I know how men can help women in the fight for equal pay - starting today

Carrie Gracie won her equal pay battle against her employer the BBC
Carrie Gracie won her equal pay battle against her employer the BBC Credit: Fran Monks 

Unequal pay is the gender pay gap’s dirty secret. It doesn’t get talked about enough or measured enough, and it rarely gets managed at all. Two thirds of the UK’s gender pay gap is "unexplained".  Unequal pay may be unlawful and unfair, but in practice it is commonplace.

If men and women do the same work it’s really not hard to pay them equally. Employers must just do it rather than find excuses not to do it.

Why aren’t men doing more to fight this? Some say it is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it.

So men, this Equal Pay Day ask yourselves what you are doing to help. Have you ever advocated any advance for women? A century ago would you have supported a woman’s right to vote, to attend university or to sit on a jury? What would that kind of support look like today?

You probably say you believe in equal pay. But are you ready to inconvenience yourself for it? "Deeds not words," as the suffragettes said. Principle is only a word unless you’re prepared to pay something for it.

Look at the people who’ve made it to the top of your workplace. Is it a game in which the winners set the rules and the next generation of winners looks rather like the previous generation? Is it time to change the rules of the game on gender at work? To stop penalising flexible and part-time working perhaps? To advocate equal rights to parenting leave and leave pay so that couples can make free choices on time out for childcare? 

Those employers who insist gender discrimination is not happening in their workplace are often the worst offenders. Certainty makes them blind to patterns of discrimination that are so embedded as to be invisible and ignorable. Women know those patterns exist. They have the motivation to fix unequal pay but lack the means, while employers have the means but sometimes seem to lack the motivation.

That brings it back to men. Bosses often listen to men in a way they don’t listen to women. Quite apart from the unconscious bias that means some people only really hear something when a man says it, most workplaces are paying men more and expect their opinions to be worth more.

So women need men to fight for equal pay. Sharing pay information is a practical way to start. Women can’t correct what they can’t see. They can be a victim of pay discrimination for years without having any idea. So if a female colleague doing similar work asks you to share, please consider doing so. 

I know this is difficult. In the UK, both men and women are much more willing to discuss their sex life, including their partners, extramarital affairs and sexually transmitted diseases, than they are to discuss their salaries. But sharing pay details is one of the simplest but most powerful things a man can do to help a female colleague achieve equal pay. If Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonathan Ross can overcome the taboo, perhaps you can, too. 

When a female colleague does discover she is being paid less for equal work, show her your support. Pay is about how others value us, and if we suddenly discover they value us much less than we thought, it feels like a betrayal. If you’ve ever experienced a partner’s infidelity or a close friend’s breach of confidence you’ll know that betrayals force a re-examination of the entire relationship. Your underpaid colleague may be going through a lot turbulent emotions. 

You may expect that it will be quick work for her to fix the pay disparity, that she will simply have to point out the problem to the boss and cite the law. Let’s hope so. But often employers choose to resist instead. And in these circumstances, it’s very hard for a woman to get equal pay.

That's because an equal pay fight is not a fair fight. Women face an overwhelming power asymmetry in which their employers have a near monopoly on the power, information, money and experience necessary to win. They often fight a claim by seeking to undermine the professional credibility of the claimant. Remind your female colleague that if she has embarked on an equal pay complaint and a boss then damns her performance or finds her ‘in development’, it may be because she has dared to ask for equality.

"Market" is often another employer defence. Even people who exhibit no unconscious bias against women, including many who are themselves women, will take advantage of the bias that prevails elsewhere in the labour market to pay women less.

In fact many organisations will find it hard to confront a problem raised by an employee when that problem is potentially expensive or reputationally damaging. Without leadership that relentlessly shines the light, even organisations that see themselves as having strong values tend to protect the powerful and the status quo.

Men, your solidarity matters. Women may struggle to hold onto their own sense of value, especially if it has gone unacknowledged in the workplace for years and is now being actively belittled in an equal pay fight. But if you have a clear sense of their value and feel that their fight is right, offer your support, either privately, or even better, as a witness.

If you are the male colleague against whom a woman is comparing her work, your voice is very powerful.

So everyone has choices here. The employer can choose to pay the woman equally for equal work. The woman can choose to give up. You can choose to say "she is my equal" - what better day to start than today? 

Carrie Gracie won an apology and £373,000 from the BBC after her equal pay battle, donating the money after tax to the Fawcett Society.

She is the author of Equal:  A story of women, pay and the BBC, published by Little Brown and available from the Telegraph bookshop here.