As Labour’s secretary of state, Castle, who grew up in Pontefract and Bradford, invited the female machinists who were on strike at Ford’s factory in Dagenham in 1968 to Parliament for tea and talks in her office.
She promised those determined women that she would tackle the scourge of unequal pay for women.
Within two years she had done just that – after forcing what she described in her diary as the “macho male chauvinists in the Treasury” to accept the principle of equal pay for equal work.
As we marked the 50th anniversary of her remarkable achievement last week, we celebrated how much has changed for the better, while recognising the gaping gender pay gap that persists today.
In 2019, women were paid on average 17.3 per cent less than men, with women effectively working for free from around 14 November each year.
The Fawcett Society, the charity which campaigns for gender equality and women’s rights, has launched a campaign for a new Equal Pay Bill to modernise the law. The proposed changes would enable us to close the gender pay gap once and for all.
However, instead of supporting these next steps in the struggle for gender pay equality, the Government used the coronavirus crisis as cover in March to quietly suspend the obligation on companies to report their gender pay gap – an obligation only introduced under pressure from Labour two years ago.
As well as entrenching this injustice, the Government has failed to recognise that women are bearing the brunt of this pandemic.
Many of the frontline NHS and caring roles are disproportionately done by women, who are too often undervalued and underpaid.
With millions of people furloughed and, unfortunately, many expected to lose their jobs permanently, women are also likely to be disproportionately impacted.
According to the Institute for Fiscal Studies which has looked at how coronavirus has hit families, mothers are one-and-a-half times more likely than fathers to have lost their job or quit since the lockdown started. Mothers are spending less time doing paid work and more time caring for children and family due to the crisis.
The Institute warns that the changes forced upon families due to Covid-19 risk reversing some of the recent progress that has been made on closing the gender pay gap, with women facing a potential long-term hit to their future earnings.
The Government should be doing all it can to prevent this huge backward step for women. Instead, the actions of Ministers risk allowing the legacy of coronavirus to include setting the fight for fair pay back decades.
Coronavirus has already widened the gender pay gap to £62 a month, according to anti-poverty charity Turn2us, with women’s incomes set to fall by £309 compared to £247 for male earnings.
The gap widens in two-parent households where both parents are employed, with women reporting an average reduction in pay of £405 per month. Female single parents face the most severe financial and social pressures due to the pandemic.
The charity has proposed legal changes to give women who suspect they are being discriminated against the ‘‘Right to Know’’ what a male colleague doing the same work is paid.
But the overwhelming evidence falls on deaf ears when it comes to the Prime Minister.
When Boris Johnson was asked by Conservative MP Caroline Nokes, Chair of the Women and Equalities Committee, last month why he had sidelined women from leadership roles during the crisis and in Government press conferences, he struggled to answer
At present, just 87 of the 365 Conservative MPs in Parliament are women – compared to 104 of the 202 Labour MPs of the total 650 MPs at Westminster. When pressed further on the subject of gender equality by MPs, Johnson admitted: “Oh boy, that’s a question on which I’m not competent to pronounce.” For once, the Prime Minister was spot on.
On the 50th anniversary of the Equal Pay Act, we cannot allow the Government to slowly dismantle the historic achievement of that legislation. There is now a real risk that progress on closing the gender pay gap could stall or, even worse, be reversed.
As we emerge from lockdown, we should all have a shared commitment to build a better future. Those who have played such vital roles during the pandemic, such as frontline NHS and social care workers, transport workers, delivery drivers and many others, should get the respect and reward they deserve.
The next Labour government will fight their corner, continue the battle to close the gender pay gap and champion the rights of women.
That must include fairness for women in the workplace to ensure we build on Barbara Castle’s legacy and create a fairer society.
Rachel Reeves is Labour MP for Leeds West and a senior member of the Shadow Cabinet.
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