Thompsons Solicitors recently spoke to the BBC’s Nick Robinson and Hella Pick, former foreign correspondent, about the legal issues surrounding gender discrimination in pay. Hella began the discussion by describing her own experiences of gender salary discrimination in the journalism industry.

Caroline Underhill, our equal pay practice lead, explained the legal implications of sex discrimination for workers and employers in the UK.

Nick Robinson: What is the legal position about whether there needs to be a ‘rate for the job’, or whether organisations can take any other factors into account?

Caroline Underhill:
The law does permit employers to take other factors into account. The only prohibition is against sex discrimination - which is both paying women less because they are women, but also applying practices that have the subsequent effect of paying women less. One of the difficulties employer’s face, which they need to tackle, is that the market has a gender discrimination towards women. That’s the history that’s just been described to you [within the journalism industry].

Nick Robinson:
So if you were to use - in court, or in a Tribunal as an employer – the market as your justification, would that be open to challenge as in that the market is merely a reflection of that existing discrimination?

Caroline Underhill:
Yes it is open to challenge. Not all cases have been successful in challenging what are called ‘market forces’, but as that’s the message that we’re getting from the government – that we should be serious about tackling equal pay – then that is the challenge that employers have to face.

They have to find another way of determining pay that avoids the discrimination built into the market.


Nick Robinson: Would there be a way to impose a structure on what seems, to many people, like a very arbitrary system [of pay] at the moment?

Caroline Underhill: Yes, there are lots of experts on pay and organisational structure that have worked for years to find ways of valuing and measuring jobs so that they can be compared and ranked so that the pay can be fair. Once you do that you can part from it for good reason – but until you have that base assessment, you can’t really tell whether you are paying people fairly or not.