Harriet Harman: This New Law on Gender Pay was Labour's Doing

harman gender pay gap
Harriet Harman makes a speech during a U.K. Labour campaign aimed at women voters on February 11, 2015. Harman is a long-time campaigner for women's rights. Carl Court/Getty Image

The new law that will force U.K. companies of over 250 employees to reveal their gender pay gaps was introduced by the last Labour government in the 2010 Equality Act. It was the very last piece of legislation that the government I was part of passed before we got kicked out of power after losing the general election in May of that year. But until now the Tories didn't bring it into effect. It was just gathering dust.

In the olden days, many people seemed to accept that it was right that men and women get paid different rates. Then in the 1960s and 1970s, the case grew that it was unfair. We thought the 1970 Equal Pay Act would solve the problem, but it became clear over the following decades that while it had stifled the outward signs of unequal pay it hadn't addressed the root causes.

The Office for National Statistics would regularly produce reports revealing what the pay gap was nationally. Employers would say how terrible it was and then deny all responsibility. Equal pay audits were conducted behind closed doors and shrouded in complexity. The introduction of the national minimum wage in 1998 helped narrow the gap, but it still stubbornly persisted.

So, when I became the Minister for Women and Equalities in 2007, I resolved to introduce a dose of transparency. Secrecy around pay is what enables the pay gap to continue. I thought if women could see the facts about their own employers in black and white, that would enable them to demand change and spark a debate about how best to make change happen. Transparency would allow employees to compare the gender pay gaps of companies within and across different sectors and also foster the expectation that there would be year-on-year progress.

The next question was: What figure would we use when talking about the pay gap and which each company would have to publish? The Office for National Statistics looks at the gender pay gap for full-time workers and then for part-time workers. I think that's nonsense because a big engine of the gender pay gap is that so many women are in part-time work. Once you put together the figures for men and women working both full time and part time, the pay gap is much bigger than the 20 percent figure that the government usually quotes. That figure is just the gap for full-time workers.

My proposal was that it should be the average hourly pay of all men and women that was compared. That would show you the structure of what was going on in terms of gender in each individual company. The response I got was: "We couldn't possibly do that because all our men are managers and all our women are cleaners. It's not possible to compare them." But the pay gap shows inequality and male domination of higher-paid positions. When women see the full pay gap in their own companies, they will be empowered to challenge their employers on how they plan to close the gap, how they are going to promote women so it's not just men getting the big salaries, and how they can take a career break and not be bumped down the pay scale.

I am pleasantly surprised that the Conservative Party are finally implementing our legislation. The home secretary, Theresa May, was their Equalities Spokesperson in 2010 when I was pushing this act through Parliament, and they opposed it at the time. I am pleased they are doing it now although I can't resist grumbling about the fact it's taken them six years. The government has, though, finally got round to doing it, and it's really important they don't mess it up now.

Despite being a great unfairness and economically illogical, gender pay is not seen as a priority. There are all sorts of reasons for this: Men think it's not a problem, or they think that women are less ambitious, less interested in money, and happy to work part time. This issue has been shrouded in secrecy for too long. I knew in 2010 that if we did a gender pay audit it would show that things were not equal and that those in the top jobs were men and those in the lower jobs were women. I think this new law will start a revolution—for the first time women are being empowered to insist on fair and equal pay.

The Equality Act was our last bill through Parliament. But even now, six years later, it will play its part in tackling unfairness and inequality.

As told to Serena Kutchinsky.

Harriet Harman is a British Labour Party politician who was the party's Acting Leader from May to September 2015.