Equal pay – a narrowing gap; a broadening opportunity?

At the start of November the Chartered Management Institute reported on its annual analysis of pay data for those in executive roles.  The research revealed that the annual average pay gap between men and women at management level is currently £10,060.  This represents a slight narrowing of the gap from the position in 2011, when the difference was £10,546.  However, the same statistics reveal that the average female executive, when compared with a male colleague with the same career path, faces a lifetime earnings gap of over £420,000. 

In many respects the issue is more about opportunities than the ultimate fiscal divide.  In universities, notwithstanding carefully prepared equality policies and the skills of academics to approach information forensically and reach decisions objectively, there remains a much smaller proportion of professors and university leaders who are women. 

For those who decide to challenge breaches of equal pay legislation, a recent Supreme Court ruling means that women will now have up to 6 years to bring a claim.  This gives women much longer to enforce their rights than previously thought. 

The case in question involves 174 former employees of Birmingham City Council who left their employment well outside of the usual 6 months time limit under what is now the Equality Act 2010.  They issued their claims in the High Court rather than the Employment Tribunal.  Equal pay complaints can be heard by the civil courts unless the court considers that the claim can more “conveniently” be considered by the Employment Tribunal.  In the Birmingham City Council case, the Supreme Court concluded that the reason why the former employees failed to bring a timely claim in the Employment Tribunal was not relevant to the issue of convenience and has allowed the case to proceed. 

It is surprising that this point has not been resolved before with the former Equal Pay Act having been in force for nearly 40 years.  In theory this decision marks a significant extension of equal pay legislation, but the Employment Tribunal with its 6 months time limit for such claim nevertheless remains an attractive forum because claimants are not generally at risk of costs if their claim is unsuccessful.  Furthermore, with the recovery of arrears of pay limited to 6 years, there remains a strong incentive for aggrieved individuals to issue proceedings sooner rather than later.  So while the Supreme Court’s decision represents a significant victory for those involved, it will not necessarily open the gates to a flood of new equal pay claims.

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