The campaign for equal pay goes back to the mid-1800s. Legislation first came in place in 1973 with The Equal Pay Act.
By Katarina Blomqvist, 2006
When the Danish parliament passed the Equal Pay Act in 1976, it did so in order to bring Danish legislation in line with EU regulations. Denmark had joined the EU (then the EEC) in 1972 and was therefore obliged to conform to the Treaty of Rome article relating to equal pay.
In 1973 equal pay was agreed in principle following the annual round of collective bargaining between interested parties in the labour market, the trade-union movement and employers. But agreements and laws have proven to be one thing – and practice to be another. Thirty years after the Equal Pay Act became law, there is still a difference in the level of pay between men and women – and it is not to the advantage of women.
Campaign for equal pay has a long history
The campaign for equal pay began when the first women entered the labour market in the mid-1800s, working as teachers, dressmakers, nurses and in factories. Their low wages provoked these women into forming their own trade unions – the men’s unions did not consider it their task to campaign for improvement in women’s working conditions.
Women were not seen as a work capacity equal to that of men. Women were responsible for the family, and were therefore considered to be less stable workers. Men, on the other hand, had the main responsibility for providing financially for the family, and there was thus general agreement that they should be paid more than women.
It took most of the 20th century to overcome opposition to equal pay for men and women. Although the 1976 Equal Pay Act did not remove the discrepancy between pay levels, at least woman now had recourse to the Equal Status Council which adjudicated in cases where male colleagues were paid more for doing the same job.
The reason women only earned approximately 80% of men’s income was put down to two main factors: women’s lower level of education and societal gender division of labour.
Gender division of labour a hindrance
Gender division of labour means that the labour market is divided into trades, professions, work sectors and jobs or duties which are almost exclusively the reserve of men, and other trades or professions in which women dominate. During the 1980s strategies were developed – also on a Nordic level – to loosen these strict dividing lines by motivating more women to seek training and employment in the traditional ‘male’ spheres of work: trades and industries, sciences and technology.
Correspondingly, men were to be encouraged to enter the traditionally ‘female’ caring professions. The various projects had but little impact – today the Danish labour market is one of the most gender segregated in Europe. Trades and industries are still very male-dominated, whereas previously male domains, such as medicine, are turning into women’s domains.
The other reason women earn less – that they have a lower level of education – no longer applies. More and more women are going on to higher education; girls are in a majority at upper-secondary schools and today there are more women than men at the universities – at the law and medical faculties, for example, up to 70% of the students are women.
In the early 1970s, the women from the feminist Redstocking movement demonstrated against the earnings gap by refusing to pay any more than 80% of the price of a bus ticket – this, they argued, was surely fair, seeing as women only earned 80% of men’s income.
In 2001, the 25th anniversary of the Equal Pay Act, a report by the Danish National Institute of Social Research showed that the wage differential between men and women was still 12-20%, dependent on how pay and hours are measured.