Employment partners Joseph Lappin and Charlie Thompson discuss a generational shift in attitudes towards equal pay disputes and steps employers can take to prevent them, in an article first published in Personnel Today.

Equal pay can be a delicate subject in the workplace, and a tricky concept to nail down. From a legal perspective it centres on a straightforward premise: that workers should be paid equally for doing equal work, regardless of sex.

A recent survey of 2,000 women commissioned by Stewarts found that women at different seniorities have varied perceptions of equal pay – and that certain groups are more likely to take legal action.

It is perhaps unsurprising that as women climb the career ladder, they are more likely to perceive inequality in pay compared to their male counterparts. 38.65% of respondents earning more than £75,000 felt underpaid compared to male colleagues, as opposed to just 23.7% of those earning between £15,000 and £35,000. Similarly a majority of higher earners were more likely to negotiate pay with their employers.

The research also found signs of a generational shift: not only were millennial and Generation Z workers aged between 16 and 34 more likely than older workers to negotiate pay, younger respondents were also more likely to consider asserting their legal rights regarding equal pay in the courts.


A generational shift in attitudes

According to the survey results it is younger, higher-paid female professionals who are the most likely group to feel comfortable discussing salary and remuneration with co-workers, negotiate with their employer on remuneration, and to raise a complaint with their employer over unequal pay. The women in Gen Z that are now entering the world of work are more inclined to take legal action: 47.6% of those surveyed would take a case to court, 10% more than the average across age groups.

Why might the younger and higher-earning be more willing to take on employers? It is worth considering the reasons women cited for not wanting to bring an equal pay claim: after stress, the most common reason was the perceived cost of litigation. Lower paid workers may feel they do not have the means to pay for what could be a lengthy and expensive process, which is potentially less of a worry for higher earning professionals.

Pay gaps at the tops of organisations become blurrier and more complicated as job roles diversify and inequality is intrenched over time, and it is perhaps natural for senior employees to query whether others at their level are being better compensated for their work. For individuals in this position there is of course also more at stake – the higher up the pay scale, the greater the potential for variation and so the greater potential reward at the end of an equal pay claim, be that through settlement or a successful claim.

As for age, it is worth taking a holistic view: younger people feel more open to discussing their pay with colleagues, which can make disparities more obvious. This may be down to the increasingly online job marketplace, where salaries or salary bands are frequently listed either officially or on sites like Glassdoor. As the culture around work shifts towards openness, awareness of pay disparities is likely to continue to grow, further empowering those who feel they are not being remunerated fairly to voice their concerns.

Open discussions about pay can also mean individuals find their situation is not so individual after all. Where one female employee is being treated unfairly, the odds grow that others are in the same boat. Employees feel far more confident challenging their employer when they can do so en masse, and the threat of making such a challenge public can be powerful leverage to push for a swift resolution that benefits all parties.


Preventing equal pay claims

Employers should be alive to the potential risk of an equal pay claim. As younger workers are promoted into more senior positions, and ESG issues continue to grip boardrooms, the issue of equal pay will only become more pressing.

If an employer is facing complaints about equal pay or suspects that they have an equal pay ‘problem’ they should take legal advice.

Prevention is better than cure. The best method for employers to minimise the risk of an equal pay claim being brought against them is consistency in determining appropriate salaries for their employees. Being clear and open with staff about how pay levels are calculated will help build a culture of trust.


Research by Stewarts reveals women perceive lack of progress on equal pay



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