From the TUC

The role unions can play in closing the gender pay gap in the private sector

06 Apr 2014, By Guest

It’s hard to believe that 40 years on from the Equal Pay Act gender pay is still a big problem, particularly in the private sector where men are paid 20 per cent more, on average, than women.

Fair Pay Fortnight is part of the TUC’s wider Britain Needs A Pay Rise campaign but this shocking statistic shows that women, in particular, need a pay rise. However, while much work still needs to be done to address the gender pay gap there is grounds for optimism. When unions work closely with employers big changes can happen.

Years of joint work by Prospect and BT have significantly reduced the equal pay gap for its UK managerial and professional employees. Across BT’s whole UK workforce the gender pay gap in average salaries now stands at 4.7% and within the first two levels of management – about 20,000 people – the gap in average salaries is 4.6% and 2.2%. This represents significant progress since the mid 90s when the gap for similar positions stood at more than 10% and was much wider across the whole company.

So, how did we do it? We first identified the equal pay gap through our annual membership surveys. Our analysis shed light on the reasons for the gap:

  • Men and women were being paid differently for doing the same job
  • There was a concentration of women in lower paid roles
  • Women tended to start on lower salaries
  • There were fewer women in more senior roles.

We used these findings to determine the negotiating agenda and all of the union’s negotiating team also undertook training through the TUC’s equal pay reps programme.

In recent years we have agreed separate equal pay budgets as part of the annual wage talks. This has been used to increase the pay of individual’s that have, based on performance, been given the opportunity to progress further within the organisation. With a higher proportion of women towards the bottom end of the pay scale, this disproportionately benefits women and has helped to further close the gap.

In 2012 Prospect also reached a significant deal for staff working in the services section – mainly those working in call centres – which are traditionally lower paid and where a very high proportion are female. This has resulted in very significant pay increases for key roles and, in time, should also help address some of the gap that’s caused by a disproportionate number of women working in certain sections of the company.

Non-pay action has also helped too. For instance, greater access to flexible working across different levels has encouraged many more women to join the company as well as being able to take on promotion.

Throughout this process we learned that the following helped us to achieve what we have:

  • Research and analysis – our surveys built the case for change and shed light on the issue.
  • Keeping it mainstream – the commitment of our lay reps was pivotal.
  • Giving credit to joint work – for instance, staff in the BT reward team have played a critical role.
  • Acknowledging the complexities of the issue and why it exists – there are often many reasons for gender pay gaps and you need to develop appropriate action on all of them.
  • Addressing the structural issues which underpin the problem is the only way to achieve meaningful, long-term change. There are no one-off fixes.
  • Flexibility – Regularly check the evidence, validate the outcomes and re-evaluate your progress.
  • And be prepared for the long haul!

While there is still work to be done – starting pay remains an issue and we need a more structured approach to pay progression – it is clear that unions can play a strong part in addressing the gender pay gap in the private sector.

A banner promoting Fair Pay Fortnight: Two weeks of events highlighting Britain's cost of living crisis, from 24 March to 6 April 2014. Find out more at