British Parliament Passes the Equal Pay Act of 1970 Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The British parliament passed the Equal Pay Act of 1970, establishing a legal basis and remedies for women to receive equal pay and benefits for work that is similar, or of equal value, to work performed by men in the United Kingdom.

Summary of Event

Prior to the passage of the Equal Pay Act of 1970, the labor force in the United Kingdom was characterized by differential salary structures for women workers compared to male workers. In addition, the labor force was segmented by gender; women worked in a secondary labor market, which had its unique qualities, while their male counterparts were overrepresented in jobs that constituted the primary sector of the civilian labor force. Women generally were employed in occupations that were female-intensive or jobs defined as feminine. Equal Pay Act, British (1970) Women;political and legal rights Women;workforce participation Labor;women [kw]British Parliament Passes the Equal Pay Act of 1970 (May 29, 1970) [kw]Parliament Passes the Equal Pay Act of 1970, British (May 29, 1970) [kw]Equal Pay Act of 1970, British Parliament Passes the (May 29, 1970) [kw]Act of 1970, British Parliament Passes the Equal Pay (May 29, 1970) Equal Pay Act, British (1970) Women;political and legal rights Women;workforce participation Labor;women [g]Europe;May 29, 1970: British Parliament Passes the Equal Pay Act of 1970[10830] [g]United Kingdom;May 29, 1970: British Parliament Passes the Equal Pay Act of 1970[10830] [c]Laws, acts, and legal history;May 29, 1970: British Parliament Passes the Equal Pay Act of 1970[10830] [c]Business and labor;May 29, 1970: British Parliament Passes the Equal Pay Act of 1970[10830] [c]Women’s issues;May 29, 1970: British Parliament Passes the Equal Pay Act of 1970[10830] [c]Civil rights and liberties;May 29, 1970: British Parliament Passes the Equal Pay Act of 1970[10830]

In 1971, women comprised 36.5 percent of the labor force; yet, they were employed in occupations in which 70 percent or more of the workers were females. There were a handful of occupations in which more than 71 percent of the employees were women. These occupations that had an overrepresentation of women were typists, shorthand writers, secretaries, maids, counter-workers, nurses, machine sewers, domestic workers, and housekeepers.

Typically, the occupations in which women were employed reflected the functions that women performed in the home or as helpmates to men. Accordingly, these jobs, like the homemaker functions to which they are related, were not highly valued. Therefore, women were usually consigned to low-paying, dead-end jobs or short-career ladder occupations throughout Great Britain.

Alternatively, men were employed in higher-paying occupations, including professional and managerial positions. Further, because women’s work was culturally devalued, even when women performed basically the same job as men, the job titles were different, with men being assigned titles that were more highly valued, thereby justifying a higher salary structure and benefits. For example, women were “cooks” and men “chefs”; women were “secretaries” and men “personal assistants”; and women were “shop assistants” while men were “salesmen.” Therefore, women were subjected to pay differentials that were often a result of negative stereotypes regarding women’s abilities and occupational and professional interests. Clearly, the act was necessary to improve the pay differential of women workers compared to men workers performing similar jobs and working in occupations that were of equal value according to job evaluations.

The act was passed on May 29, 1970, and implemented in 1975. It was designed to prevent the most blatant forms of pay discrimination in Great Britain. Essentially, this law prohibited unequal pay for the same work or similar work. In addition, this legislation forbade unequal pay for work that was rated as equivalent by employers based on an evaluation scheme that was purported to be gender neutral. In effect, the act made it illegal for women to be paid less for the same work, or work rated to be of equal value to that which was performed by men.

The act also provided remedies for comparable work that was devalued regarding salaries and benefits for women workers. Further, the act contained a stipulation that required pay structures and collective agreements that contained provisions that applied exclusively to men or women to be referred to a central arbitration committee to amend this overt form of gender discrimination. Consequently, the act served as the impetus for gender-neutral or unisex grading or evaluation schemes. In order for the jobs to be rated as “like” work or similar work they must be determined to be of equal value relative to the demands placed on a worker in terms of decision making, skill, effort, and so forth.

The fact that the act is a statute that is geared toward addressing gender discrimination in pay means that when employees file claims they must compare their pay to that of a worker of the opposite gender. Therefore, women can only claim equal pay with men and men can only claim equal pay with women. Moreover, the filing of claims must occur within the same firm. In other words, a claim cannot be filed between a man and a woman who are employed in different firms, even if they are employed in the same industry or occupation. While the act is primarily a legal measure that makes it unlawful to pay women workers less than their male counterparts, the legislation encompasses all of the terms of the contractual agreement, excluding provisions for death or retirement benefits. Therefore, a claim filed under the act does not have to be a simple wage claim but can be an attempt to equalize other conditions of employment. Other benefits for which equal value claims can seek remedies include sick pay benefits, bonuses, subsidized mortgages, and other nonwage contractual terms of the claimant’s employment.

