• Women worst off in West Somerset with 53% gap
• Strong public support for law to expose unfair wages
Women are paid less than half as much as men in some parts of the UK, according to statistics published today that reveal huge regional variations in the pay gap between male and female workers.
Nationally, women earn an average of 21% an hour less than men for full- and part-time work. The Fawcett Society's data shows that this figure is 53% in West Somerset, while in Windsor and Maidenhead it is 49% and in South Northamptonshire 43%. The smallest gap is in Sevenoaks, Kent, where the difference is just 1%.
The calculations, based on Office for National Statistics figures showing average pay in all local authorities, also reveal that there are some areas where women earn a higher average wage than men. Across East Renfrewshire, female workers were paid 33% more per hour than male employees, and in Newcastle-under-Lyme they earned 14% more.
The figures come as a poll for the Fawcett Society and the union Unison showed that 85% of the public believe employers should be compelled by law to conduct pay audits to expose unfair treatment, and to rectify any discrimination discovered. The government's equality bill, currently going through parliament, gives ministers an optional power from 2013 to require firms with 250 or more workers to disclose average pay for male and female staff. It will also ban secrecy clauses in contracts that prevent employees from comparing their wages.
But the Fawcett Society said the measures did not go far enough, and called on ministers to toughen up the bill by introducing mandatory pay audits with immediate effect. It also wants women to be allowed to bring group actions and use theoretical male comparators in discrimination claims.
The findings follow the revelation earlier this week that Britain has slipped down the international league table for gender equality again. It is now ranked 15th out of 130 countries in the World Economic Forum's Global Gender Gap Index, having fallen from 13th last year and 9th in 2006. In terms of wage equality, the UK fared even worse, dropping to 78th in the world behind countries including Egypt, Malawi, Tajikistan and Malaysia.
Ceri Goddard, chief executive of the Fawcett Society, said: "[The government] must face the fact that equal pay law isn't working. With one in three employment discrimination claims being for unequal pay, and cases taking up to 10 years to complete, the tribunal system is at breaking point. On top of that, last year the gender pay gap even got wider.
"The equality bill offers a once-in-a-generation opportunity to reform equal pay law and stamp out the pay gap. Women were promised equal pay nearly 40 years ago when the Equal Pay Act was passed. It's time to finally make good on that pledge." She said the 17% pay gap for full-time work was the equivalent of paying men for the whole year while paying women only until today, which the society is marking as Equal Pay Day.
Dave Prentis, the general secretary of Unison, said mandatory equal pay audits would expose employers still "stuck in the dark ages".
"Some women have to wait years, and some even die in the time it takes to get justice from their employers on their pay, because they have to take action individually," he added. "Speeding up the employment tribunal process by allowing women to take group action would be a giant leap in the right direction."
The results of the Fawcett poll, conducted by Ipsos Mori among 1,055 people, also suggested that many people are unaware of the gender pay gap.