal Pay Act 1970 the struggle for equal pay still persists. The gender pay gap in Britain remains among the highest in the European Union with women earning 15.5% less than men. The Fawcett Society estimates that that removing barriers to women working in occupations traditionally done by men and increasing women's participation in the labour market could be worth between £15 and £23 Billion or 1.3 to 2% of GDP.

The Equal Pay Act has now become part of the Equality Act 2010. The Act brings together nine separate pieces of legislation, including the Sex Discrimination Act, the Race Relations Act and the Disability Discrimination Act simplifying the law and strengthening it in important ways to help tackle discrimination and inequality.

For more information, read our FactCheck on Gender pay gap.