According to the act, the claimant, rather than the employer or the tribunal, is permitted to choose the comparator, or the individual who is allegedly paid at a higher rate because of gender discrimination. Claimants are also allowed to identify multiple comparisons or, in the case of female complainants, a woman may compare her case to many men, as opposed to only one man, who are paid more.


While the Equal Pay Act of 1970 was able to diminish the existence of pay inequality based on gender, it could not eliminate gender discrimination regarding pay for men and women workers. Clearly, there are many factors that contribute to pay inequality between men and women that this legislation as well as its subsequent amendments could not resolve. Specifically, factors such as discrimination in education in which female students are perceived as better suited for female-intensive, lower-paying occupations, culturally prescribed socialization of females into acceptable women’s roles within and outside the labor market, the familial division of labor that requires women to assume more responsibility for caregiving and tasks of domesticity, discrimination in preemployment training, and so forth were not addressed.

Another obvious deficiency in the act is that it could not provide remedies for innumerable women who were currently working in occupations overrepresented by women workers, and for whom there were no male comparators. Finally, although the act permitted individual claims, it did not make provisions for class action claims. Thus, an individual may not litigate on behalf of similarly situated workers.

Subsequent to the implementation of the act, the earnings gap between men and women workers was reduced by 15 percent. Clearly, the act contributed to this reduction. Furthermore, applications that were processed after the passage of the act decreased dramatically, from 1,742 in 1976 to 39 in 1982.

Perhaps the act would have been more effective in decreasing the earnings gap between men and women workers if it had not been for the level of resistance that was presented by employers. According to the act, if investigators conclude that a claim has merit, and the claimant is being paid a lesser salary for a job of equal value, the burden of proof is on the employer to show that the variation in pay is the result of a material factor that is not based on gender. For example, employers may cite tenure or length of service, differential work experience, or disparate educational preparation. Yet the act not only makes the employer responsible for justifying the pay differential but also makes gender discrimination unlawful whether it is intentional or unintentional on the part of the employer.

Unquestionably, the act had a definite effect on reducing the differential salary structure based on gender. Equally important, this act served as a precursor to, and impetus for, amendments as well as related legislation, such as the Sex Discrimination Act of 1975. Generally, the effectiveness of the Equal Pay Act of 1970, as well as other legislation designed to improve the social and economic opportunities for women workers, has depended on the extent to which they have been able to make gender discrimination unprofitable for employers. Equal Pay Act, British (1970) Women;political and legal rights Women;workforce participation Labor;women

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Dudley, William, ed. Social Justice: Opposing Viewpoints. Farmington Hills, Mo.: Greenhaven Press, 2005. Presents a “pro versus con” format, with two essays debating the issue of “comparable worth” in employment law and theory.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hastings, Sue. “Equal Value in the Local Authority Sector in Great Britain.” In Equal Value/Comparable Worth in the UK and the United States, edited by Peggy Kahn and Elizabeth Meehan. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1992. Hastings discusses the impact of the Equal Pay Act of 1970 on manual and nonmanual workers in Great Britain.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Jenson, Jane, Jacqueline Laufer, and Margaret Maruani, eds. The Gendering of Inequalities: Women, Men, and Work. Burlington, Vt.: Ashgate, 2000. A thorough examination of gender and the world of work. Chapters include “Enduring Wage Gap: A Europe-wide Comparison” and “Moving Towards the American Model? Women and Unemployment in Great Britain.”
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">MacKinnon, Catharine A. Are Women Human? And Other International Dialogues. Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press, 2006. Examines the legal status of women around the world. MacKinnon was instrumental in establishing sex harassment laws in the United States beginning in the mid-1970’s.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Middleton, Chris. “Gender Divisions and Wage Labour in English History.” In Gender Segregation at Work, edited by Sylvia Walby. Milton Keynes, England: Open University Press, 1988. The author of this article provides a discussion of the origins of wage labor, in an effort to refute theorists that contend that wage labor is a function of capitalism.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Rubenstein, Michael. Equal Pay for Work of Equal Value: The New Regulations and Their Implications. London: Macmillan, 1984. This work contains an examination of the Equal Pay Act of 1970, the implementation of this act, its impact on employers, and an analysis of its interpretation by the courts.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Wilborn, Steven L. A Secretary and a Cook: Challenging Women’s Wages in the Courts of the United States and Great Britain. Ithaca, N.Y.: ILR Press, 1989. Wilborn discusses issues related to comparable worth by examining two major legal cases—those of Helen Castrilli and Julie Hayward.

6.6 Million Women Enter the U.S. Labor Force

Australians Elect First Women to Parliament

Japanese Constitution Grants New Rights to Women

United Nations Convention on the Political Rights of Women Is Approved

Indian Parliament Approves Women’s Rights Legislation

Canadian Bill of Rights Prohibits Sex Discrimination

Congress Passes the Equal Pay Act

United Nations Issues a Declaration on Equality for Women

Categories: History